Saturday, April 3, 2010

My Chettinad Trip

My primary interest in the region of Tamil Nadu around Karaikudi, known as Chettinad has always been the fabulous food, which I found shared much with my own native Syrian Christian food of Kerala. Chicken Chettinad and Chicken 65 were all that came to mind when someone mentioned the word. I thought the Nattukkottai Chettiars were a group of rich gluttons who, like the Malayalee counterpart could not imagine even one single meal without Non Veg!

How wrong I was!

Chettinad has indeed a very interesting history. Claiming their origins from Kaveri Poompattinam or the legendary Poompuhar, they had always excelled in banking, money lending, trade and accountancy. The entire banking system in Ceylon was developed by them. Also the accounting system of double entry, making entries of income and expenditure on facing pages was invented by them. During the late 19th and early 20th Century, these enterprising merchant-traders migrated to Asian countries with a presence of the British. Thus Burma, Ceylon, Malaya, Singapore, etc, became their arena of trade. Apart from earning untold wealth from these faraway locations, the Chettiars also took good care of their womenfolk and children they left behind. From all the exotic places they worked, they meticulously sent the finest of material for constructing mansions befitting a king in the small towns back home. We have thus a large number of dream mansions and palaces that rival anything in Europe or even in the durbars of the Mughals in very remote villages and small towns. Many Chettiars had to beat a hasty retreat from their places of business in the wake of the Japanese invasion of far-east in the Nineteen forties. After the end of WW II, the Chettiars have concentrated more on business in India and as a result, these fabulous mansions that they built using costly imported materials are lying vacant, slowly deteriorating in view of the prohibitive cost of maintenance.

When, therefore I got a chance to make a quick trip to Chettinad, I jumped at the opportunity. I caught the 4th March 2010 evening Rameshwaram Express from Egmore Railway Station equipped with packed biriyani and a coke bottle filled with fortified Coke. Arriving at Karaikudi at the ungodly hour of 4 AM, on the Fifth March, I was glad to be received by Arumugham from the police department, a courtesy from the Superintendent of Police Shivaganga. (Small perks for spending 36 years patrolling the streets!)

Hotel Subhalakshmi Palace where I had booked accommodation is centrally located and very convenient. The location somewhat makes up for the poor upkeep and shoddy service. The most intriguing thing about the place is the location of the bar. This can be reached by the house guest through the backside, via the cookhouse beyond the washing place, past the gurkha at the back. Very dicey, but most convenient for the local guy who wants to have a drink on the quite without advertising it in the city! How clever!

My friend, Subramaniam, a Chettiar from Rangiam arrived in the morning to escort me through Chettinad. Though Subbu’s ancestors belonged to village Rangiam, under the Nemamkoil, his parents shifted to Thanjavur in connection with family business.

Pillayarpatti Temple

We started the day, auspiciously by visiting Pillayar (Ganesha) temple at Pillayarpatti. Though Subbu arrived later than he promised, we just managed to join the early morning Arathi. The temple has been built around the idol, carved out of one big rock. Pillayar or Ganapathi is certainly the favourite God of the Chettiars. Pillayarpatti temple is certainly one of the oldest and the most revered in the region. Though the early morning sunlight was bathing the temple gopuram in its golden hues, the inner temple was still shrouded in darkness. The stone-carved hall leading to the sanctum was full of devotees silently mouthing their prayers and anxiously awaiting the Darshan. The lilting music of the Nagaswarm and thavil echoed in the hall with carved stone walls adding characteristic twist to the divine music. The golden glow of burning Arathi lamps, the smell of camphor, hush murmur of devotees and the sing-song cadence of the chant of manthras, all conjured to create a divine atmosphere where one felt very close God.

