Exploring the abandoned mansions of Chettinad

posted in: Asia, Heritage, India, Tamil Nadu | 60

They enticed me from the first time I heard of them. Tales of their exquisite exteriors and intricate interiors beseeched me to see these abodes for myself. Plans were made but kept falling through. However, each failed attempt got my resolve to get there stronger till finally! It happened. I managed to get to Karaikudi – the center of the famous Chettinad region of Tamil Nadu. Naturally, the first thing to do in Karaikudi was to finally see the famous ghost mansions of Chettinad. And boy! What an experience it was!

One of the many ghost mansions of Chettinad

If I were to explain the fuss behind these mansions of Chettinad, I would say they are the South-Indian equivalent of the Rajasthani Havelis. The tale of the Chettinad houses is quite similar to their Rajasthani counterparts. They belong to the affluent merchants who moved away for better fortunes. A lot of their ancestral homes are locked and then there are a few that have been converted into heritage stays. Each competes with their neighbor on grandeur, originality and artwork. And the most amazing part – there is a town full of them! With that introduction in place, get ready to be frenzied with the numerous stories on the mansions of Chettinad.

Rajasthani Havelis in Bikaner are a showcase of wealthy merchants who thrived on the Silk Route trade. Unlike the Chettinad mansions, their exterior facade is filled with red stone carvings. The jharokha styled windows and the plinths add to the exquisite facade. Best you discover these through haveli-hopping in Bikaner.

History of Karaikudi and its mansions

Centuries ago, in the capital city of CholasPoompuhar, lived wealthy clans of merchants. The Chettiars traded in salt, rice and gems were spread across the seas to include Ceylon, Burma and South East Asia including Malaysia. Then, came a devastating Tsunami that washed away their rich abodes. The entire community felt they had enough of the proximity to water and migrated to a drier area. They set up their new base in 96 villages. The locality is now popularly referred to as the Chettinad region of Tamil Nadu.

Abandoned mansion in Karaikudi

The community of Chettiars called the Nagarathar (people from the town) earned a new name after they settled in the hamlets around Karaikudi. They were soon called the Nattukottai Chettiars. Nattukottai means “fort on land” – a reference owing to their palatial mansions of Chettinad. These homes were directly proportional to their wealth. The grander the mansion, the better was the family fortune.

The mercantile community continued to thrive and grow in stature. From businessmen, they became money lenders to not just the villages around but to the Kings as well. In fact, their lending stretched to include the British East India Company. Over time, as the business grew, a lot of them moved overseas – largely to South East Asia. They built their new homes there and gradually abandoned their ancestral Chettinad mansions in Karaikudi. Today, most of them remained locked and uncared for but what remains is their dazzling magnificence.

How to get to Karaikudi?

Stop by at Tiruchirapalli Rock Fort on the way to Karaikudi
  • You have two options for an airport – both are almost 100 km from Karaikudi. The first is Madurai and the 2nd one would be Trichy or Tiruchirapalli. You can hire a cab at either of these places and get to Karaikudi. Both these places have tons of things to see and it might be a good idea to plan a day each at these airport towns.
  • If you are in Chennai or Bangalore, you can drive down to Karaikudi. It takes around 7 hours from either of the two places. This was the option that I took on from Bangalore. I entered Karaikudi via Trichy. Not only did I halt at Trichy, upon my return, but also chose to spend a day at Thanjavur for the Big Temple, the Airavateshwar Temple and the Thanjavur Palace.
  • Karaikudi has its own railway station with a good connectivity to the key cities in South India.
  • There are regular buses to Karaikudi from Chennai, Thanjavur and Trichy.

Where to stay in Karaikudi?

My room at Chola Heritage hotel in Karaikudi

The one thing to note about Karaikudi is that the town is spread across several small hamlets. Hence, irrespective of where you stay, you will need a vehicle at your disposal. There is plenty of heritage stays available in the town. I personally recommend picking one of these over the contemporary hotels in Karaikudi. Not only are they comfortable but give you a good taste of the Chettinad culture and home. During my trip, I stayed at the Chola Heritage which is not exactly a heritage home but has been built as one. The place has a limited kitchen that offers you tasty Chettinad breakfast and dinner. Lunch is normally bought from the restaurants nearby and served. The location was decent and the rooms quite comfortable.

