My first associations with Chettinad began with a stiff starched cotton sari – it was bright turmeric yellow, with a large chequered pattern (that’s Chettinad talking) and an olive green temple border at the bottom. I had seen my mother and aunts, and grandmothers in Chettinad saris and one day just had to have my own. That was my only association with Chettinad. The cuisine is famous too… who hasn’t heard tales sung about Chettinad curries… but being a vegetarian, it never interested me.
Then, 5 years after I bought that sari, quite suddenly I found myself planning a holiday, and soon found myself in Chettinad. What begun as a plan to see more of Tamilnadu, beyond the hill stations and temple towns, ended in Chettinad, bang in the middle of Tamilnadu, a place that none of my family had been to.
And Chettinad did take me by surprise. On the one hand, the roads were lined with beautiful houses that belonged to another time, artistically and aesthetically, and on the other hand, was their story of devastation, displacement and renewal.
I reached Karaikudi in the wee hours of the morning, and after a brisk roadside filter coffee (They have filter coffee by the road, I should so shift to Tamilnadu!) I made my way to Kannadukathan, a village off Karaikudi.
I was staying at a renovated Chettiar mansion Visalam, and the pictures couldn’t have prepared me for the splendour steeped in simplicity. A rich merchant gifted this house to his daughter on her wedding. The spacious front porch with thick wooden beams on either side supporting the massive and intricate teak door ushered me into another world. A world where teak wood pillars, thicker than an elephant’s leg, supported the huge ceiling dark wooden ceiling… where a silent coolness permeated the entire space only to be broken by the sound of the golusu (anklets) of the girls running past… where the veranda was lined with antique photographs, which spoke of a yesterday that still haunted the house’s today. I caught myself staring at this black and white girl in her grey polka dotted frock, wondering who she was, where she was from and why she adorned these walls.
Each village seems to have a small network of lanes where all the Chettiars lived. If you think it will be about a couple of noteworthy houses, and then you can be on your way, you are way off! It’s like a Gujarati thali with every corner of the plate having something different yet connected with that underlining similarity to tease your taste buds into submission. Camera strapped, I went from one home to another clicking away.
The manager of my hotel, Mr. Rama, was a local and a Chettiar too. He had a house in the village where his elderly aunt was the caretaker. Over dinner and lunch, he narrated many stories about Chettiars, their homes and the current situation.
This business community travelled far and wide across South-East Asia and their riches were ploughed back into their villages here in Tamilnadu. They built houses over 10 – 20 years, section by section, depending on the money flow. They were global citizens, before that term arrived, tiles got shipped from Japan, glass and chandeliers from Belgium, teak from Burma; they refused to use local materials! A lot of these goods were smuggled. Mr. Rama told us that the teak would be tied to ships with just a name written on it, when it got to an Indian port, anywhere along the Eastern coast, the Chettiar whose it was would go bribe the officer in-charge and take it by road to Tamilnadu.
The first thing built was the marriage hall – a huge rectangular room with a double storied ceiling and a veranda that ran along all four sides, along one side of this veranda in a separate section was the dining room. These dining rooms were so long, and at times went along the length of the house. Even today, it is a matter of great pride to own a traditional house and have your child’s marriage conducted in your own house. A family marriage means the house will be bursting at its seams with family members from all over the world.
Given that most of the men were away in other countries, all the women slept together in the courtyard – for security and probably comfort. There were no big, spacious bedrooms, but tiny holes in the wall. Each Chettinad house was passed down each generation and each member of the growing family gets a small part of that house. At times, there are more than 16 different families, each of whom ‘own’ a small room, in these big, palatial houses.
Interestingly, the Chettiars were vegetarians a long time ago. Their ancestors traded in countries that did not know or understand vegetarianism, so they were forced to eat non-vegetarian food to survive, or so they say… today, Chettinad cuisine is famous for its chicken and fish curries!
In the Chettiar area, there stood empty plots, all that was left of that family was a couple of pillars and a pile of rubble. As a traveller, one might wish that people wouldn’t destroy such beautiful buildings… buildings that echoed the past… but their reality speaks a very different story.
Maintenance and upkeep is extremely difficult, and with no jobs left in these villages, many Chettiars are forced to go to the cities nearby. So an old aunt, or uncle, lives in the house and takes care of it. Many of these houses are more than 70 years old, and are in serious need of renovations. Some families do find the money, the others don’t. Some houses are demolished, others sold or leased to hotel chains and converted into heritage properties, like the one I stayed at.
Chettinad is now a UNESCO world heritage area. So unesco will fund renovations, but then the family would need to keep their house open to the public, and unesco will collect a fee. It means their home and privacy, would be laid bare to the public, not something many of them are willing to do.
As, I stood in the midst of all these beautiful buildings; I tried to imagine how these areas would have been many years ago. There used to be more than 90 villages that made up Chettinad, but there are now only 77. ‘Chetti’ – coming from the word Chettiars, which is the name of this business community and ‘nadu’ means country or place. The Chettiars were the business community of Southern Indian. They lived along the coast of Tamilnadu until a devastating tsunami made them seek shelter and another life. They moved far away from the sea. More than a century later, standing in the middle of an arid scene with thin, tall shrubs offering no shade, a mud-brown landscape, parched even in mid August when most of India is covered with swaying greens, left me thinking about the Chettiars and their intense desire to get away from water. This place was literally the opposite of water.
My favourite places are not ones I tick off the bucket list, but places that make me want to visit again. Chettinad is definitely one of them.
About writer/traveller: Bhavani is a market researcher by elimination, traveler by choice, photographer by interest and writer by desire.
She lives and works in Mumbai, in the midst of the craziness that defines India!
Check her blog – www.merrytogoaround.wordpress.com