Before we proceeded further to see the splendors of the famous Chettiar palaces, we decided to pay homage to the other thing Chettinad is rightly famous for, the food. At the suggestion of Arumugham, the local know-all, we zeroed in on a nondescript eating place near Subhalakshmi Palace, Royal Hotel (In the best traditions of South India, restaurants and even humbler eateries with no lodging facilities or rooms on rent are called hotels rather than café or restaurants!). The quality of the food more than made up for the poor ambience. The solicitous waiters ensured that we lacked nothing. Dry Mutton fry, meat ball Cutlet, Biriyani, Nadan Kozhi and Chicken 65 are highly recommended! And for the cheap price we paid for the three meals, one cannot get even one single dish in a decent restaurant in Delhi!

We rushed from the meals to see our first Palace at Kanadukathan, 12 KM away. Kanadukathan is, by any standards a small village with a population of less than 5000 souls. What, however makes this different is the per square KM density of mansions in this small village. The so called Chettinad Palace is a hundred and ten year old magnificent mansion built in the typical Nattukkottai Chettiar Style. It was designed and constructed by Dr. Annamali Chettiar, prominent businessman and philanthropist, founder of the Indian Bank and Annamali University, to mention just two institutions.

Chettinad Palace

In recognition of his contributions, most notably in the areas of banking and education, the British Government had bestowed upon him the title Rajah though on his own right too he deserved to be a Raja as his family reportedly ‘owned’ 90 villages. His brother, and other relatives have also built places, though not as grand as his, nearby. Unfortunately for us, the Chettinad Palace was closed to public due to extensive repairs and restoration in anticipation of the forthcoming 80 year birthday celebration of the present Rajah, Dr. M.A.M. Ramaswamy.

We had to content with a visit to his brother’s house next door, which too is a fine place built in the best traditions of the Nagarathers and now housing a museum of household articles of the Chettinad region.

Inside Chettnad Museum

The Palaces which dot the countryside of the Chettinad region falling within Shivaganga and Ramanathapuram Districts of Tamil Nadu are true gems worth seeing and savouring.

The general plan of the Chettinad places is simple. It comprise of a series of quadrangles one behind the other, with entry and exit doors aligned to the main gate, thus making it possible to have unobstructed view from the front to the rear. At the entrance is a raised thinnai or verandah bisected by an elaborate carved door leading the great hall. The carvings on the doors are mostly of Gods and Goddesses who rule over wealth, the primary concern of the community. Male visitors, supplicants, business associate, etc. are entertained and dealt with at this place. For most visitors to the palace, this is as far as they go into the palace.

The great hall beyond the thinnai is for formal entertainment and reception of honoured guests, marriage parties, etc. Mostly, this is two stories high and the best embellishment and decorations can be seen here. Swiss chandeliers, Italian marble, Belgian tiles, European furniture and Persian carpets are commonplace. The banquet hall, usually running the whole length of the palace is on one side.

The central door from the hall opens into a quadrangle with an open space in the middle, surrounded by verandahs and suits of rooms allotted the married male children of the family. These days, these rooms are seldom opened and are kept locked by the respective member, who most likely are living and working far away from home. These rooms would still have traditional utensils, implements and the like belonging to the family who owns the suit of rooms.

The next quadrangle, similar to this one in plan is less elaborate and decorated rather starkly. This is the quarters of the womenfolk. Many day today utensils, milling implements, grinding stones, etc. may be found here. The last quadrangle is the kitchen.

When one finishes taking in the beauty of the exquisite decoration and the cool air-conditioned-like atmosphere within, one cannot stop wondering at the zest for life of this community. The exigencies of the modern world have scattered the members of this communities to cities far and wide. Those who are left behind, except for the really rich like Dr. M.A.M Ramaswami are not in a position to maintain these jewels as well as they need to be. Nor can they see these pieces of art deteriorating and dilapidating. Some have converted a few of the smaller mansions into heritage hotels and resorts, but the major ones are still retained by their owners, torn by the loyalty to tradition and the realities of the present day world. How long more many can survive, is difficult to say. The so-called Chettinad Mansion, a thriving heritage resort behind the Palace is one success story of renovation.

Kanadukathan Temple

Right in front of the Palace is a small run down building, which we were told was the school built for the education of the children of the family. The temple beyond the school is well preserved. The quality of water in the pond and the efforts to effectively harvest water are really impressive.