The other heritage homes that I considered included The Bangala, Thapa Gardens and the Chidambara Vilas. Sadly, both were sold out on the dates I planned my visit.

Where to find the Mansions of Chettinad?

The famous Kanadukathan Palace in Chettinad

Frankly, the Chettinad mansions are spread across Karaikudi and its surrounding hamlets. However, if I had to point to one cluster, it would be Kanadukathan. It is actually, the best place in Karaikudi for mansion hopping. This is where the famous Kanadukathan Chettinad Palace is located. To visit that, you need to get special permission which after some toil and calls, I managed to. I would be treating you to a virtual tour of this in a separate post.

Athangudi palace in Karaikudi - one of the unmissable mansions of Chettinad

The 2nd locality that you need to keep in mind is Athangudi. Here you have access to the interiors of the Athangudi Palace (yet another exclusive post). The palace is a gorgeous fusion of European and Indian architecture. You can see the first glimpse in the picture itself – the British soldiers guarding the Indan Deity.

Aayiram Jannal Veedu or the 1000 window house of Karaikudi

Within Karaikudi, remember to drop by the Aayiram Jannal Veedu or the 1000 windows house. This can only be viewed from the outside. While this might be a popular Chettinadu house to visit, I personally found other pretty mansions in Karaikudi. It might be worth your while to just drive around the place and spot the unnamed ones yourself.

Setting off on a tour of the Karaikudi Mansions

Karaikudi mansions as seen in Kanadukathan

So far there were well-spaced Oohs and Aahs in the car caused by a few lone Chettinad homes at random corners. We had set route for Kanadukathan on advice from our hotel manager and the various friends who had already been here. The moment we entered Kanadukathan – there was pin-drop silence! All of us just choked on the Oohs and Aahs because we could not get them out fast enough!

It does not matter where you enter Kanadukathan from. Every corner, every lane is filled with these Karaikudi Mansions. And they all fight for attention. We reached the corner where the famous Kanadukathan palace stands and parked right in front of it. After that, the rest of the journey was on foot – which frankly is the best way to explore the village.

Close up of Gajalaxmi on one of the mansion facades
Bastion shaped structure in one of the Chettinad Mansions
Another depiction of Gajalakshmi on the Chettinad Mansion
Stucco art showing faces on a Chettinad mansion - maybe the owners?

The exhibition of grandeur has a variety. I saw one that emulated a castle with large bastions and a little away from that was some with grand gates and enormous deities stucco art on them. Gajalaxmi seemed to be a favorite among all the stucco themes. I even saw one where people were depicted – maybe the owners?

Dusty locks on the gates gave away the fact that it had been decades since someone had actually entered these homes. There were one or two of them that were well-maintained and looked as if people still lived within them. In fact, I hovered around them with the hope that I could spot someone and ask them about what was the story behind these abandoned bungalows.

Village pond and temple at Kanadukathan

 

Bungalow by the pond that is slowly being reclaimed by nature
Roots claiming the abandoned Chettinad Mansion

Right in front of the Kanadukathan palace, was an old village pond. As we made our way to the interesting temple on its banks, we caught the sight of Karaikudi house that seemed to be reclaimed by nature. Overgrown roots covered the facade, reminding me of the abandoned Ross Island. Stray cats flitted in and out of the house that I attempted to capture through the dusty grills. Such was my desperation that a passer-by guided me to an adjoining lane – pointing to a green gate with the instruction – “Pay the watchman there and he will let you go and see the house from inside.”  You have no idea what that did to quench my ever-increasing thirst to explore the mansions of Chettinad from within.

The Architecture of Chettinadu Mansion

VVR Mansion that allowed me in to see the interiors

The house with the green gate is called VVR House. True to the local’s words, the watchman happily opened the gates for us. With a minimal charge of INR 30 per person, he allowed us into the threshold of a true Chettinad Mansion. However, before we all go in, let me point out some interesting facets of its exteriors. If you look closely to the left and right of its roof, you will see a figure wearing Western attire. This is pretty common in these Karaikudi homes. Given the exposure to foreign lands and friendly relations with the British, a lot of Chettiars engraved these figures onto their walls.

Inside the home of one of the Chettiar families in Kanadukathan.

A Chettiar home extends from one end of the lane to the next. So if you are standing at the main door of the house and the backdoor is open, then you would be able to see the parallel lane.

