Chettinad in Tamil Nadu has become a popular destination for food lovers, architectural buffs and antique hunters. The area is the ancestral homeland of the Chettiyars, a class of wealthy merchants who built their fortunes from trade and finance ventures in south east Asia. Because of their travels, their food is distinctly different from other Indian cuisines. It’s influenced by Singaporean, Malaysian and Burmese cuisines along with the “butler cuisine” leftover from the British Raj. The architecture of the area is renowned for the hundreds of concrete mansions and compounds. Few of today’s Chettiyar families can maintain the properties they inherit and subsequently, the antique stores in the town are filled with all manner of household goods and heirlooms.
Tucked into the southeastern corner of Tamil Nadu, 72 villages and two towns coalesce to make up this region. Within each village, hundreds of palatial mansions – separated only by narrow lanes – have art deco elements and lavish building materials gathered from and influenced by the Chettiyars’ stays in foreign lands.
Karaikudi, the darling of the area, is about a four to five-hour drive or two-hour train ride south of Chennai. We recommend flying into Madurai. It’s the closest airport and is a two-hour drive. Take the driving times as approximations because driving in India is never an exact thing.
It takes a while to clear Madurai, but as you head east, the honking horns and jammed city streets are replaced with vegetable markets popping up between small villages. The plains are fertile along the River Vaigai which cuts through the land here on the eastern side of the Western Ghats mountain range of South India.
Heading further south and east, the land becomes parched, the roads more rutted. Towering mounds of red granite protrude randomly from the brush covered earth. Herders tend their scruffy goats and skinny cows with long staffs as they walk the sides of the road, oblivious to the passing traffic.
Still closer to Karaikudi, children in spotless, perfectly pressed school uniforms return to their homes laden with backpacks after their school day. The girls have ribbons tied at the end of long shining black plaits. They bounce on their back in rhythm with their steps. The boys drape arms over each other’s shoulders and walk three or four abreast, jostling and laughing as they trail along behind the girls.
Finally, under the shade of big old Tamarinds and Raintrees, you enter Karaikudi. A colourful central temple and its adjacent bathing pool could be useful landmarks – if one could find them again. All the buildings here are no more than three or four storeys and close together so it takes a good deal of insider knowledge to find your way through the maze of streets. It is good to have a local driver.
The houses on the outskirts start out modestly but soon turn behemoth. Some are spotless and look like newly iced wedding cakes. Most are in various states of decay. They are victims of humid monsoon seasons and the hot sun of Tamil summers. Black mould creeps across their formerly white washed walls. The mansions are set up side by side like dominoes. Their proximity seems odd until you enter one and realize the number of courtyards that lay within.
A mansion tour
Pauli-Ann and I were in Karaikudi as guests of one of the most prominent families in the area. When our car finally rolled to a stop at the home of our friend Mrs. Meenakshi Mayyapum we were excited to see what laid inside one of these marvels from another era.
Wide granite steps led to a broad verandah (thinnai) under an elaborately painted tower and tiled roof. The teak front door that was a solid one foot thick and intricately carved. The caretaker met us and explained that the front of the home was built this way so that the family could offer shelter to travellers and the less fortunate. They were and would always be given food and a bedroll for the night in this space. Water was also always available.
The family’s controller was also nearby. He took over our tour. It was clear he had audited and accounted for every aspect of their wealth as he showed us through a receiving hall, ball room and banquet hall – each more elaborate than the next. The ceilings were 20 to 30 feet high. The rooms were lit by the soft light of stained glass. Railings were wrought iron with art deco patterns. Sepia toned family portraits decorated the walls.
The controller’s ring of brass keys jangled in his hands as he shared the origins of the architectural details. There were Burmese teak doors, Italian marble pillars, shining locally-made Anthangudi tiled floors, Belgian glass mirrors and European crystal chandeliers. They struck an impressive contrast to the complete lack of furniture – anywhere. We did not enter the private apartments of the family but I suspect they would be made cozy compared to the grand public spaces we toured.
Business would have been conducted in the front hall or platforms to the side of the main entrance. The interior courtyards were used for ceremonies. The thick brick and limestone plastered walls of the Chettinad mansions helps keep the inhabitants cool. The tiled roofs slope to help collect rainwater during monsoons. The water is then stored in wells for the dry season.
Near the back recesses of the vault-like home, beds standing on end were covered with white sheets. “They’ll be set up for the family when they come for celebrations,” we were told. The kitchen and another courtyard at the very back are for the women and servants to gather or work.
We ejected into an open-air courtyard to one side of the home. A pillared arcade surrounded its cobble stone interior. Doors to individual apartments occurred at regular intervals here, in what was the original family home. The controller use his jangle of keys to unbar and unlock another massive door and we found ourselves parallel to where we had entered. We were so impressed with the main entrance we hadn’t noticed this smaller, original entrance when we unfolded ourselves from the long car ride.
After our tour, we strolled the centre of town. We sipped creamy fennel-scented tea at chai stalls where the wallah (worker) strained it and poured it back and forth between cups to cool it for us. We poked through food and household goods markets and finally ended up in the antique seller’s alleyways. Though just a block off the main market where shoppers were doing their daily errands, it was quiet here. Pairs of men in rumpled white shirts and long dhoti (loose cotton sarongs) stood talking at storefronts and lifted their eyes towards us as we approached. “Please, come in.” We walked by most but nodded politely.
There were large pieces of furniture, heavy picture frames, sculptures, vases, paintings and all 33 million Hindu Gods captured in detailed bronze-works. Through our Travel XS guide Charles, we asked about cooking vessels.
We were on the hunt for wok-like vengalum (an alloy of five metals including silver, copper, cast iron, tine and zinc) pieces and finally found a few on the doorstep of one shop. When the owner found we were interested in cookware, the corners of his mouth turned up in an almost imperceptible smile. He looked like a poker player with an ace up his sleeve and he turned and told his helper to stay in the main shop while he beckoned for us to follow him around the corner and down a dead-end alley lined with corrugated metal garage doors. At the very end – and I’m not sure we’d have followed him without Charles at our side – he unlocked dead bolts to reveal three storage areas that were all as big as his original store. They were positively teaming with cookery gadgets and collectibles in enamelware. Beyond all the knick-knacks, we hit the vengalum jackpot and bartered our way to the purchase of a couple of vessels weighing in around 10 kilograms each.
We were triumphant. Our new friend, now lit up by a broad smile, promised to polish our purchases and deliver them to our hotel. We continued to walk the streets until the daily downpour of this late second monsoon season found us. Pauli-Ann absorbed this quiet time through photos. I became lost in thought, wondering about the stories behind each and every one of the high walled homes.
We now know that many of the homes are being torn down or dismantled bit by bit. India’s newly wealthy are mining the architectural treasures of Chettinad for the homes they are building elsewhere. While it is tempting to think of the Chettinad region as an area of fading glory, in reality, it is one of disappearing glory.
Our driver rescued us from the late afternoon deluge and when we finally arrived at our hotel, The Bangala, it felt like we’d arrived at a tranquil oasis and the heart of the maze that is Karaikudi.
Places to Stay in Karaikudi in Chettinad
The Bangala – Devakottai Road, Senjai, Karaikudi – 630 001
Visalam – 7/1 143 Local Fund Road, Kanadukathan, Karaikudi, Tamil Nadu – 630103