Glory of grandeur

Chettinadu is a colourful mosaic of arts, crafts, architecture and food set against the backdrop of royalty

A Chettinadu mansion

It is a bright sunny morning in Kanadukathan, a small village in the Chettinadu region of Tamil Nadu. The temple bells are ringing, pretty girls dressed in colourful uniforms, their oily hair tightly plaited and tied with ribbons, are heading to school with bags in tow. The maata oorani or the reservoir is filled with water, reflecting the clouds sailing past. A woman whizzes past me in her bicycle. The only car on the road is parked in front of a private palace, where the present Raja of Chettinadu stays. An edifice in white, the palace glitters in the light. And it stretches along filling up the entire road as I walk down the street. But I am not allowed inside. “Never mind,” says a local, “Walk with me and I will show you more palaces in Chettinadu.” And true to his word, he does.

We enter narrow lanes and cul de sacs and they burst into colour. Each house is a palace by itself as it occupies an entire grid, starting at the beginning of a street and ending in another. Some of them occupy over 40,000 sq feet while others can be over an acre. They have two addresses, sometimes with entrances on one street and exits at the other end. Walking around, I see colourful facades with arches and pillars supporting them. A statue of Goddess Lakshmi adorns the friezes while an occasional statue of Queen Victoria stands in the greenery. A fusion of art deco, Dravidian and colonial architecture styles, some of these homes are more than 200 years old.

 A community’s remnants

Kanadukathan is one of the 75 villages of Chettinadu, a region which was once home to the affluent Chettiyar community, primarily the Nagarathar, a mercantile community who traded in everything from spices to jewellery with South East Asia, since the 10th century. It was around the 19th century that most of them migrated to Malaysia, Myanmar, Vietnam and Sri Lanka. But their homes, referred to as naatukottai or regional forts of these men, were a display of the wealth that they had earned. Each house is adorned with Belgian mirrors and chandeliers, Italian marble, Japanese and Spanish tiles, and Burmese teak. The world itself seems to be nestled in every acre here. While today there are hardly any Chettiyars in Chettinadu, their homes, more than 10,000 of them, spread over these villages of Pallathur, Kottayur, Devakottai, Kothamangalam and the capital town Karaikudi remain cultural symbols of their lives.

As I walk past the porch or thinnai and enter the lavish halls of a Chettinadu mansion, chandeliers look down upon me from the ceiling, which is embellished with woodwork. Massive courtyards with pillars of polished granite and teak and ornate carvings on doors and windows greet me. The sunlight streams in while mirrors and stained glass windows give a sense of space in every chamber as one leads to another in a symmetric style. Shimmering in white with a smooth finish are the walls, coated with a mixture of powdered eggshells, lime and jaggery.

Treasure troves

In Kottayur, I visit the ancient Chettiyar Palace, a mansion that spreads to an acre. I learn that every room has a purpose. The nadai or the walkway takes you to the reception or muhappu where guests are received. The sun-drenched courtyard in the centre is called the valappu. A long hall filled with light streaming through colourful stained glass windows serves as a banquet hall.

Each house has its own treasure in the form of memories. Family portraits, utensils handed down from generations, manually lit oil wick lamps are just a few of them. But what impresses me the most is a framed certificate from the British government which shows that the Chettiyars had even funded a bit of the World War I.

I drive to Athangudi, known for the locally manufactured tiles, and look for Lakshmi House, a well-maintained palace that has been a famous location for many films. The pillars, the flooring, the richly decorated ceiling, and the stained glass windows send me into a different era of opulence and splendour. Yet, in contrast, the roads are silent and desolate. It is just a handful of homes that are being restored and converted into bed and breakfasts, or used by the families during a festival. Many homes are in various stages of ruin but one can see the spoils converging in the antique market in Karaikudi. Symbols of the past, which have been cared for and used, find their way here. An old wooden cupboard, a glittering Tanjore painting, porcelain figurines, brass lamps, silverware are tossed around here.

As I leave, the local guardian deities, the Ayyanars, surrounded by a horde of terracotta elephants and horses, look upon this rich heritage, protecting and preserving it.

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Glory of grandeur

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