Chettinad – The Mansions Of Merchant Princes

Karaikudi, a sleepy town 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 along our way, of the immense wealth amassed by its renowned residents.

Not 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.

Solid teak from Burma was liberally used and complemented by Indian ivory, Italian marble, glass from Bohemia and decorative ceramic tiles all the way from Minton! The facades were ornately embellished with a – sometimes incongruous – mix of ethnic Tamil and western features.  The luxurious interiors strictly adhered 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 surely 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. It 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.

Bangala – Meal
Saratha Vilas – Entrance Foyer (Image ourtesy: Saratha Vilas)
A bull in an antique shop!!

CHETTINAD TRAVEL TIPS

Row of clay horses in an Ayyanar Shrine. Image link to Horses Post.

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HOW TO GET TO CHETTINAD

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 (from Chennai) to Trichy were cheaper as well. Driving from Bangalore or Chennai takes about 7 hrs. Alternately, overnight trains connect Chennai direct to Karaikudi.

BEST TIME TO VISIT CHETTINAD

Karaikudi is an all year destination if you can handle the heat. The monsoon season from October to November is more pleasant with likelihood of moderate rain. Best time to visit is during the relatively drier and cooler period between mid December to March.

GETTING AROUND CHETTINAD

Private vehicles or taxis are easily organised by your accommodation once you get there.

MORE THINGS TO DO IN CHETTINAD BESIDES MANSION HOPPING

  • Join a traditional cookery class. See below.
  • Explore the craft revival projects of Chettinad.
    • Kandanghi handloom saris received the geographical Indications (GI) tag in the year 2013. Get your hotel to organise a visit to a weaving centre.
    • Visit the traditional tile making unit and palace in Athangudi (15 km north, 25min by road.)
    • Palmyra basket weaving is another indigenous craft that are worth checking out.
  • Visit at least one Chettiar clan temple.
  • There might not be true antiques left in the ‘Antique Street’ of Karaikudi, but it’s dusty shops are a treasure trove of interesting artefacts. I particularly love the enamelled cooking pots to use as planters/vases. And I lucked upon a pair of traditional painted Marapachi wooden dolls.

CHETTINAD TRAVEL RESOURCES

Contact the Bangala for the best cookery classes in the region.

Find best rates for the heritage accommodation mentioned above or for others within your budget In Karaikudi & Kanadukattan.

OTHER PLACES TO VISIT BEYOND CHETTINAD

  • THANJAVUR (About 90 kms north, 2 hours by road.)
  • MADURAI (About 90 kms west, 2 hours by road.)
  • TIRUCHIRAPALLI (About 90 kms north, 2 hours by road.)
  • RAMESWARAM (About 130 kms south, 3 hours by road.)
  • AVUDAIYAR KOIL (40 km east of Karaikudi.)

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Curious about the Chettinad mansions of Karaikudi? Here's all you need to travel to Chettinad and explore its history, food and traditional architecture. #indiaTravel #SouthIndia #PlacesToSeeInIndia #TraditionalArchitecture
A weekend in Karaikudi exploring the famed traditional mansions of Chettinad.

#IndiaTravel #SouthIndia #PlacesToSeeInIndia #TraditionalArchitecture

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Madhu is an Interior designer turned travel blogger on a long sabbatical to explore the world. When not crafting stories on The Urge To Wander, she's probably Tweeting @theurgetowander or sharing special moments on instagram.com/theurgetowander

54 thoughts on “Chettinad – The Mansions Of Merchant Princes

  1. Ufff….Madhu. So enjoyed the pictorial narrative of The Merchants of Chettinad. The history & opulent lifestyle of those years came alive with your detailed photographs. Lovely….

  2. Mahu, I like that you take me places I wouldn’t be able to see otherwise. Thank you for sharing your travels and your eye.

  3. How strange to be reading this while travelling around Tamil Nadu. I did wonder in the opening paragraphs whether the Chettiars were related to the Chetty traders I had read about in Singapore! It sounds like Bama and I should have gone to Chettinad instead of spending two nights in Madurai earlier this week. You’ve done a wonderful job covering three of my favourite subjects all in one post – food, architecture and history. 🙂

  4. Good food and beautiful architecture… sounds like a place I would enjoy. 🙂 It’s nice to know that more and more Tamil heritage buildings are saved from neglect. It’s about time for people to be more aware of the value of old building preservation.

  5. I would love to visit this place. I hope I can dine at the open dining hall. It reminds me so much of my grandparents’ home from a long long time ago.