The place once boasted of its own airstrip, now disused and the royal family’s own waiting room in ht elocal railway Station!

Mallus and Sardars are supposed to be present everywhere, but I could not locate even one Sikh with the characteristic beard and turban. Not so the Malayalees! The Choice Hotel group of Kochi has quietly acquired a smallish mansion and restored it with Tender Loving Care and is running the same as a Heritage Resort called Visalam. The obliging staff showed us around the exquisite property. A pity we could not stay there for a day and enjoy their hospitality! May be next time!

As we bid farewell to Kanadukathan and the fairy palaces, we had one more destination that day. We decided to visit a famous landmark building in Karakudi. Aayiram Jannal or the ‘House of Thousand Windows’ is the ancestral home of the mother-in-law of Subbu. Mr. Alagappan Chettiar and his family were most hospitable. Mr. Alagappan, himself was frankly unsure if there are actually 1000 windows in the house,, but I presume if you count the number of glass panes, we might get very close to the thousand mark. It was a pleasure to see a typical functioning Chettiyar Mansion in the middle of the city of Karaikudi.

Aayiram Jannal Mansion and Mr. And Mrs. Alagappan Chettiyar

Worth visiting is also the Muneeswaran Koil Street, where antique dealers ply their goods ranging from genuine kitchen utensils and artifacts to pseudo-antique furniture. If you can actually make out which is real and which fake, you are a genius!

Subbu had arranged for dinner at the ‘Bangala’, a well maintained small boutique hotel with just 13 rooms. Located almost at the outskirts of Karaikudi, the hotel is actually a restored men’s club. The restoration and maintenance under the eagle eye of Mrs. Meenakshi Meyyappan, the redoubtable Aachi (The dominant Matriarch in a Chettiar Household). One is struck by the cleanliness of the place and the attention to details. Meticulous care and hard work is a recipe for success in the hospitality industry.

Dinner was memorable with typical Chettinad food items like varuval, poriyal, kulambu, and of course Chettinad Pepper Chicken. The taste of Pal Paniaram, somewhat like boondi soaked in sweetened coconut milk, still lingers in my mind.

Kovilur Temple Pond

Day II was kept aside for visit to Kovilur Temple, Athangudi Palace, Devakottai and the Kunnakudi Temple. We started off well enough with A relative of Subbu as guide. Early morning visit to Kovilur Temple and breakfast at the once-popular Annapoorna Restaurant were rewarding.

Meenakshi-Sundareswarar Temple, Karaikudi

We quickly visited the Shivan Temple in Karaikudi (Shri Meenakshi Sundereswarar Koil) before setting off to Athsangudi famous for its Athangudi Palace and the typical tiles bearing the same name.

Inside Athangudi Palace

The Athangudi place is another majestic mansion conforming to the general Chettiar design. The main reception hall is decorated with such exclusive and fine decoration that the French King Louis XVI and his Queen Marie Antoinette would have loved to own it!

An unfortunate family emergency forced me to abandon my tour of Chettinad midway through my visit of the Athangudi Palace and I had to rush to Madurai to catch an afternoon flight to Kerala. But not before briefly stopping over at the foothills of the Kunnakudi temple to propitiate Murugan for the speedy recovery of my ailing relative back in Kerala.

Like many things in my life, Chettinad visit is an unfinished task, which I propose to complete if not in my next trip in my next few trips. There is so much see and an so much to eat out there, and so little time!


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ramanathan said...

I hail from Karaikudi. What a nice description of what one should see in and around Karaikudi!

Seema said...

interesting article..Thank you for the information :)

Krishna said...

Its a very nicely written travelogue. I was in Karaikudi recently and found your posting useful. It gives a very brief and good orientation of what to see.

Krishna said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
subramanian said...

What a nice description of what one should see in and around Karaikudi!

subramanian said...


It good to see an article on the making of Athangudi Tiles. Since, I am a manufacturer of Athangudi Tiles, my manufacturing unit is in Athangudi itself . My company's name is athangudi palace tiles.