The last day of every school year holds a distinguished place in my memory, as the most happiest days of my childhood. With a heart filled with immense happiness at the thought of being free from the schakles of school (for two whole months!), and a mind filled with enthusiasm to fulfill the amusing plans that I had scoped out in my head, I exemplified the noun, happy-child – even if only in the summer season.
I grew up in a quintessential upper middle class Chettiar family in Chennai. In the 1980s, most of my summer holidays were spent with my grandparents in Chettinad – a place tucked deep down in South India between Trichy and Madurai. It is the residence of Nattukotai Chettiars – a community of traders and bankers with Karaikudi as its capital city. Nattukotai in tamil means Country Fort. My maternal grandparents moved from their roots, Chettinad, to the growing metropolis, Chennai in the 1940s. But, they always held a deep sense of connection and identity to their village, in Chettinad. Since their move, the ancestral home has served as the family’s summer home – as a place to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life, a place to unwind, relax, celebrate and rejoice the togetherness of a large family, under one roof.
After a long gap of 15 years, last summer I went back to revisit and here’s my compilation for fellow travelers
In any village you arrive in Chettinad, the first thing that is bound to intrigue you are the huge century old mansions that are laid out in a gridiron pattern in the village. Every mansion is a block long, stretching from one street to another. Nattukotai in tamil meaning ‘countryside fort’, is an apt word to apprehend the size of the Chettinad homes. The mansions, resembling neoclassical and victorian style of architecture, with stucco embellished exteriors, gigantic and intricately carved teak doors, open courtyards, egg white plastered walls (actually the plaster is a secret recipe!), Italian marbles, Spanish tiles, Belgian chandeliers, Burmese teak pillars, alongside the indigenous Athangudi tiles, are standing symbols of grandeur and opulence.
2. Village Life and Countryside
The villages of Chettinad and the surrounding areas are characteristic of rustic and idyllic rural life. Agrarian communities living and working side by side with artisans and masons, fresh produce in the weekly Shandys, town buses that shuttle villagers back and forth, roosters crowing at the crack of dawn, sitting spaces under roadside trees, cattle grazing in the often lush and partly barren grounds, women drawing water from common water tanks and community wells, coconut and palm trees swaying gently in the warm breeze, are just some of the typical sights of this peaceful and unhurried part of Southern India.
3. Temple Architecture
Every village in India has a temple but in Chettinad each village has a quite a few temples. There are nine clan temples spread within a radius of 25 kms. Mathur temple, Iranikovil temple, Vairavanpatti temple and Pillaiyarpatti temple are some that have an impressive facade in addition to the beautiful interiors. Interestingly there is also a rare Saraswati temple here. The big temples are built according to Vasthu Shastra, a science of architecture and construction based on the flow of positive energy. The temple towers, the temple tanks (every temple has a water pool in front of it), the terra cotta temple guardians are enchanting too. Another must-see is a Vishnu temple in Ariyakudi. The herbal paintings on the walls of the temple go back to many centuries and are being studied in western countries as an example of sustainable art.
4. Chettinad Food
When you look up Chettinad on the internet, you will see for yourself that the place is centered around food. This local cuisine is a big hit in India although its yet to make a mark overseas, probably due to it From Idiayappams, Paniyarams, Seeyams to Murukkus to Chettinad chicken and lamb dishes, to Badam burfis, you are bound to find something that suits your palette or piques your interest. There are many different places and possibilities to taste Chettinad cusines. Bigger villages like Karaikudi, Kanadukathan have many options. But what would begun is to find some family run kitchens where you can see the preparation of dishes.
5. Rituals and Festivals
Every temple has an annual festival called the Thiruvila. It lasts many days and brings the entire village together. The temple deity is brought out in a wooden masterpiece called the Ther and pulled around the temple premises. The Thiruvila ambience – saturated with song, dance, drama and music – and infused with devotion and celebration, creates a unique, authentic and unforgettable atmosphere. Another big festival is the harvest festival Pongal, which falls mid-January. Some families congregate in the the temple premises to celebrate together as a community. The sight of women clad in kancheevaram silk sarees, the brass rice pots embellished with fresh turmeric plants, the sounding of the conch and the elaborate kolams (geometric patterns and shapes drawn with rice flour) on the floor, create a characteristic festive mood.
Chettiars, being a community of successful traders and bankers, invested a lot of money not only in their mansions, but also, in day-to-day utilitarian, household items. These high quality items have further appreciated over time and now become high-value antiques! As a community they had a penchant for producing mundane daily use items in expensive metals like gold and silver. Exquisite wood carvings in doors and pillars, glazed clay pots for storage, copper water heaters, high quality brassware for the kitchen and prayer rooms, palm-leaf mats and baskets, velvet rugs, cane winnows, lacquerware bowls and jewelry baskets, metal and porcelain trays, a variety of grinding stones, granite pillars, paintings from the Ravi Varma school of art and Tanjore, are just some of the innumerable bric-a-brac found in a Chettinad home. You can find some of these at the places you stay or at the antique market in Karaikudi.
7. Madurai – Meenakshi Amman Temple
South India has many grand, majestic and breathtaking temples. Even among those the Madurai Meenakshi Amman temple is a jewel. Madurai is about 90 ams from Karaikudi and therefore can be comfortably managed in a day trip itinerary. The temples’s magnificent fourteen gateway towers, the golden lotus in the temple tank, the hall of thousand pillars and the musical pillars are only a few significant features of this as-old-as-history temple.
8. Athangudi Tiles
In the early part of the 19th century the affluent Chettiars brought home a wealth of ideas and artefacts from their travels overseas. The Athangudi tiles are said to have been inspired by the patterned European carpets. But now these tiles have become famous nationwide and are a hallmark of sustainable and eco-friendly flooring. In a little village called Athangudi, a few dozen production centers handmake every single tile! It is produced by coloring, glazing and firing local clay. While you can see those tiles in most chettinad mansions, a visit to this cottage industry could inspire you to rethink and redesign the floor you tread upon.
9. Chettinad Sari Looms
Hand looms are popular in most south Indian villages. Chettinad hand loom sarees are also called Kandangi sarees. They are coarse cotton sarees made for rough washes. They come in earthy colors like red, orange, brown and chrome. A visit to the Chettinad hand looms or weaving centre will give you an impression of the time and process required to conceptualize, plan and produce one saree by one artisan.
10. Alagappa University
There are universities everywhere in the world. So what is so great about this University that it features in the list of things to see and do in Chettinad, you may ask. Alagappa University was started and built on the munificence of one visionary name Alagappa Chettiar. It was a boon to the local families in and around Chettinad – families who back in the 1940s would not have had a chance to education in this remote part of India. In fact, the University brought development to Karaikudi. Take a little walk around the campus to see and believe how the vision and generosity of one person can transform the lives of a village, city and nation.
A few years ago, one had to know a Chettiar family to be invited to travel to and stay at the mansions. Today there are a number of mansions that have been converted into heritage properties. These hotels and guest houses are bound to give you an immediate feel for the place (Chettinad) and the people (Chettiars). With that as your base you can navigate the surrounding villages to accomplish all of the ten suggestions listed above.
Never stop, discovering.
And here is a short video to give you some impressions of Chettinad: