A guide to Chettinad tourism & the best of Karaikudi tourist places

posted in: Tamil Nadu, Asia, Culture, Heritage, India | 18

When it comes to visiting the best places in Tamil Nadu, I have to put this region on the top. For no other reason but the fact that Chettinad tourism is a sensory delight. The bright Chettinad architecture, tasty Chettinad food and intriguing heritage of its mansions and Chettinad temples are bound to delight any visitor. I have been sharing a lot of these Karaikudi tourist places in detail over the last few posts.  Amid all the appreciation that I have received for them, are common questions on Chettinad tourism. Given the enthusiasm to get there, it is best I answer all of them through this travel guide to Chettinad tourism.

 

Chettinad tourism - a sensory delight that puts it on top of places to visit in Tamil Nadu
Chettinad tourism – a sensory delight that puts it on top of places to visit in Tamil Nadu

About Chettinad region in Tamil Nadu

It is not surprising if you find your research for the best things to do in Chettinad include only Karaikudi tourist places. The reason for this is that most people use the terms Chettinad and Karaikudi synonymously. Technically, Chettinad refers to a region that includes 78 villages of the Pudukkottai and Sivaganga districts in Tamil Nadu. Karaikudi is the main town of this region and is popularly considered as the capital of Chettinad. Given that most of the places to visit in Chettinad are scattered around Karaikudi, they are popularly clubbed under the name of the town.

The Chettinad region is a perfect destination for architecture lovers, history buffs, culture connoisseurs, and foodies. And all these stem from the unique community of this region – the Nattukottai Chettiars.

Who are the Nattukottai Chettiars?

Chettiars is a term that refers to the mercantile community. Originally this Chettiar community was based in the ancient capital of the Cholas called Poompuhar. The town was swept by a Tsunami and the Chettiars had to relocate. 96 new villages sprang up in the drier highlands of Tamil Nadu and this new area came to be known as the Chettinad region. Since the entire community came from a large town, they earned a new name – Nagarathar (people from a town).

A picture of the Annamalai Chettiar Family
A picture of the Annamalai Chettiar Family

With their sharp business acumen, the Chettiars spread their trade across the seven seas. They soon became money lenders and bankers for the royalty and even, the British East India Company. Their prosperity reflected in the grandeur of their homes. The Chettiar mansions were no less than palaces. This gave them their new name – Nattukottai Chettiars – “Chettiars with fortresses on the ground”.

One of the many ghost mansions of Chettinad
One of the many ghost mansions of Chettinad

Today, most of the Nattukottai Chettiars have moved out of the Chettinad region. They have long settled in the South-East Asian countries or the bigger cities of India. However, even today, the Chettinad region remains their ancestral land where their rich food, culture, and tradition thrive and enthrall visitors like us.

How to reach Chettinad?

The Chettinad region is well connected by road and rail to the rest of India. You can drive to Karaikudi via Madurai or Thanjavur, Both these routes make excellent road trips from Bengaluru or Chennai. If you take the Madurai route, you can halt at Madurai and explore the Madurai Meenakshi Temple as well as the Thirumalai Nayakar Palace.

If you choose to take the route via Thanjavur and Trichy, then you must keep aside time to cover Thanjavur palace, Tanjore Temple and the Sriranganthaswamy temple in Trichy. There are plenty of other sites along the way that you can choose to visit if you have the time.

The Landmark Bell Tower of the Thanjavur Maratha Palace
The Landmark Bell Tower of the Thanjavur Maratha Palace . A possible stopover if you take the Thanjavur route.

Karaikudi has its own railway station. If you are short of time and do not really want to stop en route, then a train journey will be convenient. Trichy and Madurai are the closest airports to Chettinad. Both are almost equidistant from Karaikudi. One can land at either of the two places and then, either hire a car or pick one of the many public buses to Karaikudi.

Where to stay in Chettinad?

Karaikudi, being the main town of Chettinad, is my recommended place to stay in Chettinad. There are a lot of home-stay and heritage properties in Karaikudi. These are generally, ancestral homes of the Chettiars and staying here allows you to experience the culture of the place. The Bangala, Thapa Gardens and Chidambara Vilas are three homes that I had considered. However, they were unavailable on the dates of my journey and hence, I stayed at Chola Heritage. The hotel is modeled on a typical Chettiar home and offers a comfortable stay. They have a limited kitchen that serves some really yummy Chettinad breakfast and dinner.

My room at Chola Heritage hotel in Karaikudi
My room at Chola Heritage hotel in Karaikudi

Kanadukathan is the other village that you can consider for your Chettinad stay. I happened to visit Chettinadu Mansion for lunch and did pop over to see their staying arrangements. It seemed fairly comfortable and the one thing that I can say you will love here – is their food!

What is the best time to visit Chettinad?

In terms of weather, the Chettinad region is quite warm throughout the year. The winters here are mild and hence, it becomes a little pleasant to enjoy the various Karaikudi tourist attractions. The monsoons are not very heavy making it possible to enjoy Karaikudi even in August. I would say anytime from then – i.e – August to April is a good time to visit Chettinad.

If possible, it is a good idea to visit Chettinad during the harvest festival – Pongal. This takes place in January and goes on for five days. This is actually when you get to taste the best of Chettinad Cusine. The temples of Chettinad are decorated and if you are lucky, you will be able to see the special rituals that light them up.

Guide to the best of Chettinad Tourism

As you go through this list of Karaikudi tourist attractions, you will see that Chettinad tourism has many shades. The only way to get the most of these experiences is to do an immersive journey. I highly recommend at least three days in Karaikudi to fit all these into your itinerary. As you go along this list of things to do in Karaikudi, you will realize why even this time duration might sound inadequate.

Experience the delights of Chettinad Food

For most people, the first thing that they think of when it comes to Chettinad is the food. Chettinad cuisine has made waves across the world for its tangy, spicy affair. The flavors are just irresistible – so much that it converted me to a complete foodie.  And the best part of it – vegetarians are in for a complete treat.

Ragi Dosa and Iddiappam - our favorite Chettinad Breakfast
Ragi Dosa and Iddiappam – our favorite Chettinad Breakfast

When it comes to breakfast, you will be treated with a variety of Dosai, Appams, Iddiappams and Idlis with a wide variety of chutneys and pickles that are freshly made. My Dottie gorged on the Sweet Ragi dosa while I was partial to the Iddiyappams (string hoppers) and the accompanying chutneys. Lunch was always the full banana leaf meal with its odd number of items – ranging from coconut-based gravies to tomato and tamarind dals with boiled rice. Don’t miss the dry side dishes – the Okra Pepper Fry was just lip-smacking!

A full meal with odd number of food items - one of the cultural aspects of Chettinad Food
A full meal with odd number of food items – one of the cultural aspects of Chettinad Food

For Dinner, try the various Paniyaram and Appams or even Dosai. It is amazing how many varieties they offer. I would not say no to the Chettinad biryani either. For non-vegetarians – there are tons of fish and chicken options. Here is a complete guide to Chettinad Food – what makes it so yummy and which are its signature dishes. Take a peek.

If you are staying in a heritage home, then you are all sorted. However, if you are out exploring Karaikudi, then look out for Jainica and Karaikudi Annapoorna Restuarant. The latter is quite recommended – they have a limited menu that changes every day. And trust me, even with that limited menu, you will be craving for more!

Visit the Kanadukathan Palace

Kanadukathan Palace - an important Karaikudi tourist attraction
Kanadukathan Palace – an important Karaikudi tourist attraction

When it comes to the Chettinad mansions, the most renowned one is the Kanadukathan Palace. Owned by the Annamalai family, this princely bungalow will leave you wanting for more. White walls with vibrant blues, green pillars and colorful stained glass windows – this mansion makes you wonder what would be the interiors like if the exterior is so gorgeous. Sadly though, it is not open to the public. Unless you manage to get permission from the family who owns it, you will be limited to this virtual tour of the Raja’s Palace in Kanadukathan. Trust me, this exclusive blog post showcases it all!

Mansion Hopping – one of the key things to do in Chettinad

Mansion Hopping - one of the things to do in Chettinad
Mansion Hopping – one of the things to do in Chettinad

If you cannot get into the Kanadukathan palace, don’t be disappointed. For one, you always have my blog tour to go with. And the other, there are tons and tons of these abandoned mansions in and around Karaikudi. This is why Mansion Hopping is one of the topmost things on your list of Karaikudi sightseeing. The best place to start is right next to the Raja’s palace in Kanadukathan. In fact, that particular village will overwhelm you with the gargantuan abodes. A few of them like the VVR Mansion, allow you in for a small fee.

