Arriving from the busy temple town of Madurai, my mind still boggling at the kaleidoscope of vividly painted gods jostling for attention and the sounds of bare feet running on polished stone behind incense bearing priests, time seemed slower in Chettinad. The landscape is calm, the flat plains of south-central Tamil Nadu sparsely populated, the fields gently ordered, the air quiet and clear save the shimmering midday heat haze in a state that describes its seasons as hot, hotter and hottest. It was good to be back.
The peace of this little visited corner of India belies its extraordinary history and heritage. The Chettiars trace their origins to their huge success as bankers and maritime traders in salt, silk, timber, spices and gold on 11th and 12th century shipping routes to south-east Asia and beyond. Heading inland from their original coastal settlements after flooding, they came to call 95 scattered villages (now down to 74) Chettinad, ‘the land of the Chettiars’. With them they brought ideas and materials from the west, and lavished their most opulent mansions with Italian marble, Belgian mirrors, and French gargoyles. Political changes after WWII wiped out fortunes overnight but these villages and homes stand testimony to what once was.
Fortunately formal tourism is still to reach Chettinad and you’re likely to be shown around a gently crumbling mansion by a resident caretaker, keeping the property secure between the rare times the owning family returns to their ancestral home for a wedding or other special occasion. Our indefatigable and hugely enthusiastic guide was a local young man working at our heritage hotel Visalam. Together we pedalled on old bicycles along the grid of near desolate streets lined with huge ‘country fort’ houses. There’s time to stop and admire door carvings, terracotta roofs, each tile the shape of their maker’s thigh, huge pillars of polished granite and teak, glistening eggshell plastered walls that remain cool year round and vast sunlit courtyards lined with heavy doors to former store rooms. It’s minimalism at its best and there’s a distinct absence of frills.
Villages are connected by bumpy country roads intersecting empty highways and its worth allowing several days to explore them. Along the way you may pass the abandoned 1930s British aerodrome, the hospital built in Indo-Saracenic style, plantations of eucalyptus or cashew.
A weekly ‘shandy’ is held in each village and locals browse for polished purple brinjal and knobbly bitter gourd, little dried fish and practical plastic footwear. At the Sri Mahalakshmi Handloom Weaving Centre watch the distinctive checked and striped Chettinad saris being crafted on age old looms, and tiles of geometric and floral patterns seen in the most luxurious homes in India being handmade in ramshackle workshops in Athangudi. Traditional sweets are cooked on wood fires and, unusually, Hindu ceremonies are conducted beneath the shade of a large tree at open air temples where Ayyanar, the local guardian deity and protector of rural villages, is gifted terracotta horses by devotees.
Natural High offers Chettinad as part of a tailor-made tour of south India. Whether you’d like to consider a short hop over the border from Kerala to Chettinad, or including it as part of a longer journey of discovery through Tamil Nadu and beyond please get in touch and we’ll be happy to share our recommendations and plan and book your trip.
Posted by: Andrea Hulme