Tucked away in the Sivaganga district of Tamil Nadu is a culturally rich region called Chettinad. Home to the Nattukottai Chettiars, the region spans a network of more than 70 villages.
The Nattukottai Chettiars trace their lineage to a line of traders and businessmen who made their fortunes through businesses in Southeast Asia in the 18th century. While building their business, the Chettiars also built palatial mansions: sweeping houses of grandeur that now form of India’s architectural heritage.
Traditionally two-storied structures, the floor plan of most Chettiar mansions consisted of an outdoor verandah known as thinnai. An interior courtyard was used for conducting ceremonies. Chettinad mansions expanded horizontally, adding many halls and courtyards for the expanding family. It is not unusual to find a mansion with more than 100 rooms! The Chettinad mansions used Athangudi tiles, which are handmade over glass in vibrant colours and designs.
It is estimated that 11,000 such mansions still remain—about half the number that existed 100 years ago. They were built by men who once traded in everything from salt to gems, with countries like Burma, Malaysia and Singapore. But in the mid-20th century, most Chettiar families moved to cities such as Chennai. Their palatial homes were left in the custody of caretakers, who maintained them for those rare occasions.
These days, the better-maintained homes see a smattering of curious tourists, brought by local guides and cab drivers who can rattle off names of movies which were shot in Chettinad, and actors who have graced the region with their presence. A few mansions have been converted into elegant hotels.
Explore beyond mansions
The hilltop Thirumayam Fort was built in 1687 by a local ruler, Sethupathi Vijaya Raghunatha Thevar. Apart from the cannon right at the top and a fantastic view of the landscape for miles, the fort also has three small rock-cut temples, dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu. Try to visit in the morning so you can make the short but tiring climb before it gets hot.
At the Local Sandai (market) one can catch a glimpse of everyday life in Chettinad. These markets are held on Mondays and Thursdays in Karaikudi. Shops selling antiques, traditional vessels, furniture and woodwork from the area, and the odd quirky item like an old biscuit tin or gramophone records. Beyond the disarray in the displays, you may discover a gem or two, especially old, sturdy cooking utensils in brass and copper. Much of what is available was once part of the dowry of Chettiar women.
Tile workshops in Athangudi, visitors can see how a basic stencil, and the clever use of colours and techniques create stunning floor tiles in floral, geometric, and paisley patterns.
Chettinad Culinary experience When in Chettinad, learn to cook the Chettinad way. The Bangala, Karaikudi offers kitchen tours, cooking demonstrations, and classes. Chettinad cuisine derives its flavours from the judicious mix of several spices: star anise, cinnamon, black pepper, red chilli, fennel seed, and tamarind. Mrs. Meenakshi Meiyyappan fondly known as Aachi says all dishes made at the Bangala are prepared in an authentic way where spices are hand crushed and food is served with love.