The region in Tamil Nadu called Chettinad or Chettinadu is well-known for its rich architectural heritage of medieval temples and ornate mansions. This is the ancestral land of the Nattukottai Chettiars, also called Nagarathars, a community that boasts many prosperous business families and merchant bankers. The Nagarathars travelled overseas for business, making their fortune in southeast Asian countries like Burma, Vietnam and Malaysia. They invested in financing and acquired paddy fields in Burma, rubber planations in the Malaya regions and coconut estates in Sri Lanka, then Ceylon. They later invested in banking or entered financial industries.
They lavished their fortunes on building 10 to 20,000 opulent mansions in towns like Karaikudi and Devakottai, and in the 90 villages of their ancestors, inspired by the grand houses of Europe and East Asia. The mansions were decked up with Burma teak, Indian rosewood furniture, Italian marble, European chandeliers, British steel, crockery from Indonesia, artworks from different countries, southeast Asian ceramics, crystals from Europe and wall-to-wall mirrors from Belgium. Meanwhile, the wood and stone-work was inspired by the great houses in France and other European countries. The skill of Tamil Nadu’s artisans went into embellishing the mansions with intricately carved doorways, ornate wooden beams, granite columns, elaborate tiled floors and unique architectural features like stained glass windows. Visitors, including business guests, were received in the mansion’s front hall, which had each pillar fashioned out of an entire teak tree. To get a feel for this palatial life, you can book a night or two in one of Chettinadu’s top-end heritage hotels which are converted merchant mansions – they’re pricey but they provide a fantastic experience. Fascinated by the stories I had heard about the Chettiar mansions, temples and brilliant Chettinad cuisine, I decided to spend time in this region. It was morning when we left Trichy for the drive of about 55 km to Pudukkotai. The drive took us through cashew plantations and coconut palm groves – we stopped to sip green coconut from a vendor and then to buy fresh cashews for home from some people roasting them on the roadside. Presently, we drove past Pudukkottai which was once a Princely State founded by Raghunath Raya Tondaiman, who had served as a distinguished military commander and Governor of Thirumayam under his brother-in-law, Regunatha Kilavan Setupati of Ramnad. He received Thirumayam fort and the surrounding lands for his many services in 1686, but for the capital, he built himself a new seat of power at Pudukkottai. The dynasty allied itself with neighbouring kingdoms and later accepted protection from the British. We drove past the walls of Pudukkottai, which the driver told us means New Fort, and contains old palaces and many temples. Turning right from here, we entered Chettinad, the heartland of the Chettiars. The road took us through picturesque countryside lined with trees, from where we turned off for Kanadukathan, home town of the late Raja Sir Satappa Ramanatha Muttaiya Annamalai Chettiar, well known as an industrialist, banker, educationist and philanthropist. He owned several thousand acres of farmland in places like Burma. His father, S R M M Muthiah Chettiar, and brother Ramaswami, were noted bankers, among the founders of Indian Bank and the Rangoon-based Bank of Chettinad. He was also a great institution builder.
We visited the Chettinad Palace set in a monumental block with several other imposing buildings, but more than the ornate exteriors, it was the hallways inside that had us gasping for breath. The reception hall is awe-inspiring with its beautifully decorated copper ceiling, Italian marble floors, porcelain, European chandeliers, crystal, rosewood furniture, portraits and paintings. This led to courtyard after courtyard surrounded by huge teakwood and black granite pillars, supporting galleries with beautiful carved brackets. It is estimated that more than 300 tonnes of Burma teak and satinwood went into making the pillars of a Chettinad mansion. The walls gleam white with Chettinad plaster, a paste made from a mix of lime, egg white and powdered egg shells and fruits, which gives a velvet smooth shine when dried. The women’s section has a large dining hall with mirrors strategically placed, we are told, to enable servants to find diners who needed a refill. The majestic Chettinadu Mansion, a heritage hotel at Kanadukathan, is very colourfully decorated. This century-old house is still owned by the original family. Rooms have private balconies looking over other village mansions which you can stroll out to visit. The owners also run Chettinadu Court, a village theme resort designed using Chettinad tiles and crafts. Besides these opulent mansions, you can judge the affluence of the Chettiars from the many banks in their villages.