One of the main characteristics of a Chettinad house architectural design is the presence of courtyards. The rooms are built around these courtyards termed as Valavu. There are multiple courtyards in a single home. Each courtyard serves a specific function. Most of these homes have at least one floor that rises over each of their courtyards.  With this background in mind, it’s time to explore the aristocratic interiors of a Chettinad Veedu. (Chettinad Home)

The grand Thinnai of the mansions of Chettinad

An opulent wooden architecture greets you past its enormous gates. This is yet another characteristic of the architecture of a Chettinad Home. The verandah or Thinnai is often elaborately decorated as it doubled up as a reception area for the family. The Thinnai also served as a business area for the merchants. Almost like an office, the area would have tables for the accountants reporting to the males of the family.  Given that first impressions are lasting, there was no expense spared to decorate the Thinnai.

The raised platforms doubled up as a Chettiar workplace

Most of the time, the Chettiar males would be out of Karaikudi. They would travel far and wide for their business leaving behind the ladies to manage their grand abodes. When the returned, they would not just bring back riches but decor for their homes. Every Chettinad house has some relics from overseas – Italian marble, Spanish Tiles, Belgian glass and Burma Teak doors.

The Thinnai with its pillars and sweeping roof (Mugappu)

The Thinnai of VVR mansion too had its share of these imported artifacts. The Burma teak wood pillars held up an elaborately carved roof. The structure was typical of the reception area of any home in Chettinad and is termed as Mugappu. Every Karaikudi pillar ended with carved floral work. It was easy for me to imagine the smart Chettiar businessman in his Mundu consulting with his accountant on the raised platforms of the Thinnai.

Burma Teak Wood Doors of a Chettinad mansion

Burma Teak wood door that leads into the threshold of a Chettinad mansion

A door that separated the Thinnai from the rest of the house was no ordinary portal. Made out of the same Burma wood brought by the tradesmen, it told a story of its own. Delicate floral filigree along the door frame could be traced to larger carved splendors in the form of arches and animals. Somewhere hidden eyes of a mythical lion stared back at you while in another corner an elephant with his mahout greeted you.

Getting closer to the doors in a Chettinad mansion
Intricate carvings on the door frame of a mansion in Chettinad
Details in the door frame of one of the mansions of Chettinad

The doors of the mansions of Chettinad are a work of art and most of them are made from the wood got all the way from Myanmar. They say that the merchants used to tie huge logs of the wood to their ships and float it back to India. Once here, it was dried and treated for carving numerous stories. The logs were used to not only create doors but also, roofs, pillars, windows and ceilings.

Ceiling in the Thinnai
Pillar woodwork in a Chettinad house
Silver paint on the wood carving of the Pooja Room Door

The VVR Mansion too, had its share of this Burma Teak creations. Besides the pillars and main door, there were plenty of other carvings to observe. The Pooja Room door, in particular, caught my attention with its silver painting over the wooden carvings.

It is amazing how the Chettiars used colors to break the monotony of the Burma Teak. Reds, Blues, Yellows and Greens highlighted various aspects of the house and added a certain vibrancy to the interiors.

Wall, Murals & Floors in the mansions of Chettinad

Mural on top of the windows are a common characteristic of a Chettinadu Mansion

Though locked for several years, the walls of the abandoned Chettinad mansion seemed to be glistening. The reason for this is that all Chettinadu homes are made using local limestone mix called Karai and eggshells. In fact, this is why this whole area is called Karaikudi. These walls can be cleaned and are strong enough to last centuries.

It is pretty common to spot murals on top of the various windows of a Chettinadu mansion. The theme of the wall paintings ranged from stories from the lives of the merchants to divine deities. In this particular mansion of Karaikudi, it was all about mythology and artistic floral vines. Most of these paintings were done using vegetable dyes.

Athangudi tiles on the floors of the Nadai (corridor) of the VVR Mansion

One of the biggest problems with visiting a Chettinadu house is that you don’t just have the ceilings and doors fighting for attention. It is the floor too, that distracts you. In some cases, you are walking on European tiles while in others like this one, you have the beautiful local Athangudi tiles adorning the floor. The Athangudi tiles are handmade tiles that have now managed to reach various corners of the world. The key ingredients include the Karaikudi soil, glass and oxides. They are loved for their colors and floral designs. You can actually visit the Athangudi tile factory after you are done with mansion hopping in Karaikudi. In fact, combine the same with your visit to the Athangudi Palace mentioned earlier as one of the popular mansions of Karaikudi.

