Over the past two months, I’ve been away from my usual window, and looking through others… in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Orissa. I’ll be sharing some glimpses of what I saw in these places in my next few posts...
One night in June, I took an overnight bus to Karaikudi, a small town in the Tamil Nadu heartland, and arrived in the early morning. I was in the heart of the Chettinad region, a unique place for many reasons.
After a nap I was ready to explore the town. Walking through the streets, I felt like I had taken a step back in time. There were few cars and many bicycles. Most of the men were dressed in lungis, and the older men were often in white.
And at every turn, I came across magnificent houses: 2-storied structures with arches, pillared verandas and ornate gates, surrounded by protective walls. Many were in a dilapidated state and looked abandoned.
These palatial homes offered a hint to a majestic past. They were built close to 100 years ago, when the Chettiars were wealthy merchants, bankers and business people. From 1870 to 1930, they traded with other lands in South-East Asia: Burma, Ceylon, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia. They brought their wealth home to Chettinad and built these extravagant houses richly decorated with the treasures they carried back with them: solid-teak pillars from Burma, Japanese tiles, Italian marbles and Belgian mirrors.
These houses would have at least 50 rooms, many used to store their many riches and treasures. Built on an East-West axis, a typical Chettiar house had three courtyards: the first, which was used to conduct business, was the most extravagant. The middle one was used to receive guests during weddings. And the last, towards the back of the house, had an open courtyard and was reserved for women.
The Chettinad region is made up of a collection of 75 villages over a radius of 1550 square kilometres. Only about a third of these beautiful palatial homes remain today (7-8000). There are some efforts to preserve these heritage properties. A few have been converted into hotels (like the Saratha Vilas heritage hotel below) and one will soon house the Chettinad museum.
Apart from its many palaces, Chettinad is also famous for its handicrafts. In the village of Athangudi, floor tiles are made by hand: