The World Of Chettinad | Exploring Karaikudi
Say hello to Kavitha, The granddaughter of a prosperous Nattukotai Chettiar. "She's going to take you through the interesting alleyways of Chettinad, talk about the culture and give you a glimpse of their lifestyle", said the manager in Visalam by CGH Earth, a boutique hotel we stayed at Kanadukathan village in the Chettinad region.
"Have you heard about the Chettiar community?" she asked. We nodded.
Chettinad is roughly 78 villages studded with over 12,000 mansions with an average of 100 rooms in each mansion. These mansions were built by the Chettiar men who once traded everything from rice to diamonds with Burma, Malacca, SriLanka, Cambodia, Vietnam and almost the whole of South-East Asia. They were prosperous and had one of the best sense of business in the country. This prosperity caught the attention of the British, and they made the chettiars the middlemen to trade and interact with all the locals in South East Asia. By visiting Karaikudi, we learnt and lived the life of these prosperous families of Chettinad. These men lived in a very wealthy coastal land called poompohar. They later migrated to inland due to a considerable Tsunami which destroyed Poompohar.
An experience in Chettinad is about going through the narrow lanes and seeing the mansions they built. Living in one, devouring some peppery, masala filled food, seeing the famous Athangudi tile factory and how it's made, paying a visit to the antique street to know their lifestyle better and of course check out the temples in the area. Want to explore the corners of Chettinad? Visit Karaikudi, a town in the Chettinad region.
Old Mansions In Chettinad
The magnificent mansions in Karaikudi reflect a mixture of vernacular architecture & a blend of South East architectural styles. This region has a significant number of striking Art Deco style houses. Most of the Chettinad homes are adorned with Italian marble, walls made with eggshells, the doors built with Burmese teak. Every house had a courtyard surrounded by rooms for the family to stay and mainly for storage of materials and goods they trade. We went to a typical Chettinad house and spoke to the caretaker to get the picture of their lifestyle. Some fascinating facts about the homes
The Burmese teak used in the homes does not need curing or termite control ever. It's absolutely pest free even after 100 years of being built. This is because when the Chettiars came back from their trips to Burma, they tied these wood to the ship and let it get swayed behind it and are cured due to being exposed to the seawater for months by the time they come back to the Chettinad.
The walls in the houses are made with Eggshells and seashells mixed. They can be washed and has a beautiful polished look.
The house we visited had a tiny statue of a man in shirt, pant and a hat alongside their roof. The Chettiars were wealthy and wanted to stay in the good books of the British men who ruled India. Their trade and welfare depended upon their relationship with them. Hence this little statue symbolizes their friendship with the British.
Ayyanar is the guardian deity of Chettinad. We visited the temple dedicated to this god. He is responsible for the protection of the village from all kinds of calamities. And he is said to fiercely fulfill that duty by patrolling the streets every night with a sword in his hands on a white stallion. Every year, the families in the village donate a terracotta horse of different sizes to the temple for the lord to patrol the streets. There is a calm pond by this temple.
The Antique Lane
Did you know that the quaint town of Karaikudi is famous as a significant source of antiques in south India? You can find classic articles like some of Raja Ravi Varma's works, Old cameras, doorknobs and even a few sepia filtered photographs of earlier Chettiars during their days of triumph. This lane is a visual representation of how rich the chettiars were. There is a whole shop dedicated to iron vaults in this lane. Some of these vaults were imported. Most of them have a painting of Goddess Lakshmi--- The Goddess of Wealth.
Athangudi Tile Factory
Athangudi is a little village in the Chettinad region. This area is known for some beautifully patterned handmade tiles. Most of the houses in this area have these tiles. They add colours to white cement and pour it over a glass with mold on it for a design. The glass surface gives a smooth finish and sheen. These tiles are then dried and cured. It was therapeutic to see the craftsmen at work. We bought two tiles as a souvenir.
Chettinad food is one of the best in India. They are flavorful, tasty and know how to use the spices. You absolutely must try the famous paniyaram, (shallow fried dumplings) usually served as an evening snack or for breakfast with a Chettinad special tomato chutney and one of their famous lip-smacking kozhambu (a sambar like a curry)
"Since the chettiars traveled so much, was their food influenced by the countries they travelled to?" I asked the manager of Visalam. He took us inside the kitchen and showed us the spices they used, and among the spices was a bowl of black rice. We had tasted a traditional black rice payasam that afternoon and origination of that recipe were from Burma. Isn't that amazing?
The famous pillayarpatti temple is a short drive from Karaikudi.
The Chettinad Palace (Raja's Palace) in Kanadukathan is another grand mansion where visitors are not allowed in; it is definitely worth stopping by for a look from the road
The Athangudi palace, The Periya Veedu in athangudi, Chellappa Chettiar's House in Kottayur are a few other houses/palace you can visit.
Take a Chettinad cooking class from your hotel. They teach you secrets on how to efficiently use the spices.
An old runway used during world war two is open to visitors. This places is filled with peacocks in the morning and is a gorgeous sight. We went cycling from our hotel.
Visit a cottage industry and see how a bunch of badass women come together to run a business by selling delicacies from Chettinad.
Several old mansions have been restored and turned into hotels.
The Bangala www.thebangala.com; doubles from ₹7,000
Chettinad Narayana Villas http://www.chettinadunarayanavilas.com/ Doubles from ₹2,300
Chidamabara Villas http://www.chidambaravilas.com/ Doubles from ₹8,500
Hotel Subhalakshmi Palace Doubles from ₹1,500
Air You can take flights to Madurai the nearest airport, 100 km and 2 hours from Karaikudi.
Rail You can take a cheaper alternative- an overnight train to Madurai.
Road The Chettinad region is in the heart of Tamil Nadu and equidistant from Chennai and Bengaluru, around 450km.
Tips before you plan the trip
This region of Tamil Nadu can get very hot during the summer. The right time to travel will be between October to February.
Even though there are local buses, suggest you hire a car when in Chettinad. Getting around would be easier.
Tamil is the language most of the locals speak and when they help you out with something, you could tell them 'Nandri' (Thank you)
Will Karaikudi be your #NextCheckIn?
If you visit the Chettinad region and our guide helped you, please drop us a message on Instagram? We would LOVE to hear from you!