Karaikudi - Land of the Chettiars!

17th Feb 2018

Aloha :) After a while I am back and trust me "My Dear Travel Diary", you were missed!!

My last weekend was spent in a tiny but significant village Kanadukathan (I cant pronounce this still :P). Before we get started with the village details, we need to know some history about the Legendary Chettiars.

The Chettiars or the Nagarathars are people from the Tamil community. They are classic examples of the entrepreneurial spirit of the south. They started maritime trading as early as the 8th century. For trade purposes they traveled across countries and hence also became seafarers. I have heard a rather interesting story which said that the Chettiars knew the sea so well that they could simply bounce off a log from some other country into the sea and the log would for sure get washed down in India. Now that's one story!!

For trade all the men went to multiple countries and the women stayed back taking care of the household. When the men came back from one such voyage, they saw that the sea had washed away a lot of their settlements owing to a sea storm. With this they also got to know that the Chola Kings had abducted one of their women creating an outrage in the community respected for their business acumen and culture. This was seen as an opportunity by the Pandyas to bring all the wealth of the Chettiars to their kingdom, who offered them 96 villages in their land. The Chettiars now averse to the sea and its doings decided to take villages far away from it. They build their houses with doors at least 4 feet above the ground, their doors sturdy with all sorts of plans for the water management in case it rained heavily. Of course they were filthy rich with their businesses and huge amounts of the wealth collected went into building their out of proportion large exquisite houses. An average house of the Chettiar can have anywhere from 20 to 100 rooms. They took pride in the number of windows they had in the house and I have heard of houses rather palaces having 1000 windows also. The tiles bought from Italy and Japan, teak wood imported from Burma, compressed bamboo utensils from China, paintings from all over the world are testimony of the money spent and detail put in making their most priced possession- their Home!

Photo of Karaikudi - Land of the Chettiars! 1/6 by Akriti Gupta
The Chidambara Vilas
Photo of Karaikudi - Land of the Chettiars! 2/6 by Akriti Gupta
Intricate carvings on the door
Photo of Karaikudi - Land of the Chettiars! 3/6 by Akriti Gupta
Cast Iron Pillars at the Kanadukathan Palace

A typical house can be at least half a kilometer long with three courtyards each having a different pattern. The first courtyard or the main hall would be generally the most ornamented with carvings of gods and goddesses on their doors and ceilings. This would be used for marriages. The second courtyard has more of an open structure where the rains could fall in creating the most beautiful set up I can think of. The third courtyard would ideally have in-built stoves, store room, washing area etc. The marble tiles/ the cast iron pillars/ the granite flooring/ simply the way the house is built will ensure that you always have abundant sunshine in the house and also never need an air conditioner. The details in the colors of glasses used, the intricate wood work on the ceiling, the really heavy single log pillars, the sheer height of each room - each and every detail has a story to tell and this blog is not going to be enough for it :)

Photo of Karaikudi - Land of the Chettiars! 4/6 by Akriti Gupta
Teak Wood Pillars
Photo of Karaikudi - Land of the Chettiars! 5/6 by Akriti Gupta
The traditional stove

Well so far we have just covered the Chettiar houses or mansions or palaces whatever you want to call them. Another highlight nearby is the Athangudi village where one can see tiles getting made from scratch. Now that you are there in Athangudi please don't miss the beautiful palace. Another highlight are the nine temples of the various communities/ castes within the Chettiars. Each one having its own significance and story.

Photo of Karaikudi - Land of the Chettiars! 6/6 by Akriti Gupta
Entrance - Athangudi Palace

As far as the travel is concerned Kanadukathan is very well connected from Chennai (7 hrs)/ Trichy ( 2 hrs) and Madurai (2 hrs) both by buses and trains. We stayed at the Chettinad Mansion, the mansion's beauty is now a given. What I haven't aw-wed about so far is the hospitality and the food. The staff is extremely courteous, they simply go out of their way to make sure you have a comfortable stay. Chettinad food was another surprise for me. It is thought to be extremely spicy but I would say it is flavorful to the right amount. You could walk along the village, sit beside the pond and simply relax.

What made my heart sink was when after visiting two three such houses the reality hit me. These places are almost like ghost towns- beautiful but with no life and no one. The village is largely deserted with these buildings standing tall but it seems as if the villagers are trapped in time, still behind 100 years overlooking that golden flash of history. Amongst the grandeur of these palaces you also get to see the intricate carvings collecting dust, the paintings falling off the roof, the priceless artifacts changing hands in the antique market and that golden era losing breath every passing day. One is forced to wonder what it means to move in time, what does it mean to make a mark in history which can any day become more like a dent, is passage of time just an illusion.

Fact: In the current times also we can the Chettiar community holding important positions and owning significant businesses. The Murugappa Group, Chettinad Cement, Annamalai University, Indian Bank, Indian Overseas Bank being few of many such success stories.