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Get a taste of the Chettiar legacy in Karaikudi village where sprawling mansions hold tales of yore
The drive from Madurai airport to Karaikudi village is a rickety one. But with emerald green fields and a stray thundershower that stirs up the fecund smell of red earth,you hardly notice the rough ride that leads to the village of Karaikudi in the Sivagangai district of Tamil Nadu. Why you have packed your bag and headed to this Chettiar village has as much to do with its history as with its present.
Back in the 19th and 20th centuries,finding their homeland barren,the enterprising Chettiars of south India migrated to Burma,Malaysia,Singapore,Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) and other Southeast Asian countries to spread their business. And wherever they went,the merchant community took along with them an entourage of cooks specialised in the distinctive cuisine of the region,spreading the fame of Chettinad cuisine the world over. What they shipped home the logs of timber,artifacts and antiques from the world over found a place in their exquisite naatukottais or country forts.
Any Chettiar village is dotted with grand houses,reminiscent of an era of extravagant living,grand dining and much artistic patronage. Today,the mansions are empty because the Chettiars have ventured out again,entrusting their homes to a caretaker and a crew of faithful servants. This is where the Union Tourism Ministry in collaboration with the UNDP steps in and with the co-operation of the hospitable Chettiars the gates of these lovely mansions are open again,this time for tourists.
We visit one of the naatukottais to see what drew 21 lakh tourists to Karaikudi last year. As the caretaker turns the key inside the richly ornate door of Burmese teak and pushes the heavy door open,our eyes feast on European chandeliers,Spanish tiles,carved granite pillars,stained glass windows,Belgian mirrors,Italian marble floors,high copper ceiling of intricate designs and the local Athangudi tilesall of which stand testimony to the successful expeditions of the Chettiars.
Structured around three to four open courtyardsthe hallmark of a typical Chettiar housethe architecture marks the transition from a public to a private space,each courtyard diminishing in size as we move indoors; a demarcation based on gendered lines. The outside courtyard,also the largest,is where the patriarch of the family entertains his male guests and the innermost,comprising the kitchen,is the domain of women. A marriage hall,and a banquet hall that can seat upto 100-150 people at a time are other attractions in a Chettiar household.
In some of these houses,the rooms are named after prominent women in the family. As you go to sleep on richly carved wooden bedsteads,soaking in the grandeur of Chettinad architecture on all sidesthe colourful patterns in earthly hues painted on the walls,the intricately carved pillars on all four sides,the high ceiling with myriad pattersyou fancy yourself as the graceful old women of yore,who may have sat in the innermost courtyard,keeping a watchful eye on the rations in the kitchen and whose trunks of dowry would fill up the many rooms of the mansion.
Annamalai Chandramouli,the manager-caretaker of the magnificent Chettinad mansion and also one of the very few Chettiars youd catch up with in the region came back home to enjoy a peaceful life of retirement after years of business expeditions. Now,he entertains curious tourists at his mansion,talking to them about everythinghow his grandfather built the mansion in 1902 and how it took ten years to complete it. He will also tell you about how he now reduces that pinch of chilly powder in a curry to suit the palate of his foreign guest who is served the mouth-watering Chettinad cuisinean extensive menu ranging from idlis to numerous chutneys,from spicy sambhars to two types of vadai,from pepper chicken to meen kozhambu.
Apart from architecture and cuisine,when you walk along the narrow village streets,you notice the tiled roof homes of the villagers engaged in the various crafts. Here you can buy handmade Athangudi tiles (named after the village where they are made),intricately carved wood work,beautifully sculpted brass and silver ware,handwoven kandangi sarees and baskets woven from date-palm leaves directly from the artisans who bake,sculpt or weave them.
On your trips around the villages,you will also see the grand sculpted temple towers,along with the temple tanks or oornis diligently designed so as to store water in a naturally barren region. The famous temples of the region are the Pillayarpatti and Avudayarkoil,the rich architecture of which reflect the Pandya and Pallava styles.
Karaikudi is the perfect holiday destination for an architecture enthusiast,an antique hunter,a total foodie or just anyone who cherishes memories of good food under a beautifully carved roof.