A dark road, fields and trees stretching out on either side of it, took us from Karaikudi to Kothamangalam. It was the evening before the wedding, and we were on our way to the bridegroom’s house to sample Chettinad hospitality. Not a soul was to be seen on some sections of the road. Palatial houses were in darkness, their gates barred. At only a little past seven, it felt like midnight, the growl of the car sounding otherworldly at times. Our imagination had free rein.
The scene at A.’s house, however, was in stark contrast to what we have just experienced. Built over seventy years ago in the traditional Chettinad style, the house was lit up and swarmed with family and friends. Men lounged on striped jamakkalams on the thinnai (porch). Women in bright saris sat in the corridors around the rectangular open space in the centre. Amused by our awe, the bridegroom, A., gave us a guided tour of the house. He answered patiently as we put numerous questions to him, asking him about every closed door and every loft. The doors of the different rooms set into the corridors around the first courtyard were brown and brightly polished, with elaborate carvings on the top depicting Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. A long room followed, then another courtyard, more rooms, and a large backyard that led across the road into the common kitchen.
Lakshmi is omnipresent in this region, both outside houses and within. Once home to a bustling trader community, the towns may have seen the number of permanent residents dwindle, but the connections remain strong. The mansions are locked up while the owners live and work in Chennai, Coimbatore, or other cities around the world. But they all find their way back when there is an event in the family.
This migratory pattern is not new, as we learnt from one of A.’s friends. People from the Chettiar community often travelled on business to Burma, Southeast and Eastern Asia, and Europe. They took the opportunity to bring back several creative elements to their homes, which then saw a healthy infusion of Asian and European (Scandinavian and Sicilian) elements. Explore a Chettinad house now, and you will see tiles from Europe and nearby Athangudi, granite pillars, wooden beams and furniture, and porcelain utensils. The wood was usually brought from Burma on ships, which was dried well before use to get rid of the damp. This is believed to have improved the strength of the wood. Some houses are said to have staircases made entirely of Burmese wood, with no bonding material to hold them up, but resting on the joints crafted by the carpenters.
The tiles made in the nearby village of Athangudi are an attraction in themselves. While we were too early to see the whole process, one of the employees of the workshop we visited showed us how the final designs were made. The dyes are ground at the workshop, and the required colours are poured onto the tiles using stencils. The tiles are then soaked in water for three days so that the colours latch on fast. Following this, the tiles are dried in the sun for three more days. We saw a few people filing the sides of the tiles, preparing them for their new homes.
One of the most magnificent displays of Chettinad architecture is to be found at the Chettinad Palace in Kanadukathan, a short distance from Karaikudi. A gleaming white mansion embellished with a variety of complementary colours and motifs, it stands out amidst the more run-down buildings in the vicinity. Over a hundred years old, it was home to Raja Annamalai Chettiar (of RA Puram fame) and is presently closed to visitors. However, we were fortunate enough to have received permission to tour the palace, and this I count among my best experiences.
We walked through an arch and past the thinnai into the large hall, from where the house seemed to stretch as far as the eye could see. The hall was lined with portraits, bookshelves, hunting trophies, and other ornaments. The furniture was shrouded, lest you should forget yourself and begin to get too comfortable. The hall opened into a courtyard surrounded by corridors which open into store-rooms, not unlike the one at A.’s house. This was followed by another long room, beyond which was an open space. One of the caretakers told us that during functions, the front portion of the house was generally used by men, while women gathered in the aforementioned long room and the open space. There was a separate entrance for women to get to this part of the mansion.
Further ahead was a huge square, around which were more rooms and kitchens. Mortars, pestles, and other stone cooking implements were placed in the corridors. From an opening, you could take a peep at the wood-fired ovens that eventually fell into disuse in other houses as copper utensils started being replaced by aluminium ones.
The bedrooms were all on the upper storey, above which was a section which was used by the men for their entertainment. Most of the walls were mounted with black-and-white photographs: of visiting politicians, of male members of the family in British attire, of the 60th wedding anniversary celebrations of Raja Annamalai Chettiar and Rani Meyyammai.
The caretaker told us that there were a hundred rooms in the house. When we asked him why most houses in the area were built in the same fashion, he told us that the Raja had used his wealth to have houses built for the other families. It is a pity that we do not live in the times of people with such generosity and taste to boot: for, despite the grandeur of it all, nothing felt ostentatious or overdone. The embellishments were subtle and the pillars were beautifully painted. The tiles on the roof reminded you of the red soil of Chettinad. As the sun shifted overhead, the shade chased the light off the red roof, and by the time we returned to the hall, the sun had set and the chandelier lights were being switched on.
The palace, like many other heritage houses in the country, has seen its share of film shooting. It featured prominently in my introduction to Chettiar houses, Rajiv Menon’s Kandukonden Kandukonden, the Tamil adaptation of Sense and Sensibility. I could almost feel the sisters’ pain at being disinherited as I walked back to the road.
Most Chettinad houses are constructed a few feet above ground level. A.’s friend told us that the Chettiars once lived by the sea. On one occasion, after a massive flood took several lives and dispossessed others of their property, the Chettiars moved away from the coast and made sure that they built their houses so they would not be touched by the waters any more. Given the drainage system in many parts of the country, we would probably do well to adopt this method widely.
A striking feature in the Chettinad houses we visited (more on two of the houses in the next part) was the presence of Raja Ravi Varma paintings. I first noted this in A.’s house and wrote it off as someone’s fancy, but then I saw more of his paintings in the other houses we visited. A very shallow Google search tells me that Chettiar women took his paintings to Burma, where they decorated them, perhaps to pass the time. After all, living so far from home must have been difficult, especially for a community as closely knit as the Chettiars’. We were told that there was a ledger that recorded the details of all the Chettiars in the world, wherever they might be; this can be no mean feat. We were to see some of that bonding at the wedding ourselves.
Part Two here.