Chettinad has emerged as one of Tamil Nadu’s niche travel destinations, with multiple heritage mansions welcoming guests from all over the world. The region’s grand architecture and cuisine have been the two key drivers that have wooed the most evolved of travellers.
Visit The Mansions
Chettinad mansions are privately held properties with deep-rooted traditions; the families may have migrated, but descendants still return here to celebrate life-events. Despite their struggles with the upkeep and worries over conservation, the owners haven’t yet succumbed to ticketed tourism. Walk these old streets, flanked by massive mansions, some freshly painted and others statuesque with age — Kadiapatti, Pallathur, Kothamangalam and Kanadukathan are particularly atmospheric, and the Raja of Chettinad’s Palace, although not open to visitors, is still worth seeing from outside. You can also visit Lakshmi House, a well-kept mansion in Athangudi that’s let out for film shootings. There’s also the magnificent Verappa Chettiar mansion in Kottaiyur’s K.V. Street, a delightful effort by the M.Rm.Rm. Foundation to restore old homes on lease and enable visitors to see what makes a Chettinad mansion.
Explore The Countryside
The rural drives are lovely — bumpy village roads intersecting highways, quiet temples fronted by small tanks and brightly painted gopurams (towers), and unmanned railway crossings preceded by signs of puffing engines. Ask your driver to take roads that go past old mansions, their desolate streets hauntingly lovely. Pull over and walk some of them. The villagers are quite accustomed to random visitors. Nemasamudram, Eliangudipatti and Kothadi have ancient ayyanar (guardian deities) shrines, large terracotta horses arrayed in front of them. Ask your hotel about the nearest ayyanar kovil.
Go On A Temple Trail
Spend a morning among the sculptures of Avudiyar Kovil (60km from Karaikkudi). Nemam, one of the nine Chettiar clan temples to Shiva, is noteworthy for its Dravidian architecture, as is the rock-cut shrine to Vishnu next to the Thirumayam Fort; the Vairavar temple in Pallathur (observe the musical pillars here); and the 13th-century temple to Ganesha at Pillaiyarupatti, which is vaster and also seems to emerge from the rock around it.
Sample The Famous Cuisine
The region’s cuisine is unique in its use of spices. It was kavunni arisi or black rice that sparked my romance with this cuisine. That was even beforeI set foot in Chettinad. For centuries this was forbidden rice, reserved only for the noble class in China. It’s an integral element in Chettinad cuisine, where this mildly sweet and glutinous boiled black rice is finished with ghee, crushed cardamom and grated coconut. This is a dish that you can sample not just at Chettiar homes, but also at quite a few heritage hotels in Chettinad.Try the mandi. It’s prepared with the water drained after washing rice, and is cooked with a star vegetable in mind. There’s a keera masiyal (spinach mash), a fine example of the subtle use of spices. And the pepper kuzhambu (gravy) with mutton.The Chettiars love their mutton, and one of the region’s newer dishes that has risen in popularity is the kola urudai (finely minced mutton balls).
Shop For Handlooms And Antiques
Don’t miss a visit to the Sri Mahalakshmi Handloom Weaving Centre on Kanadukathan’s K.M. Street and be prepared to splurge on handlooms, from cottons to the kandaangis, and silks, unique to the region.
Pick up the signature Athangudi handmade mosaics and tiles. The startlingly pretty tiles make a charming souvenir.
See artisans shaping chariots, temple doors and vaahanams (giant mythological beasts and birds on which deities are borne during festivals) in wood, silver and gold at the hereditary establishments.
And shop for Thanjavur paintings, with gold leaf and semi-precious stones in new or antique finishes.
Stop at the antique shops in Karaikkudi where shelves are lined with stuff discarded when mansions get pulled apart. Consider portable one-inside-another ‘Rukmini cookers’; savari aruvalmanais — artistically carved cutters and coconut scrapers; writing desks; glass, brass and enamelware; ancient typewriters, radios and pedestal fans in working condition.
Karaikudi is the most significant commercial hub in the Sivaganga district of the Chettinad region.
Both the Tiruchirappalli and Madurai airports lie about a two-hour drive away from Karaikudi. Chennai, the state capital, is a seven-hour (400km) drive from Karaikudi.
The best time to visit would be between October and March.
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