An overnight train journey from Chennai brought us to Chettinad.
The name Chettinad is synonymous with spicy aromatic food prepared from freshly ground masalas. However, it was not food that had brought us there but stories about the grand mansions of Chettiars.
The Chettinad region originally consisted of about 96 villages spread over an area of 600-1500 sq mile in Sivaganga district of Tamil Nadu. Chettinad is the traditional home of Chettiars, a prosperous banking and business community of Southern India. The Chettiars were successful maritime traders who became immensely prosperous by trading in salt and rice in the South East Asia, especially Burma. Unofficial figures put the total number of these palaces in Chettinad, each covering 30,000 to 40,000 sq feet area, at 11,000.
Fueled by handsome returns from maritime trade, the Chettiars left no expenses spared in opulently decking up their palaces with Italian Marble, Burmese Teak, Belgian glass, intricate iron grills, ornate carvings and colorful Athangudi tiles inherent to the region. However, the Japanese occupation of Burma during the Second World War was a blow to their business. Unable to repatriate their wealth, most suffered terrible loses. The direct impact of this was felt on the maintenance and upkeep of their mansions.
The fifteen minutes journey from Chettinad railway station to the heritage village of Kanadukathan was a bumpy one. As the auto rickshaw slowly made its way through what was left of the road, we sometimes passed crumbling boundary walls and majestic gates of what might have been grand estates at one time, now lost in wilderness. Home to about 70 Chettiar mansions, Kanadukathan is a virtual ghost town as most Chettiar families having migrated abroad or to one or the other major city of India over a period of time.
Even in broad daylight, the streets of Kanadukathan bordered with the high walls of the mansions on either side, are practically empty expect for a stray cycle or a hunched old man slowly walking past. Most palaces are in various stages of disrepair. However, the few that are still painstakingly maintained by respective families are a living testament to the grandeur of the past.
The mansions were all built on an almost similar blueprint. The main door usually opened into a huge hall meant for hosting guests or big family events, commonly known as the “marriage hall”. Beyond the marriage hall lie a series of successive courtyards connected by doors arranged in a straight line from the entrance to the back of the house. Each courtyard is surrounded by wide verandas and rooms on all four sides. The first courtyard usually has bedrooms or private living quarters of the family members. The next courtyard is usually meant for dining purposes and the last courtyard has store rooms and kitchen. Yet, despite their similar layout, each house is different from other in its architecture and décor. Sometimes, the décor and the materials used change from courtyard to courtyard in the same house as a result of continued construction over several years and generations.
- The Rajah’s Palace, situated at the center of the village. Although tourists are not allowed to enter the house, the exterior of the house painted in white with bright colors accentuating the doors, windows and pillars is quite a sight to behold.
- Chettinad Mansion, situated right behind the Rajah’s palace is also a heritage hotel now. Beautifully maintained, the main hall with black marble pillars is awe-inspiring. Visitors are welcome to walk around and photograph the main hall and the courtyards. If you are lucky you might also run into the 80 year old owner who has passionately curated the history of the house and the region.
- BVR House, situated near the village temple has an imposing and intricately carved rosewood door. Inside, similar wooden carvings can be seen on the ceiling and in the pillars lining the courtyards.
- CVR House is further along the road of the BVR House. They charge 50 rupees per head for a tour around the house. The huge swing and Belgian mirrors in the main hall and the mini museum of utensils and artifacts from all over the world are notable. Also, climb to the terrace to get a view from top of the sprawling mansions all around.
The village of Athangudi, about 8kms away is also a must visit for the see the Athangudi Palace. The house is open to public from 9:30am to 5pm on all days. Visitors need to pay Rs. 50 per head to enter. We reached slightly late and could not enter inside. However, the grandeur of the porch was enough to make us sorely regret not seeing this one from inside. We were informed that several Popular Hindi movies have been shot in this house. Can you guess which ones?
Also, worth visiting are the Athangudi Tile Factory, Chettinad Saree Weavers and Pillaiyarpatti GaneshTemple.
If you like antiques, do visit the antique market on Muneeswaran Koil Street in Karaikudi for some good bargains. The shops here are godowns at best that stock all sorts of old artefacts gathered, presumably from one or the other crumbling palace in this area. You will find Swedish enamel tiffin carriers, intricately painted wooden utensils from Burma, chipped wooden and porcelain figurines, fading photographs, paintings and posters, dated currency from all over the world and everything in between.
Chettinad is perfect for a two day trip if you want to spend a weekend regaling the grandeur of the past.
Getting there and around:
- The closest railway station to Kanadukathan is the Chettinad Railway station situated on the Chennai – Rameswaran train route.
- Kanadukathan is well connected to the nearest town, Karaikudi (13kms away) by frequent bus service.
- The nearest airports are Madurai (90kms way) and Tricky (70 kms away)
- Kanadukathan is about 400 kms from Chennai and 420 kms from Bangalore
- All the places of interest in Kanadukathan can easily be covered on foot. To visit Athangudi and Pillaiyarpatti, hire an auto rickshaw (charges around Rs. 500 -600 for a round trip)
Where to Stay:
Karaikudi has lot of hotels but to make the most of time, it is best to stay in Kanadukathan itself. Despite it’s remote location, Kanadukathan has some really great places to stay both in heritage and village like setting.
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Where to Eat:
There are not many options to eat out in Kanadukathan so it is best to stick to your hotel’s restaurant. However, for a taste for local cuisine, try “Hotel Rengavilas”, the only eatery in Kanadukathan.
Despite the prefix of Hotel, Rengavilas can at best be described as a mess. Guests sit on long narrow benches set against the wall and are served local Chettinadu fare including sambar, poriyal, rasam, curd and a choice of chicken/ mutton/ egg on banana leaf. The food tastes great and is very cheap too.
There are no sign boards in Chettinad advertising the houses open for viewing. The best way to see Chettinad is to walk around, knock on doors, strike up conversations with caretakers or owners and politely ask if you can take a look inside. Each house is a marvel in itself. We could only see a few but with so many of them around, there is no telling what beauties you might discover inside others.
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