Birthplace of my favorite cuisine and home to centuries-old heritage, Chettinad has been on my mind for a very long time. At 07:00 in the morning, I reached Kanadukathan, a village in Chettinad region known for its grand mansions.
On day one, after checking in, I was shown a ten minutes documentary on the history of Chettinad and its men. Then, I met the owner of the homestay where I was going to stay for the next few days. Mr. Chandramouli, a native of Kanadukathan, who on my request readily agreed to narrate the history of Chettinad region himself.
BIRTH OF CHETTINAD: “During the period of Cholas, the community of Chettiars, lived in a seaside village called Kaveripoompattinam (Present day Poompukar in Tamil Nadu). They were known to be Seafarers and sailed in boats (not ships!) to many countries for trade. Sometimes they returned after a year or more. Yet, the businesses were profitable and the families wealthy.
During one such trip when the men were away, Kaveripoompattinam was washed away by a tidal wave. On their return, to the grieving men, the Chola king allotted new lands for settlement. These lands were bordered by the sea, Pran malai, and two rivers. With the fear of flood still fresh in their minds, they refused to accept the land offered. Instead, they moved inland, as far away as they could from the sea and settled across 72 villages, which today is known as Chettinad!” explained Chandramouli.
THE GRAND CHETTINAD MANSION: One of the famed mansions of Chettinad region is ‘Chettinad Mansion’ in the village of Kanadukathan. A truly grand mansion spread across 45,000 Sqft with 126 rooms, it was built from the period of 1902 to 1912 by Chandramouli’s father, the late S.A.RM. Ramaswami Chettiar. Yes, 10 years! Apparently, each section of this spectacular mansion had been built in different periods and with different materials from different countries. The reception hall of the mansion is made of granite pillars and Italian marble flooring:
The twin courtyards made of Stone pillars and Athangudi tiles flooring:
Added to this was furniture made of Burmese wood, Japan tiles for room interiors and Belgium glass as mirrors! :-s
Design of the mansion: After the tour of the mansion, Mr. Chandramouli began explaining the design aspects. “There were three factors that influenced the design of mansions.”
“First was protection from floods. There is stormwater drainage on the roads; so there cannot be water logging in the streets. The houses are built at a level of 5 to 6 ft. Even if there is water logging in the streets, it cannot enter the house at 6 ft; even if it does, there are 2 levels in the living room. Even if it does enter the next section, there are two levels there also. The drainage within the house was built in such a way that water even from the middle of the house can be drained and there will be no logging.”
“Two: Human comfort. Tall ceilings, marble flooring and hundreds of windows in the mansion are meant to aid air circulation and keep the rooms cooler.” “Third: Combined living. In those days men traveled for longer periods for businesses and it helped that the rest of the family stayed together” he said. – That explained why there are 126 rooms in a single house!
On day two, I explored the other equally magnificent mansions in the city. The village of Kanadukathan has so many such spectacular mansions on every street, that at the end of the walking tour, I lost count of it.
“The present generation of Chettiar community has moved to different cities in India and many to other countries too. However, be it a family function or festivals, they religiously come back to Chettinad, to their roots, to celebrate with their family and friends” concluded Chandramouli proudly. With years of history and humungous effort in preserving their traditions and unique architectural style, Kanadukathan truly deserves to be called a ‘Heritage Village’.
Practical information: There are plenty of things to do in addition to visiting the heritage houses and palaces. This is also a popular rural heritage site and therefore each homestay has activities that can be organized on request such as bullock cart ride, visit a museum, a lavish meal at the Chettinad homestay, and so on. Chettinad is also famous for a lot of kitchen utensils made of clay which can be purchased in the market. Yet another produce that is indigenous to Chettinad is Athangudi tiles, the making of which can be seen on a day-visit to Athangudi from Kanadukathan.
There are plenty of buses connecting different cities to Chettinad region. The other option is to book a cab from Karaikudi. As an added advantage, within the region, there are many forts that can be visited on a day’s trip.