Chettinad home to stately mansions

While Shekhawati in North India is a part of the tourist circuit, the vast mansions built by the Chettiars in Chettinad district of Tamil Nadu are yet to appear on the tourism map, writes Dhananjaya Bhat

Central courtyard of a mansion
Central courtyard of a mansion

Indian tourism has not yet woken up to the potential of the vast houses
Indian tourism has not yet woken up to the potential of the vast houses

A carved wooden pillar in a Chettiar palace
A carved wooden pillar in a Chettiar palace

Shreshti in Sanskrit means the commercial vaishya caste and forms the root of the words Settji (Marwari community) in North India and Chettiars in South India. Both these communities have prospered in commercial ventures for centuries. Perhaps one can say that the Marwaris have concentrated their ventures in India, whereas the Chettiars have also gone overseas and prospered in places as diverse as Myanmar, Malaysia, Thailand and other countries.

But in one project they are the same, namely that of building huge ancestral mansions in their hometowns. India has come to know of the grand mural-decorated havelis of the Marwaris in Shekhawati in Rajasthan and these are part of the tourist circuit. But, as yet, Indian tourism has not woken up to the vast mansions built by the Chettiars in Chettinad or Karaikudi district of Tamil Nadu. But of late, thanks to the efforts by the prince among Chettiars—Raja Muthiah Chettiar—the huge chettiar palaces, unopened for decades, are becoming a part of the heritage visited by foreign tourists to India.

The Chettiar community was so wealthy in the 19th and the early 20th centuries that often their mansions were built on a rectangular transversal plot, which enveloped across two streets. Invariably the front door was in one avenue and the back door was into another street.

To quote one publication of the Tamil Nadu Tourism Department, "First comes an outer thinai — large raised platforms on either side of the central corridor, where the host would entertain male guests. The platforms lead off on one side into storerooms and massive granaries and on the other, into the Kanakupillai or the accountant’s room. This area also usually leads off to the men’s well. From here is the huge elaborately carved teak front door, with image of Lakshmi carved over the head and navaratna or nine precious gems buried under the Vasapadi (threshold).

"The door leads into the first open air courtyard, with pillared corridors running on each side that lead into individual rooms, each meant for a married son, each with a triangular slot cut into the wall for the evening lamp. Then comes the second courtyard with large dining spaces on either side. The third courtyard was for the women folk to rest and gossip, while the fourth, or nalankattai comprised the kitchens, leading out to the backyard with its women’s well and grinding stones. The wealthier the merchants the larger the house, often spreading out to a second floor".

And these palaces were built with the best the world could provide; the tiles are Spanish; the floors of Italian marble or locally crafted athangudi tiles; and the pillars of Burmese teak. Many houses were mini forts with small turrets on the terrace and elaborate guardhouses on the entrance. Unlike Shekhawati in the north there are no mural paintings of contemporary events decorating the walls. But there were other treasures as in many of these mansions, one important feature was the great workmanship displayed on wooden pillars.

And like in Shekhawati these carvings and friezes had not only Hindu gods and goddesses but also British soldiers, Victorian women and scenes depicting events from the British raj.

Chettiars were mostly very loyal to then British Government, although there were quite a number of martyrs, who had laid down their lives for Indian freedom. One symbol of those days of sycophancy that still exists at the Chettinad railway stations, are the elaborate waiting rooms decorated and reserved solely for the use of the Raja of Chettinad and his important associates.

During the period 1900 to 1980, as the owners of the Chettinad mansions were usually away in the main cities of India or foreign metropolises, these palaces were neglected. Then came a stage, when as the maintenance of these aranmanai (Tamil for palaces) was not up to the mark, many of the edifices began to collapse.

Many other buildings were dismantled and the contents like British pewter, Chinese porcelain, Belgian glass and Burmese teak furniture and friezes were sold to the hordes of antique collectors rushing to the auctions of the Chettinad mansions. At this stage, the head of the Chettiar community, Raja Muthia Chettiar intervened and asked his community to preserve as many of the mansions as possible.

As an example, he renovated and converted his ancestral palace in the town of Kanadukathan for public viewing. His younger brother, owning the edifice next to this building, converted it into a Chettiar Museum by assembling valuable furniture, household utencils and traditional chettiar textiles. Thus inspired, the other magnates of the community stopped selling their mansions. Soon the Meyyapan group (the owners of the famous AVM film studios) converted their family mansion at Karaikudi into a heritage hotel known as the "Bangla".

Today a visit to the Chettinad mansions is fast becoming a part of the itinerary of tourists to Tamil Nadu, although not with the same publicity of its North Indian counterpart of Shekhawati. But then Chettiars are known to make a success of whatever business they do and it is a matter of time, before Chettinad becomes a must for foreign tourists to India. — MF