MY TRAVEL DIARY : Chettinad, Karaikudi ; Group of 74 villages

On the way to Thanjavur visited Karaikudi, known all over the country as Chettinad. It is a part of Sivagangai district of Tamil Nadu and represents a group of 74 villages where richi rich community of traders, Chettiyars, once lived.

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There are more than 5000 mansions made of limestone in these villages. There are two kinds of mansions in the region — pre-1950 era and post-1950 era. Pre-1950 era mansions were grand, traditional structures built using imported materials, while post-1950s mansion were built in European style by substituting the imported with locally available material. The difference is stark to the naked eye. The ones built before the 1950s used granite, tiles, stained glasses, chandeliers, cast iron pillars, teak wood and rubber wood, etc., imported from all over the world. Each of the massive mansions, spread over acres of land, accommodated large joint families of close knit Chettiyars, a thriving community of traders with business interests across South East Asia and Europe. The community made a killing during the World War II and economically thrived on the strength of its cordial relations with East India Company by looking after its business interest.

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Initially the community spread its wings in South East Asia from their base in the neighbouring coastal port town of Poompuhar. Later on they enmass shifted from there to settle down in various villages of Sivagangai district by building massive mansions. Sheer size of the mansions is such that each of these has two postal addresses with doors opening on two different streets.

Visited a mansion, Chettinadu Mansion, in Kanadukathan village. The mansion has been turned into a hotel. We were taken around the mansion and served traditional lunch on banana leaf. The food somehow was a disappointment. I think the traditional cooks are being directed by their managers to customise and standardise traditional delicacies to suit the travelers palate. This is leading to some kind of fusion cuisine which is neither here nor there. In the name of serving non-vegetarian delicacies, the eatery only came up with a chicken curry.

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Chettinad cuisine is all about seafood, especially fish and prawns, sukka (dry) mutton and chicken. Even the vegetarian food was a big disappointment. Imagine one had to constantly ask for ghee (Nalla Ney). Traditional Tamil meal sans ghee is nothing less than blasphemy.

From here we moved on to a floor tile manufacturer’s unit. Sand in the region is best suited for tile making. That is why handmade tiles from this region, called Athankudi tiles, are a rage. One can even customise the design.

The region is famous for its handloom sarees called Kandangi sarees, known all over the country as Chettinad sarees. These villages were also once famous for palm leaf basket weaving. Now the basket makers have moved on to longer lasting sturdier raw material, plastics. The basket design, however, remains the same.

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Behind this mansion-turned hotel on Rajasir Street is the giant palace home of Congress leader P. Chidambaram’s mother. Her husband had a title of Raja and the family is revered here as Raja Sir”s family by the locals. Also visited Aiyanar shrine. All villages in Tamil Nadu have a small temple dedicated to a village guardian deity called Aiyanar on the outskirts of the village. Villagers believe that the deity protects the village from diseases, crop failures, natural calamities and other negative forces. In this particular village there was a tradition of placing a terracotta horse at the shrine on fulfilment of a vow.

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Surprisingly, Sivagangai district even has an airstrip which is no longer functional. Today majority of these mansions are being managed by caretakers with original owners having moved on to greener pastures—other nations or cities in India. From traditional trading they have progressed to other modern day lucrative money making ventures. They return to their villages to pay obeisance to their family deities. Some mansions have been turned into heritage hotels. But majority of them remain private properties managed by caretakers.

(Sharat’s Sharma Travelogue)

Sharat Sharma

Sharat Sharma is an indefatigable traveller and explorer from Delhi. For Sharat, age is just a number because what matters is the indomitable will to get moving.

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