Travellers keen to get a feel of the humongous wealth accumulated by the Chettiars through trade should head to Chettinad in the south-eastern part of Tamil Nadu and take a tour of the mansions. Even the smallest house there is as big as the Hill Palace at Thripunithura, Kerala. Each of the around 75 residences were built with imported wood and glass.
Ramanathan Chettiyar, who lives at Kanadukathan, is among the local people who guides visitors. The area is noted for being the birthplace of several stalwarts in literature and cinema. Noted Tamil poet Kannadasan as well as well-known Tamil actress Manorama hailed from nearby Karaikudi.
'Athankudi tiles', noted for art work and Chettinad saris also had their origin at Karaikudi. "The taste of Chettinad chicken and local rice 'murukku' is also distinct," informs Ramanathan.
Among the Chettinad mansions with an interesting history is 'Visalam,' which was built by another Ramanathan Chettiyar as dowry for his daughter Visalakshy. He brought wood from Burma (now Myanmar) and built the huge mansion, following all the guidelines suggested by 'vasthu sasthra.' However, Chettiyar's wish was not realised as Visalakshy suddenly passed away a few days before the house-warming ceremony. A disconsolate Chettiyar never used that huge mansion again and it remained locked for nearly 65 years.
The building finally got 'redemption' thanks to the CGH Earth, which took over the 39,000 sq ft property and converted it into a heritage hotel with 15 rooms. Other attractions of the mansion are a huge courtyard, terrace, dining hall, kitchen, balcony, long verandahs on two floors and a pool.
Febin Thomas, manager of the hotel, explains the peculiarities of the architecture to an Australian couple who have arrived as guests: "Lime, white of eggs and white oxide were used in the construction, instead of cement. With a 12-feet high roof, rooms are cool even during the peak of summer."
Annie and her spouse Rodd spent about 50 years of their life in the travel sector before setting out to see the world. “The houses in Chettinad closely resemble the mansions in Spain and Serbia,” says Annie, attesting the world-class standards of the Chettinad dwellings.
The entry point to Chettinad is the Kanadukathan road, which is a deviation to the left on the route from Tiruchirappally to Karaikudi. The tarred road, which is quite near Karaikudi, is flanked by paddy fields and coconut groves and leads to the Chettinad Palace, the residence of Chettinad Cements owner M A M Ramaswamy.
The Palace, built around a century ago, sheds light on the wealth enjoyed by the Chettiyars at that time. Among the signs of affluence is the facility to park 10 cars. Local people say it takes half-an-hour to walk around the Palace; but visitors are not being allowed after the Chettiars shifted to the cities to expand their business ventures.
Other attractions of the area near the palace are Chidambara Vinayagar Temple and 'Matta Uruni' pond. A visitor would be stunned by the size of the houses around the pond – they are as tall as temple towers. Moreover, some sculptures of divinities on the balcony are bigger than similar creations in temples.
"The wealth of the Chettiars of that time, who dealt with gold and gems in England and Burma, was assessed by the size of their mansions," informs Ramanathan.
The area between Karaikudi and Kanadukathan came to be known as Chettinad after Chettiars settled there. They built huge dwellings in order to keep their money safe. This is evident while taking a tour of the rooms, which lack ventilators. The mansions had 10 to 20 rooms, but the Chettiars and their families slept on the floor of the central courtyard. Elderly members of the community even now are disinclined to use cot and bed.
A unique feature of the place names in the area is that they end with 'kudi.' Karaikudi, Athamkudi, Thalavankudi, Iluppakudi and Soorakudi are some examples. Among them, the Chettiars are connected with Athamkudi, where decorative tiles are made. Athamkudi tiles are known all over the world for elaborate artworks. "The floors of even the common people of Chettinad are laid with Athamkudi tiles," says Ramanathan.
Another peculiarity of Chettinad houses is the way they are named. For instance, the first letter of the name of the senior-most member in each generation of the family gave 'CVRM Mansion' its title. The entry gate, situated exactly at the middle of the compound wall, leads to a long hall measuring about 50 m in length. Its area is almost that of Kuthiramalika built by Swathi Thirunal in Thiruvananthapuram and is decorated with hanging cots, chandeliers and finely-crafted pillars. Burmese-style sculptures adorn the roof.
The area where the hall leads to the central courtyard is the living space of the Chettiars. Furniture like easy chairs in Chettinad style and tables are arranged there. Facing the easy chair on which the Chettiar householder sat is the courtyard, lined with pillars.
The present residents of the massive CVRM mansion are Rukmini Achi and her daughter Meena. "Our children are abroad for business," informs Rukmini Achi, evidently not interested in explaining how just two people lived in a house with 20 rooms and a central courtyard which can accommodate 50 people.
"Many of the houses in this area are over 100 years old and most of the time, only the women and children are there. The menfolk would be travelling most of the time. In the past, there used to be around 20 family members in a house. Nowadays, most of the youngsters have shifted to the cities," Ramanathan Chettiyar makes things clear.
Meena is facing several health problems after a surgery and has difficulty in eating solid food. A spinster, she lives with her mother in the mansion steeped in the glories of the past.
Popularity with filmmakers
Ask any local man the way to 'Athamkudi Periyaveedu,' and he will direct you to Lakshmi House, which was the location of about 15 Malayalam and Tamil films. The house, built by Nachiyappa Chettiar, rivals any king’s palace with its dimensions and interior decorations. The floors, roofs and walls are adorned with expensive objects, including Belgium mirrors.
Chettiars built the mansions as dowry for their daughters. The dining hall which can accommodate at least 100 guests, the courtyard and the rooms of Periyaveedu are similar to the other mansions in the area, but what makes it different is a secret chamber. The iron door of the chamber, imported from England, can be opened only with a special key. Local people believe that the chamber proved that money was safe with Nachyappa Chettiyar. Reflecting the close association between Chettiar and Englishmen, the royal sign of Britain is etched on the door of the secret chamber.
Handloom saris are available at shops like 'Karpaga Vinayagar Handlooms' where the multi-coloured attire with elaborate designs are woven. The local people consider these saris as a sign of prosperity. "Since olden days, Chettiar traders have brought silk saris from other places to Chettinad, but the women here always prefer the clothes made here," attests Ganesha Chettiar, who represents the present generation of a family of traditional weavers.
Women tourists arriving in Chettinad from all over the world make it a point to shop for the local saris, he says.
Temples with a past
The temples attached to the mansions too have a long history to relate. Among the prominent temples are, Vairavan temple, Karpaga Vinayakar Temple, Kundrakudi Murugan Temple, Kottayur Siva Temple and Kandannur Siva Temple. Another major building in the area is the Thirumayam Fort near Athamkudi, on the Thiruchirappally – Karaikudi route.
The wealth of the Chettiars, which reached its zenith around a hundred years ago, was also utilised for various noble deeds, earning appreciation from several historical figures, including Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. Nehru and Indira were regular visitors at the Chettiar mansions. Alagappa Chettiyar, a notable businessman and philanthropist, even donated 600 acres of land to the Government free of cost heeding Nehru's call to set up a school in Chettinad.
The young generation of Chettiars has shifted to the cities, where all big businesses operate. The mansions in Chettinad, meanwhile, stand mute witnesses to the passage of time carrying memories of a glorious past, which reflects in the old photographs of Chettiars wearing a mundu and a mark of sacred ash on their forehead.