An overnight train from Chennai brought us to Chettinad. Hopping off, we noticed that only four or five other people had alighted there.
The place we were supposed to stay at, had called us back the previous evening to ask how we planned to get to Kanadukathan (our final destination) from the railway station. I had answered nonchalantly that we will simply take an auto or a taxi (like we do everywhere else duh!). The person at the other end had dismissed this with an amused tone and went on to say that he will send an auto to fetch us from the station. I had thought this to be unnecessary but finally agreed to the humble pick up arrangement.
Stepping out of the station now under the slanting rays of the rising sun, we realized how naïve we were to assume we could just sashay out of Chettinad station and hitch an auto to get to our destination. There were only two autos and a private vehicle waiting outside the station which appeared to have been booked in advance by the other travellers.
The fifteen minutes journey from Chettinad railway station to the heritage village of Kanadukathan was a bumpy one. As the auto rickshaw slowly made its way through what was left of the road, we passed crumbling boundary walls and majestic gates of what might have been grand estates at one time, now lost to wilderness. It was the tales of these grand estates and palaces that had brought us to Chettinad.
The Chettinad region; synonymous with spicy aromatic food prepared from freshly ground masalas; originally consisted of about 96 villages spread over an area of 600-1500 sq mile in the Sivaganga district of Tamil Nadu. It is this that Chettiars, a prosperous banking and business community of South India, claim as their traditional home. The Chettiars were successful maritime traders who became immensely prosperous by trading in salt and rice in the South East Asia, especially Burma. Unofficial figures put the total number of these palaces in Chettinad, each covering 30,000 to 40,000 sq feet area at 11,000.
Fuelled by the handsome returns from maritime trade, the Chettiars left no expenses spared in opulently decking up their palaces with Italian Marble, Burmese Teak, Belgian glass, intricate iron grills, ornate carvings and colourful Athangudi tiles indigenous to the region. However, the Japanese occupation of Burma during the Second World War was a blow to their business. Unable to repatriate their wealth, most suffered terrible loses. The direct impact of this was felt on the maintenance and upkeep of their mansions.
The sun was high in the sky when we finally managed to step out for the tour of the village. Home to about 70 Chettiar mansions, Kanadukathan is a virtual ghost town with most Chettiar families having migrated abroad or to one or the other major city of India over a period of time. Even in broad daylight, the streets of Kanadukathan fortified by the high walls of the mansions on either side were practically empty except for a stray cycle or a hunched old man slowly walking past. Most palaces are in various stages of disrepair. However, the few that are still painstakingly maintained by respective families are a living testament to the grandeur of the past.
Our first stop, a regal whitewashed mansion with bright colours accentuating the edges and windows, suitably called the Rajah’s palace. The only opening in its high compound wall, an equally high grill gate was latched from inside. We peered inside. A short distance away, a guard was perched on a stool next to an enormous wooden double door. I put up a smiling face, stepped up to the gate and yelled out in faltering Tamil, “Anna, Veedu pakhre” and hoped that he understood that we wanted to take a look at the mansion. Evidently he had come across several such “curious cutlets” in his days of perching outside that door. He replied almost reflexively, “No. No. Close aaich.”
We moved on to try our luck at the next imposing mansion but were met with the same response till we wandered into Chettinadu Mansion, a heritage hotel. The owner, a genial elderly gentleman was lounging in the one of blue sofas in the grandiose reception hall with a chequered floor and white arches supported by enormous black marble pillars. He saw us as we were climbing up the stairs of the porch and gestured us to come inside. Elated, we stepped in. He was as curious about us, as we were about him and his house. After taking us through the history of Chettinad and Chettinadu Mansion, he gave us a free hand to wander through the open sections of the house.
We were awestruck. Beyond the Reception Hall, also known as “marriage hall”, was a series of successive courtyards connected by doors that lined up straight from the entrance to the back of the house. Each courtyard was surrounded by wide verandas and rooms on all four sides. The first courtyard had bedrooms or private living quarters of the family members spread across two floors. The doors were intricately carved with figures of gods, goddesses and apsaras. The verandah on the upper floor was surrounded by ornate blue and white wrought iron grills. The next courtyard, meant for dining purposes was simpler and the last courtyard had store rooms and kitchen. Next day we visited a few more mansions. What struck us most was that all houses, despite their similar layout, had their own unique architecture and décor. In fact, sometimes the décor and the materials used change from courtyard to courtyard in the same house as a result of continued construction over several years and generations.
Each house in Kanadukathan is a veritable portal into the golden age of Chettiars and their exploits all over the world. We returned with a camera full of memories. Our only lament is that these portals are quickly shutting down and soon Chettinad and its palaces will probably only exist in hearsay.