We drove on to Kariakkudi, past thickly vegetated lakes – these looked like really good habitat for herons, jacanas and moorhen, and as I scanned the aquatic plants the stop yielded sightings of half-a-dozen pheasant-tailed jacanas including striking looking males in full breeding plumage, a brilliantly coloured purple moorhen, and a purple heron. This village had a colourful temple chariot standing outside an attractive temple, and many mansions with red-tiled roofs and ornate exteriors with stained glass windows and Burma teak doors. One of them is the 1000-window house, named for its hundreds of intricately framed windows. The Bangala is an early-20th century heritage house that has opened its doors to tourists in Chettinad, with quirky decorations, antique furniture and fascinating old family photos. It’s famous for its food and the set lunch or dinner is actually a Chettiar wedding feast and worth every single paisa. Another heritage hotel in Karaikudi, Visalam is an art deco mansion with typical 1930s grills and European façade, a remnant of the Chettinad dynasty, located 10 km from the famous Thirumayam Fort and 15 km from the ancient Ayanar Temple.
It’s still decorated with the original owners’ photos, furniture and paintings, and staff can tell you the sad story of the young woman the house was built for. Superbly restored, the garden is lovely, the rooms large and stylish, and the pool setting is magical. Chidambara Vilas is another heritage hotel in Ramachandrapuram in Kadiapatti that retains its abundance of Burmese teak and rosewood furniture, stained glass and paintings and Chettiar atmosphere, including punka fans you can operate from your four-poster bed.
We settled down at a heritage home for a Chettinad dinner. Chettinad has exciting cuisine of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes cooked with sun-dried legumes, berries, star anise, jathi pathiri, Marathi moggu, a lichen called kalpasi, black pepper and dry chillies. The word “Chettinad” means a social caste specialising in the preparation of food. Consequently, the Chettinads are considered master chefs, and Chettinad cuisine is one of the spiciest and most aromatic in India. The dishes are usually topped with a hard boiled egg. Meals also consist of cooked lentils, Brinjal curry, drumstick sambar, ghee for flavouring rice, and sweet meats like payasam and paal paniyaram. For example, Kara kolambu is a highly regarded South Indian sambar, while Aadi kummayam is a sweet delicacy, made from pulses. Some well-known local dishes include Chicken Chettinad. Since the Chettiars had coastal connections at ports, though Chettinad is located inland, there are some good sea food dishes – I enjoyed the Nandu Masala (whole crab cooked in a curry containing coconut, tomato and various spices), a spicy prawn curry and Meen Varuval, a fish curry.
Textile industrialist and institution builder Dr R M Alagappa Chettiar started the Alagappa University here, which houses the Electro Chemical Research Institute. He even donated his mansion for a girls college. Other Chettiar industrialists like Dewan Bahadur AM Murugappa Chettiar, whose group today has diversified interests in Engineering, Abrasives, Cycles, Sugar, Farm Inputs, Fertilisers, Finance, General Insurance, Plantations, Bio Products and Nutraceuticals, and textile baron Kurumuttu Thiagaraja and Sir Muttaiya Chidambaram Chettiar also endowed many educational institutions.
Do take time to visit the many other attractions around, like Vijayalaya Cholisvaram, which is a stunning 8th century temple and the Thirumayam Fort, which has a panoramic view of the countryside. We spent the evening wandering around the countryside which is lovely with fields, rocky outcrops and water tanks. The region is known for its Kandangi (handloom sarees), palm leaf baskets, jewellery, silverwork, wood crafts and tiles. We visited Sri Mahalakshmi Handloom Weaving Center (SMHWC), where the owners showed us the Kandangi sarees, which is made from cotton and woven with big checks, stripes or temple pattern borders. Oranges, reds, browns and chromes are popular colours.
For dinner, we stopped at a small ‘mess’ for a local meal served on banana leaf which included vegetarian dishes like banana flower fritters and eggplant cooked with coconut and spices,
alongside idiyappam and masala paniyaram.