Valavu – the residential courtyard of a Chettinadu House

Valavu in VVR mansion - one of the Chettinad homes in Kanadukathan

By now, you would have got a glimpse of the first residential courtyard of the Chettinadu house. Let me quickly introduce you to the key elements of these courtyard.

  • Pattalai –The four raised platforms that form the corridor around the courtyard
  • Nadai – The corridor itself that has several rooms
  • Irattai Veedu – The storerooms that are allocated to each family to store their personal belongings. These are generally on the ground floor.
  • Living rooms –  This includes the bedrooms as well and is mostly on the first floor. A few reception rooms or study rooms are present on the ground floor too.

Depending on the size of the house, there could be more than one Valavu or courtyard. Remember, the Chettinad house is not a nuclear family. The architectural plan of the house ensured that each member of the large extended family had their own space.

The main Valavu, mostly with the Pooja Room was used for family functions and festivals. Even today, many of these ancestral bungalows light up during festivals when various family members fly over to be with each other and rejoice.

The 2nd courtyard in the VVR mansion meant for the women of the house

Usually, the last residential courtyard was for the women of the house. In VVR Mansion, this was where the watchman’s family resided. This is possibly where all the gossip flew around and where the letters from their beloved were read. This section usually had rings attached to the ceiling. This was for hanging a baby swing or crib.

Moonamkattu – The Kitchen of a Chettinad House

Moonamkattu - the kitchen courtyard of a home in Karaikudi

The last courtyard at the rear end of Chettinad Home is usually the Kitchen area. This consists of two parts – Irandankattu and Adukala.  The first refers to the storehouse for the kitchen while the 2nd is the cooking area. Together these are referred to as Moonamkattu.

Fire pits in the cooking area of a Chettinad house

I could almost smell the tangy Chettinad curries bubbling on the huge pots over the earthen fires. My tummy was rumbling and mouth salivating. It was a clear sign that it was time for lunch. And what a lunch it was! However, before I give you my recommended tips on where to eat, a quick note on the eco-friendly aspect of a Chettinad mansion.

The Eco-friendly construction of a Karaikudi Mansion

Rain water flows along the roof into the small tanks in the Valavus

The most commendable part of a Karaikudi mansion was the fact that there is an abundance of light and wind. The open courtyards ensured daylight and cross ventilation. However, these open to sky spaces had another interesting use – rainwater harvesting. The sloping roofs ensured that the water was directed to small tanks called Urani. Amazing  – isn’t it? The Chettiars had thought through almost everything.

With that, I conclude this opening post on the mansions of Chettinad. My next two posts will showcase the two popular aristocratic abodes of Karaikudi. Trust me, that is a journey that you will love. For now, just bookmark this post for any mansion-hopping that you plan to do in Karaikudi.

Where to eat in Kanadukathan?

My Chettinad meal in Kanadukathan

I highly recommend hopping over to Chettinadu Mansion – behind the Raja’s palace in Kanadukathan. It is a heritage stay but has a lovely restaurant that serves authentic Chettinad meals. I still salivate at the sight of this picture – the tangy Chettinad curry, the dal and the rasam with rice. YUMMY! The meals at the place are quite reasonable and the service amazing. The lady of the Kitchen will feed you even after you say you are full!

Travel Tips

  • The Mansions of Chettinad are the most important things to see in Karaikudi. You have not been to the place if you have not done this. I highly recommend getting to Kanadukathan for your first set of mansion hopping. A few houses like the VVR mansion allow you inside for a small fee. You must try and visit one of them to see the splendor within.
  • Mansion hopping is best done on foot. Naturally, comfortable clothing and flat footwear will serve you well.
  • Most of the locals speak in Tamil. They do understand Hindi and English but likely will reply back in their local tongue.

Booking resources

  • Booking.com has several of the heritage homes available on their website. You can book them by clicking the link given
  • In case you are looking for any travel essentials or accessories in general, you can buy them from Amazon by clicking through the link. You can also, find several Karaikudi handicrafts on sale on Amazon.

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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