I had this chance to travel through the Chettinad region of Tamil Nadu, less than hundred kilometers east of Madurai. When you pass by each village, you start to see a lot of large beautiful mansions, most of them locked and run down, almost giving you a haunted feeling. It is all about the past glory of the Chettiars of Chettinad.
Chettinad chicken curry was what I knew all this while about Chettinad. It was Mr. Chandra Mouli of Chettinad Mansion, who explained us about Chettiars and who they were. He himself is a Chettiar and treated us with great hospitality and hosted us with a Chettinad lunch at his mansion. He is a living encyclopedia of Chettinad, sharing with us a lot of information about Chettinad, its people and their overseas ventures and adventures. “Chettinad Mansion” were the first to start entertaining guests, offering an experience of the Chettiar lifestyle.
Nattukottai Chettiars is a business community hailing from Chettinad, spreading over seventy villages. They initially settled in the coastal villages of Nagapattanam (East Coast) when a Tsunami brought them catastrophe. The King of Madurai saw their business acumen and invited them to resettle in his Kingdom. He offered them land and many other grants to attract them to the present day Chettinad.
Chettiars were mostly into money lending and other financial businesses. They were not into anything that was perishable. Chettiar men used to travel to foreign lands and establish business there; they travelled mostly to Far East nations like Burma, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Hong Kong. These peace loving philanthropists used to build temples and educational institutions across their land. Chettiars were as rich as Kings, they even offered loans to Kings and Kingdoms. They built palace like mansions and stayed together as one joint family. These mansions amaze us about their wealth, architecture, and lifestyle.
One such Mansion is the Chidambara Vilas, renovated and converted into a 25 room hotel operated by the Sangam group of hotels. A beautiful mansion, built some hundred and ten years back, was built for approx. seven lakhs Indian Rupee (7,00,000). I was comparing, during the same period, the mullaperiyar dam in Kerala was built by the British for forty Lakhs Indian Rupee (40,00,000). The wealth of Chettiars was something more than what we could imagine. Chidambara vilas is an architectural grandeur, considering the year it was built, it almost equals to a palace. The wooden pillars were brought from Yangon (Burma), mirrors from Belgium and the tiles from Italy. The paintings were done with natural dyes and there are a lot of artistic designer paintings inside the house.
At Kanadukathan you can find “Visalam”, an eighty five year old mansion which was a wedding gift from a father to his daughter Visalakshi. Today the property is taken over by the CGH group of resorts and operates with 15 elegant rooms. They conduct a bunch of local activities like Early morning cycling programs through the villages, Chettinad Cuisine cooking demonstrations, bullock cart rides, market visits etc..
As years passed, Chettiars were unable to manage their wealth. New systems and Governments in foreign lands were not favorable for them, which eventually brought many of them back home. Most of them opted to work rather than doing business and traveled to foreign lands for Jobs. But these mansions still exist, most of them locked, reflecting a dim feel due to lack of maintenance. Today, the stories of these opulent men are folk tales for the people of Chettinad.
Written by Benjamin John