Chettinad – The Mansions Of Merchant Princes

Karaikudi, in the Southern Tamil hinterland, is a three hour bumpy ride from the nearest airport in Madurai*. There is no hint in the barren nondescript landscape of the immense wealth amassed by its renowned residents until we turn a sharp corner and come upon one crumbling mansion after another. Cloaked in neglect. Bereft of life. Sad sentinels to the affluence and business acumen of a remarkable trading community.

Chettinad - Mansions

The Nattukotai (Nattu=country, Kotai=fort) or Nagarthar (city dwelling/ urbane) Chettiars, belong to a hereditary itinerant trading caste originally hailing from the Eastern port city of Kaveripoompatinam (Poompuhar) where they traded in salt under the Chola Kings. The reasons for their 13th century migration inland to the ninety six villages that then comprised Chettinad is unclear. One account mentions persecution by the Chola king. Another suggests they were lured by the Pandyan ruler, while yet another attributes the relocation to a tsunami that destroyed Poompattinam.

By the eighteenth century they had extended their influence across the seas to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and to the ports of East india, and their scope of trade included pearl, cotton, textiles, pulses and arrack. In due course they followed British and European expansion across South East Asia, emerging by the mid nineteenth century as money lenders and primary providers of credit for most commercial and agrarian trade in the region.

That affluence manifested itself in their mansions and in their superior town planning and water harvesting skills back home. Between the 1850s to 1930s they constructed thousands of palatial houses – some spanning entire blocks between parallel streets – using material shipped from every corner of the globe: Indian ivory, solid teak from Burma, Italian marble, glass from Bohemia, and decorative ceramic tiles all the way from Minton! The facades ornately embellished with a – sometimes incongruous – mix of ethnic Tamil and Western features.  The luxurious interiors strictly adhering to the traditional architectural science of Vastu Shastra.

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The MSMM (Meyappan) family home.

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Reception hall of the MSMM family home sports an unusual etched and painted metal ceiling.

But the winds of change were relentless. Quite like those that swept across my feudal and less prosperous hometown. The great economic depression of the 30’s, the Japanese invasion and the ensuing nationalist sentiments across South East Asia eroded Chettiar influence abroad. A few families overcame the challenges and turned into entrepreneurs. Some of the leading business and banking houses in Chennai are still run by Chettiar families. One descendant of their ‘first’ family – his philanthropic grandfather, Sir Annamalai Chettiar, was knighted and awarded the hereditary title of Rajah by the British Raj in 1929 – is reputed to be the owner of a thousand race horses and holds the record for winning the largest number of classics in the world! 

Others however, were slow to preempt the decline. They moved on to larger cities in search of fresh opportunities. Their forlorn ‘country forts’ abandoned to the custody of caretakers turned into scavenging grounds for antique hunters. Even then, most hold on to their white elephant homes. Congregating periodically during weddings and religious ceremonies to briefly rekindle their storied pasts. Weddings are still grand affairs. Dowries of gold, silk, silver and cooking utensils still fill entire rooms. I so regret not having made time to attend one last year with my friend.

The villages of Palatthur and Kanadukathan are veritable museums of local vernacular architecture from the ’30s and ’40s. Visiting with Chettiar friends gains us access to a few beautiful old residences including their ancestral home in Palathur that like many others only comes alive on special occasions. The grandest mansion in the region – the Rajah’s Kanadukathan Palace – was out of bounds due to family litigation.

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Interior of Visalam

Entrance foyer of Saratha Vilas. (Courtesy: Saratha Vilas)

Entrance foyer of Saratha Vilas. (Image courtesy: Saratha Vilas)

Visalam, also in Kanadukathan, a rare (in the community) gift of a manor house from a father to his daughter Vishalakshi, has been painstakingly restored by the CGH Earth hotel group. The spacious, colonial styled rooms of the Art Deco building open into walled gardens. Teak pillars surround the airy central courtyard. Sepia tinged ancestors pose stiffly with famous personalities on corridor walls. The traditional kitchen, redolent of masala fried fish, stirs our hunger pangs even as it all evokes images of the lost lifestyle of the current owner who incidentally bears her grandmother’s name.

Saratha Vilas is truer to the Chettinad style, complete with ornate chandeliers, teak ceilings, egg tempera glazed walls, central open courtyard and Athangudi* tile flooring. The 1905 mansion was completely abandoned until French architects Michel Adment and Bernard Dragon convinced the owners to resurrect and convert it into the stylish boutique hotel with themed rooms.

We chose to spend a delightful weekend with ten of our dearest friends at the marginally less luxurious but infinitely hospitable Bangala (Tamil for Bungalow). The charming heritage hotel, once the Senjai Bungalow – an erstwhile gentlemen’s club – belongs to the MSMM (Meyyappa, Settiappa, Meyyappa & Meyyappa!) family that founded Karaikudi’s electricity and water supply corporations and built the town’s first girls school. Its current matriarch Meenakshi Meyyappan: “the gentle face of authority at the Bangala”, is credited with pioneering the promotion of the region into a heritage destination. She has also chronicled the history, heritage and spicy cuisine of Chettinad in books co-authored with her sister in law, Vishalakshi.

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Bangala – Details

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Bangala – Open dining hall

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Bangala – Traditional porcelain pickle jars

Meenakshi Meyappan’s childhood in a wealthy household in Ceylon, and her eclectic cultural heritage is reflected in the equally eclectic menu at the Bangala: the only restaurant outside of Mumbai and Delhi to be featured in ‘Where Chefs Eat’ (a guide to the favourite restaurants of 600 notable chefs). Her cookbook ‘The Bangala Table’ (co-authored with Sumit Nair) explores the nuances of Chettinad cuisine beyond the ubiquitous chicken Chettinad. In fact the latter was conspicuously absent from all of our four exquisite feasts rustled up by cooks who have manned their kitchens for decades. As were the hardcore Chettiar non vegetarian delicacies like ratha kootu (lentil curry with congealed goat blood and offal) or goat kidney soup that would make a Chinese drool.

When in Karaikudi, Mrs Meyappan, or Achi (elder sister) as she is respectfully addressed, retires alone each night to a wing of her (husband’s) ancestral home nearby that is as impressive as any in the seventy four or so surviving villages grouped around the nine clan temples in Chettinad. With vernacular architecture fast disappearing from most Tamil towns the preservation of the Chettiar heritage ensemble – whose ‘Outstanding Universal Value’ is patiently awaiting recognition by UNESCO – is imperative. Handled right, heritage and gourmet tourism could well turn out to be a lifeline.

More images from our visit:

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*Karaikudi is 90 km away by road from both Madurai and Trichy (Tiruchirapalli) the nearest airports. The Trichy road appears to be less crowded and makes for a slightly shorter journey. We realised too late that flights to Trichy were cheaper as well. Driving from Bangalore or Chennai takes about 7 hrs. Alternately overnight trains connect Chennai direct to Karaikudi.

*Athangudi tile making and Chettinad sari weaving are local cottage industries worth visiting.

Next up: Photo feature on a Chettiar clan temple and village deity.