  6. Would love to visit this place. If only I could dine on the open dining hall. It brings back memories of my grandparents’ home a long long time ago.

  7. Chettinad has been on my mind forever! Can’t wait to visit someday! Thank you for taking me there again. I have read so many posts on Chettinad, but you managed to yet again bring out a new perspective… enjoyed reading this post thoroughly. Sad you missed the wedding – can’t imagine how spectacular it might have been.

  8. Wonderful post as always, Madhu. What a fascinating history this place has. I loved the slide show too. The bull in an antique shop made me laugh. So many beautiful sights there. The reception hall and the open courtyard are magnificent.

  9. What an incredible history ~ and not only do you give us a walk through it all with your words (simply love your writing style), but the visuals with the photos is very cool. The entrance foyer of Saratha Vilas got me dreaming about being right there and experiencing it all 🙂

  10. I absolutely love seeing the British architecture in India. BUT then, I realize what it means, and don’t like that at all. But it’s there, so fine, let’s make the most of it, and move on, and enjoy life and our travels!! I may be going to Goa in January!! A yoga festival.

  11. I love that high altar on which the radio stands!

    We’ve been thinking of making the trip to Trichy-Madurai region. Kadaikudi would be a nice addition to the trip. Thanks for the details.

  12. Wonderful images, Madhu! I watched your gallery over and over. What a privilege to be allowed into this world. 🙂

  13. Amazing post and structures. As always Madhu, you bring the colorful history of these magnificent structures alive in your writings.

  14. You delight the eye and the senses with each of your posts. I am always entranced, especially with the rich history. I think those of us of the west forget how immense your country is, with so many diverse regions to explore. We only think of the cities, thus miss all the beauty and the history. Thank you for the reminder.

  15. I was in Karaikudi for a wedding many years ago and remember being absolutely in awe of the old houses. Would love to return and stay in one! Lovely photos!

  16. Having just returned after a three day trip to Karaikudi your post was absolutely delightful . Would love to revisit .

    1. Thank you Liz. Those pots have been used for storing pickle all over South India for generations. A shorter rounded version was used to set yogurt and churn buttermilk in my childhood home. Your comment makes me wonder if they arrived here with the East India Company!

  17. Beautiful post Madhu. Gorgeous pictures. We can always go back together for a wedding!

  18. I think you’re spot on with the gourmet tourism, so many people would love to visit. What incredible places and I can’t get over how much wealth there must have been to create them. Beautiful, beautiful homes with many stories to tell! Thanks for the history Madhu, a fabulous post.

    1. Welcome Gilly. You are right, most Indian villages of this size would have one, at most a couple of large mansions belonging usually to one principal family. It is extremely rare to find entire villages filled with palatial homes. The community is still one of the wealthiest in Tamilnadu, but they remain remarkably simple in speech and attire.

    2. I totally agree! A fantastic post, as ever, from Madhu…informative, interesting and some great images

  19. Beautiful Madhu, as always… It was a lovely holiday indeed. Wish we had gone for that wedding with Deepa last year..

    1. The company made all the difference Shantala, so thank YOU. And much thanks to Deepa of course. I regret not having accepted her invitation to that wedding too.

    1. You would love it Alison. Its a great detour/ weekend getaway for lovers of food and architecture.

  20. The bangala dining hall reminds me of the dining hall in Galle Face Hotel in Colombo. I have seen many pictures of Chettinad sarees worn by actress Vidya Balan – they look so beautiful. I’m sure it must be interesting to see how they are made.

    1. We didn’t find time to visit the tile making units or the weaving centres. Good excuse to return 😉 Our visit to Sri Lanka keeps getting postponed for some reason or the other. We’ll hopefully mange to get there next year.

  21. Such a great place – and the teak posts and rattan chairs really grabbed me – esp liked that photo of the jars – on and angle and gorgeous – like we were right there…..

    1. Glad you enjoyed it Yvette. My personal favourite is the shot of the column bases in the slideshow at the bottom. And the one of the bull outside an antique shop.

    2. Yvette, my comment on your latest post has bee sent to your spam folder. Would you release me please?

  22. Absolutely amazing post and photos! I would love to visit this place after reading about the history. those pickle jars are my favorite:)

    1. Thank you Sandhya. Chettinad is well worth a visit if you are interested in history and architecture. And food! 🙂

    1. You must Malle. And do let me know if you decide to pass by Chennai. Would be delighted to meet you.

    1. Grazie Mille Popof! For reading and for your lovely comment. Hope all is well with you 🙂

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