The Thinnai with its pillars and sweeping roof (Mugappu)
The Thinnai with its pillars and sweeping roof (Mugappu) in VVR Mansion

Visiting one of these will introduce you to the world of Mugappus and Valavus while showcasing the eco-friendly architecture of the place. This is where you will also, learn the origin of the word – Karaikudi. Karai refers to a plant extract and limestone mix that is used to build these Chettinad mansions.

Check out my own mansion hopping tour of Karaikudi. It will help you appreciate and understand the intricacies of the Karaikudi homes when you visit them.

Explore the Athangudi Palace

One of the key Karaikudi tourist places - Athangudi Palace
One of the key Karaikudi tourist places – Athangudi Palace

One more palatial home but in another village of Chettinad. The Athangudi Palace might seem familiar to a few as it is a popular film location. The place with its Italian marble, European Cherubs, Athangudi tiles, and elaborate chandelier will leave you awe-stricken. As you wander within this mansion, you will also, come across a pictorial story on its walls. Take a look at it through this post on the lovely Athangudi Palace.

Discover the Athangudi Tile Factory

Athangudi tiles used in the Athangudi palace as ceiling
Athangudi tiles used in the Athangudi palace as ceiling

Athangudi tiles are one more reason for Chettinad to be known on the World Map. The exclusive hand made tiles have made their way to popular resorts and hotels. Visiting one of these factories will make you realize why. It is quite fascinating to see the labor that goes into one single tile. As you discover the raw materials like rice husks and mineral oxides, you will also, realize how eco friendly these are. The factories are very close to the Athangudi palace and hence, can be clubbed with it – allowing you to tick off two of the many places to visit in Karaikudi.

Shop at the Karaikudi Antique Market

Old locks sold in the antique market of Karaikudi
Old locks sold in the antique market of Karaikudi

Shopaholic or not, you must visit the Karaikudi Antique Market. A tiny lane filled with artifacts from the abandoned homes of Chettinad, the antique market of Karaikudi resembles a living museum. You can find the rare and original Ravi Varma paintings as well as the bronze sculptures of yesteryears. For collectors, there are tons of coins and old black and white pictures on sale. Antique furniture including metal benches, wooden pillars and artistic doors wait to find new homes. On tips for the Chettinad Antique markets, you must read through this detailed post. It tells you what to expect in the markets as well as how to reach them.

Find the best of Chettinad Temples

Karaikudi Sightseeing is not complete if you have not visited one of the Chettinad Temples. This is the ceiling of Kundrakudi Temple
Karaikudi Sightseeing is not complete if you have not visited one of the Chettinad Temples. This is the ceiling of Kundrakudi Temple

Chettinad temples are not just about worship and devotion. They are a perfect showcase of the artistic architecture of the Chettiars. Painted ceilings, sculpted frescoes, carved pillars and wooden doors – you will find them all at the Karaikudi temples. The Pillaiyarapatti Karpaga Vinayakar Temple and the Kundrakudi Murugan temple are two must-visit places on your Karaikudi sightseeing list. The 9 clan temples including Vairavan Kovil and the culture within these adds a distinct dimension to the places in Chettinad tourism. And finally, there is this unique Clay horse temple with is own community and rituals. You can click through this post for the list of all the Chettinad temples.

Watch out for the Chettinad Sarees

Chettinad Sarees are known as Kandaangi and are quite special owing to their heritage. The vibrant cotton saris are still hand-woven in Karaikudi and you can visit the homes of these weavers to understand them. These saris are available in contrasting colors. Stripes and checks are the common patterns on them. Some of these weavers even show you how they were worn earlier – when blouses and skirts were not in vogue. Visiting the weavers’ colony in Karaikudi definitely adds a different dimension to Chettinad tourism.

Join a Chettinad Cooking Class

The one thing that I missed staying in The Bangala for was its food. I have heard some amazing things about it. Not only do you get to eat it, but cook it too. The Bangala offers Chettinad Cooking classes in Karaikudi where you learn to dabble with the actual Chettinad flavors and take home that authentic Chettinad fare.

Other Karaikudi Tourist Places

What? There is more?

Oh yes, now you believe me when  I say that even 3 days might seem less. I could not make it to these Karaikudi attractions. So, just sharing them as a list – just in case you do.

  • Alagappa Chettiar Museum in Karaikudi – A key Chettinad museum with a collection of things that belonged to the illustrious Alagappa family.
  • Thirumayam Fort – This falls on the way to Karaikudi from Thanjavur. The fort has two temples and is worth a quick stop for its sculptures.
  • Chettinad vintage car & camera museum – For its unique collection of automobiles and photography equipment. 

