Chettinad – A land of Mansions, Temples and Fine Cuisine
At the turn of the 19th century, barges sailed from Burma and Sri Lanka, not carrying, but rather dragging their precious cargo. As the tied logs of teak wood from Burma and satinwood from Sri Lanka embarked on their journey across the seas toward India, they became 'cured' and strengthened by the seawater. These spectacular pillars, crafted from this wood, still stand strong in the palatial mansions of the merchant princes of Chettinad.
In the land of Chettinad, the aroma of the fragrant black rice from Burma mingles with that of the camphor wood chests from Vietnam, while thousand-year-old temples dating to the Chola and Pandya dynasties resonate with antique brass bells from Sri Lanka.
The state of Tamil Nadu, located in the southern region of India, is home of a number of UNESCO World Heritage sites, such as the shore temples of Mamallapuram or the great Brihadeeshwara temple at Tanjore. While these sites have been popular with global travelers, it is only now that people are discovering the wonders of this relatively unexplored region of Tamil Nadu known as ‘Chettinad’.
Chettinad and the Nagarathar Chettiars
To understand the region and its culture, it is important to grasp the story of a community that not only shaped the region but also played a significant role in South East Asia - the Nagarathar Chettiar. The term 'Chettinad' collectively refers to a group of around 74 villages located in the Sivaganga and Pudukottai districts of Tamil Nadu, where this community resided.
According to local traditions, the Nagarathar Chettiars originally hailed from the ancient port of Poompuhar on the Coromandel coast. However, a great Tsunami in the 6th century forced them to migrate inland. They settled in this arid region and made their fortune through the lucrative trade in precious stones, pearls, and salt.
By the late 19th century, with the expansion of the British Empire, Chettiar merchants moved to Burma (Myanmar), Malaya (Malaysia), and Ceylon (Sri Lanka), where they established financial networks through micro-financing. Traditionally, British and Chinese banks did not provide loans to small rice farmers, and it was the Chettiar moneylenders who filled this crucial gap. By the 1930s, the Chettiars owned almost 50% of all cultivable land in Burma and controlled the tin trade with Malaya (Malaysia).
The Mansions of Chettinad
A walk through the antiques market in the small town of Karaikudi, gives a glimpse of the great fortunes that were amassed by Chettiars. The shops filled with Burmese teakwood, Ceylonese brassware, Belgian mirrors, and Vietnamese lacquerware give us a glimpse into a long-lost world of seafaring merchant princes and their lavish homes. From the 1850s onward, the great fortunes amassed in South East Asia were used by the Chettiars to construct mansions in their native villages.
While there are thousands of such mansions of varying sizes spread across the villages of Chettinad, interestingly, they all follow a common layout. The entrance features a raised plinth where the patriarch of the family would meet with the local villagers. An elaborately carved teakwood doorway, often adorned with a panel of Gajalakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth, leads into the main house. These entrances open into a spacious hall used for receiving guests. This is followed by a rectangular courtyard with intricately carved woodwork supported by teakwood and satinwood pillars. The wealthier merchants had Carrara marble pillars from Italy installed in their homes.
Around the courtyard were rooms which were assigned to different members of the joint families. Among the wealthier families, there was a large dining hall or ‘Bhojansalai’, which was used to host communal feasts. These dining halls were known for their unique carved wooden roofs.
The Attangundi Palace in Athangudi is undoubtedly one of the finest homes in Chettinad. What makes it so special, is the use of the handmade Athangudi tiles, for which the region is famous for. What makes them so unique is that each tile is handcrafted and is known for its intricate patterns and designs. Another very beautiful home is the ‘Kanadukathan Palace’, home of Sir Anamalai Chettiar, the richest among the Chettiar merchant princes who was given a title of ‘Rajah’ by the British. There are also some very unique Chettiar mansions which have been built in the Art Deco style, which was extremely popular in the 1920s and 30s. The most prominent among them is the SMRMA House in Kanadukathan village and has been converted into a heritage hotel known as ‘Visalam’. The house keeps its traditional Chettiar layout but has unique art deco features straight out of 1930s Paris!
Chettinad Cuisine and its South East Asian connection
The opulent 'Bhojansalais' or banqueting halls of the mansions once hosted grand feasts, where teams of cooks would toil under the guidance of the senior ladies, known as 'aachis' in the family. A typical feast often included six main course dishes, nine savory side dishes, and six types of sweets!
While those grand feasts are long gone, Chettinad cuisine is fast gaining popularity across India and is one of the main attractions for visitors to the region. Chettinad cuisine reflects a fascinating blend of South East Asian influences with traditional Tamil fare.
While the Nagarathar Chettiars were initially vegetarian, their trading contacts with South East Asia introduced a variety of meat dishes to the cuisine. Chettiar involvement in the spice trade brought in ingredients like Tellicherry pepper, Ceylon cardamom, Indonesian nutmeg, Madagascar cloves, and blue ginger (galangal) from Laos and Vietnam into Chettinad cuisine.
One of the most intriguing dishes is Black rice, known as 'Kavuni Arisi,' which originates from Burma and is used to make a sticky pudding as well as payasam. Another unique dish is Crab Rasam, a peppery soup infused with crab meat. Then, there's Uppu Kari, which has gained nationwide popularity as the 'Chettinad Chicken'
The Decline and Revival of Chettinad Heritage
The opulent world of Chettiar Merchant Princes came to an abrupt end in 1939 with the onset of World War 2. The Japanese invasion, along with ultra-nationalist independence movements across South East Asia, forced the Chettiars to cease their operations and return to India. Many families lost their fortunes and could no longer afford to maintain vast mansions. As a result, a large number of these mansions were demolished, and their contents were sold off. This led to the emergence of a thriving antiques market in Karaikudi.
It is only in the last two decades that Chettinad has emerged on the tourist map. Mrs Meenakshi Meyyapan converted one of her family properties in Karaikudi, a former clubhouse, into a boutique hotel called ‘The Bangla’ in 1999. With a view to promote region’s art and culture, she also established the ‘Chettinad Heritage and Cultural Trust’ as well as supported the publication of a number of books on the region’s architecture, culture, cuisine and the Nagarathar community. Today, the beautifully restored mansion is one of the most popular hotels in Chettinad. In a last few years, a number of other Chettiar families have converted their homes into hotels.
Over the years, other Chettiar families too began to actively participate in the region’s cultural revival and it began to gain its own momentum. At the annual ‘Chettinad Heritage Festival’ organized by the Trust, the community members showcase their traditions, jewellery and craft. Homes which were formerly locked up are now opened to visitors and there is a revival for the local sarees, traditional jewellery and crafts.
Today, the revival of its grand mansions, vibrant festivals, and the warm hospitality of its people has breathed new life into this historic region. As visitors from around the world explore the treasures of Chettinad, they discover a tapestry of traditions and flavors, making it a must-visit destination for those seeking a unique and immersive cultural experience.
To know more about the entrepreneurial journey of the Nagarathar Chettiars, check out our series on the ‘Road to Enterprise’
This article has been brought to you as part of LHI Foundation's initiative to map India’s regional history, district by district.