Exploring Chettinad-Your Essential guide
Who are the Chettiars
The Chettiars were bankers and traders who sailed the seas to South & South East Asia with both the Indian and British fleets. Their business acumen and financial prowess soon made them wealthy businessmen. They sent home the wealth they amassed abroad which went into building their fort-like mansions.
The Chettiars are referred to as Nagarathar, or Nattukotai Chettiars- Nattukottai meaning ‘land fort’ owing to their capacious homes; Nagarathar meaning the sophisticated, or townsfolk.
They founded 96 villages in the interiors of Tamil Nadu, and revitalised the otherwise arid region with their opulent homes, beautiful temples, and school systems.
After World War II when most of South & South East Asia gained independence, the Chettiars had to leave behind their thriving businesses and leave for home with just a fraction of their wealth.
They came back to an arid Chettinad with no business prospects, and so had to sell of the imported ware from their mansions to survive; some had to sell off their mansions in entirety. Chettinad, what was 96 villages, was reduced to only 73 villages.
Things to do in Chettinad
1. Mansion Hopping
The number one must do thing in Chettinad is to visit all the beautiful mansions. The mansions in their heyday was built to accommodate large joint families (6-14 families in one mansion depending on the size of it.)
Their homes were made with the best of materials and decor from around the world- chandeliers from Belgium & Italy, wall tiles from Japan, Italian marble, Burma teak Pillars, Belgian stained glass windows, and steel from England.
Most Chettiars have left Chettinad to sink their roots around the country and the world. The homes are left under the supervisor of caretakers.
The Chettiars are very keen on reviving their hometown to its former glory, and they want to encourage tourism to the area. To enable this, all the homes that are not occupied presently are left open during day time for tourists to visit and learn more about their glorious past.
The caretakers expect a tip of Rs. 100 per head for allowing you in. At one house that I visited the caretakers were complaining of their low pay, so the tips they get from visitors is their way of earning supplemental income. It is common for caretakers to try to get you to visit their homes, when they see you strolling along the streets or visiting neighbouring homes.
The notable houses in Chettinad are
- MSMM house- this beautiful home is owned by the Meyyappan family, and guests at The Banagala are allowed access to it.
- Aayiram Janal Veedu (House with a thousand windows) this house isn’t open to visitors as it is occupied.
- VVR house
-Chettinadu Mansion is now a heritage hotel.
-Lakshmi Vilas- has been renovated and is a beautiful hotel.
-Chettinadu Palace- is not open to visitors, but is beautiful even from outside.
- Periya Veedu
2. Visit the Athangudi Tile factory
The beautiful Athangudi tiles are used extensively in the homes of Chettinad, and now all over India. (The Bangalore Palace features some colourful tiles from Chettinad)
Artisans are available at the factory daily to demonstrate the making of these intricately designed tiles; they even let you join in the process!
They expect a tip of Rs.100 after the demonstration, so some ready with change!
You can buy tiles and get them shipped home. Each tile weighs up to1.5 kg, so they are meant to be used on the wall; only as floor tiles. They cost Rs. 50 each, but when ordering in bulk you can negotiate down to Rs.40.
3. Visit a Chettinad Saree weaver
The typical Chettinad sarees use bright colours like red, yellow, orange, and green, in their signature checked or striped designs. The Sri Mahalakshmi Handloom weaving centre in Kanadukathan is open for visitors to view the weaving process of their beautiful sarees. They have a selection of handwoven silk and cotton sarees, readymade bed sheets, cushion covers, and tunics for sale.
4. Visit the Clan Temples
When they founded the 96 villages of Chettinad, they established 9 Clan temples. A Chettiar regardless of where he is born bears allegiance to one of these temples. They come back to Chettinad to celebrate the major temple festivals and family events.
Each temple is a testament to their wealthy past with intricate carvings in wood and stone of preferred deities and events from the scared texts.
The 9 clan temples are: Ilayathangudi, Mathur, Vairavanpatti, Iraniyur, Pillayarpatti, Nemam, Iluppakudi, Soorakudi, Velangudi.
Visit as many as you can to get a better understanding of the Chettiar culture and religious practices.
Try to make it to the villages of Chettinad during a temple festival for a different experience altogether. The otherwise sleepy streets come alive with activity and Chettiars from near and far.
5. Other points of interest
-Thirumayam Fort, built in 1687, that offers unbeatable views of the villages of Chettinad.
-Ayyanar Horse Temple in Kanadukathan, known for its terracotta horses.
How to get there
Karaikudi is well connected with regular buses from nearby Trichy and Madurai.
There are overnight trains from Chennai to Karaikudi.
The nearest airports are around 100 kms away at Trichy, and Madurai, from where private taxis can be hired.
Best time to Visit
October to March is the ideal time to visit, as the weather is pleasant and sunny all day rou
Go to my blog post on Chettinad food and where to find it.
Go to my blog post on Shopping in Chettinad
Where to Stay in Chettinad
Check out my review of The Bangala in Chettinad