It was early morning when Lizzy and I left Madurai for a destination we both knew nothing about.
Mrs Minakshi Mayappan had suggested that we should visit Karaikudi in the region of Chettinad where she had opened her ancestral home to visitors. The farsighted woman already knew, back then in 2001, that the only way to preserve a fantastic architectural heritage would be to put it on the travellers’ trail in order to give it a new lease on life.
The two hours drive deep in the heart of Tamil Nadu was an intimate time of contemplation. Senthil, our driver, had enveloped us in a cocoon of carnatic music and sweet rose-scent. In the white Ambassador car,
I felt like a princess caught up in a romantic time warp. On the way, the sparse humanity we met seemed to obey the traditional rural codes of frugality and serenity. It was that infectious peacefulness that allowed us to accept benevolently the slow pace imposed on the car by a group of handsome farmers taking their bullock carts somewhere. A chai stall appeared at the right time and we snuck a picture or two of the young owner providing for his family quenching the travellers’ thirst. His elder son was assisting him, not the right age to work of course, but I was fascinated by the intense bond the two shared and the calm concentration of the young boy. The final part of our journey was enriched by an interesting conversation on the different aspects of traditional and modern education. Both of us shared the impression that neither one system nor the other seemed to be superior.
When we arrived in Karaikudi, it was almost dusk. A blue light enveloped the imperious and lonely mansions. All around was quiet, as if with a local sleeping beauty, the entire town was resting.The impression of stepping into a fairy tale or a cinema set was shared. Though Lizzy was a South Indian, I could tell that she was as moved and intrigued as I was. We walked through the empty streets, a slim dog passed by. The impressive architecture was humbling. By the time the new moon had appeared, we had gone back to the Bangla, our lodging for the night, where an unforgettable Chettiar meal was waiting for us. A very wholesome and healthy cuisine was served to us on banana leaves, what I thought was the most ecological system I had yet to see. No need to waste water or to pollute by using detergent to was dishes. After such a strong first impression, we were eager to wake up early next morning to meet Sunder, our guide, who was to be our sesame to enter those mysterious mansions.The Chettiar dosai- we were told- is the finest one can find. It was a surprise for me to eat for breakfast that original “pancake” as thin as air.
The town seemed to lay quietly in the evening’s charms, like a sleeping beauty. We both shared the impression of stepping into a fairy tale or a cinema set. Though Lizzy was a South Indian, I could tell that she was as moved and intrigued as I was.
We walked through the empty streets, a slim dog passed by. We were humbled by the impressive architecture on view. By the time the new moon appeared, we were back at the Bangla, our lodging for the night, where an unforgettable Chettiar meal was waiting for us. A very wholesome and healthy cuisine was served to us on banana leaves. A very wholesome and healthy cuisine was served to us on banana leaves, which I thought was the most ecological system I had ever seen. No need to waste water or to pollute by using detergent to was dishes. After such a strong first impression, we were eager to wake up early the next morning to meet Sunder, our guide, who was to be our “open sesame” to enter those mysterious mansions.
After a breakfast of the Chettiar dosai, which we were told is finest one can find, we were ready to meet our guide and explore the magnificent Chettiar mansions that awaited us.
While walking towards the first of the mansions we were to visit, Sunder introduced us to the story beyond those intricately carved doors and the mansions they opened into. The legend says that the Nattukottai Chettiars found refuge in the driest place they could find after fleeing their costal town once destroyed by a tsunami. Because the land was arid and ungenerous, the men went out for business, at first trading rice and salt. Chettinad grew to fame in the 19th century as the home of businessmen and financiers who were highly successful throughout Southeast Asia. Their great wealth led them to construct palatial homes in their native towns and villages. Built on raised mounds, these houses included verandas, reception rooms and elegant halls built around successive courtyards. The architecture combines Tamil vernacular with Western influences, and materials and workmanship from around the world were used. Homes were built and as wealth increased they became mansions, their walled-in, inward-looking construction lead to them being described as the forts (kottai). Teak from Burma, satinwood from Ceylon, marble from Italy, Indian charnockite that could be polished to a black gleam, and a shining mirror finish on the walls and floors, a Chettinad speciality, were all combined with local building and crafts skills to build `forts’ that were palaces which still draw admiring gasps.
The fascinating story of this interesting people was illustrated by successive visits to their elegant dwellings.
A rare atmosphere impregnated all of them, a kind of nostalgia and longing for the walls to resonate with songs and laughter. Unfortunately some of them were in shambles, either stripped naked by merchants who like vultures took away all that was valuable in urban markets, or destroyed by time and neglect.
However, thanks to the intervention of UNESCO, that listed Chettinad as one of the cultural itinerary routes of India, the region has come back to life. Visitors have brought a renewed economic activity with many of those properties being restored to welcome them. Today, I am told, it would be a serious mistake to travel to South India without witnessing and appreciating the beauty and grandeur that Chettinad reclaimed.