I am sure that on my next visit, I will have tons more to add to this guide. For the time being, I have got it all set for you. So go on and mark this Guide to Chettinad tourism and tell me which is your favorite among the list of Karaikudi tourist attractions!

Booking resources

  • There are tons of heritage homes that can be booked for your Chettinad stay using Booking.com .
  •  Amazon is perfect for getting your travel accessories. Consider clicking through the given link and buying them. 

Disclaimer: This article includes affiliate links. This means that at no cost to you, I will receive a small commission if you purchase through my link. Thank you for supporting me with this.
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18 Responses

  1. Linda (LD Holland)

    Food, architecture and history are all great reasons to visit a place. Sounds like Chettinad offers them all. It would be fascinating to see the grandeur of homes that look like palaces. The colours in the Kanadukathan Palace certainly look vibrant. Too bad it is not open to the public to see more. Good thing that palace hopping offers so many others to see. The tile work at the Athangududi Palace certainly would not be a consolation prize! And those temples too! I can see why this is a popular spot to visit and spend some time.

    • Ami

      Actually, it is not a popular spot in India. In fact, it is quite offbeat. And that is good in a way, coz you don’t have huge crowds. Hope you get to it soon.

  2. Adele Gee

    I can’t believe my eyes every time I see what wondrous hidden treasures India has to offer. Chettinad sounds like a dream place to visit for me. Since I appreciate good food coupled with cultural and architecture this is tops for me! Kanadukathan Palace would be definitely on my list.

    • Ami

      Since you love Culture and architecture, you have made the right choice by adding this to your list. Trust me, this is a lot different from rest of India

  3. Cecilia

    Those mansions are just remarkable. I can’t believe that they are all abandoned. Do you think people will ever move back in? I mean…I’d move there in an instant! Haha. I am glad you did a thorough virtual tour of the inside because those mansions are just too impressive to not see the entire thing! I can see why Chettinad is a popular tourism destination. It is truly intriguing.

    • Ami

      I am not sure if they will ever be occupied. Most of them have been away for generations. But yes, like you, I too would love to stay in one of those.

  4. blair villanueva

    All of these structures are so beautiful and unique. Will there be anyways to revive the old mansion and be open to the public for more tourism opportunities? This city is worth every steps admiring its stories.

    • Ami

      I am not sure if they will revive the mansions as they are still owned by the original families. However, even from the outside, they are just worth the trip

  5. Agnes

    It is such a great guide to Chettinad. I haven’t been to Tamil Nadu yet, but I would love to see it because I love India. The temple is fabulous, extremely photogenic. Kanadukathan Palace looks like from the fairy. Mansion Hopping is so mystic; I would love to visit this place.

  6. emma

    How have I never heard of here before! Tamil Nadu is now on my bucket list for sure! Wow how fabulous are the temples! Im obsessed with the colours and grandeur of them! wow just stunning! It looks like such a photogenic place. Mansion hopping!? sign me up! Looks incredible

    • Ami

      Not many have heard of it. Even in India. So not surprising that you missed it too. Though I am glad that you are signing up for it.

  7. Clarice

    This is a detailed and helpful post. Perfect for first time visitors to Chettinad like me. Would love to try their local cuisine. Keeping in mind to look out for Jainica and Karaikudi Annapoorna.

    • Ami

      I am so glad that you find this useful as a first timer. That was the intention. 🙂

  8. Manjulika Pramod

    A lovely and detailed blog on Chettinad tourism. There is so much that we don’t know despite having experienced so much of it personally. In my trips, I had loved the Chettinad cuisine and the palaces but did not know about the Nattukotai Chettiars in detail. Here, I learned about Athangudi tiles as well. Will read more about it. Chettinad sarees are vibrant. I have one. Thanks for this virtual tour.

    • Ami

      Thanks Manjulika. I am sure you will love this place, given your penchant for art and culture.

  9. Medha Verma

    I have been to Tamil Nadu only once and that too for some work. Chettinad seems to be a nice place to explore, mostly because of the architecture. I would love to go mansion hopping, those mansions look amazing! I think its a good suggestion to visit Chettinad during pongal, I’d love to see the festivities and celebrations as well as try their authentic food at that time. I’ve tried Chettinad cuisine in other parts of the country, in restaurants but I’m sure nothing comes close to the original!

    • Ami

      You bet, I only fell in love with the food when I had it here. Trust me, this place is a treasure trove for any cultural and food enthusiast.

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