I thought I would start my travelogues on South India in a chronological manner, covering four districts and about 1200 Kms. The last stop was Chettinad, but it got precedence over all other religious places those that I had visited. I was afraid if I would miss a few points and hence chose to present it first.
Chettinad is the abode of wealthy Chettiars, who were globe-trotting merchants and money-lenders of yesteryears, who were fond of flaunting their opulence. The mansions around Karaikudi are some of the largest that I have ever seen in any part of the globe. These homes have stood the test of time of more than two centuries.
Though Chettiars were seafaring merchants, rapid success struck them after the British, sensing the business acumen and the wealth of the Chettiars, nominated them as middlemen to deal with the Burmese. Chettiars were noted bankers and getting a foothold in Burma, they soon expanded to many South East Asian countries, trading in pearls, textiles, rice, cotton and bringing back valuable timber and gems to India.
Chettiars also brought with them the best of building materials, Burmese teak, Italian marbles, Japanese tiles, Belgian mirrors and African ivory and embellished their huge mansions. The edifices still sparkled of Indian ethnicity with frescos and wall murals, intricate woodwork depicting Hindu religion. The often two-stories homes ran long with huge open-to-sky courtyard and invariably covered two lanes, one in the front gate and one in the rear. Their villages too were well planned with good roads and water harvesting systems, water being perennially short in the arid, dry districts.
Chettiars were philanthropists and worshipped Shiva. carrying their tradition wherever they went, building temples, schools and colleges. They built rest houses in most religious places in India and places where they went. Their booming trade however met with a severe blow during the second World War, with Burma becoming a fierce battlefront between the British and the Japanese and thereafter in the 60s with a coup when the government nationalised all Burmese properties, making many rich Chettiars poor overnight.
Walking through the towns of Kanadukathan, Pallathur, Kottaiyur and Aathangudi, the epicentre of Chettinad, one could see huge palatial mansions, with hardly any occupants. It seemed like a ghost town, save a moped or a bicycle to evidence human presence somewhere. The Chettiar families seemed to be silently suffering, save a few big names. The silence in the villages are eerie and are reflective of any Stephen King’s surreal novel. A few owners grudgingly allow visitors to walk in and witness their homes for a small fee, which could help in paying salaries to the very few maintenance staff they can afford!
One or two have braved and let their mansions on lease, hiding their shame and fighting their alter-ego, while some others are dismantling their houses piece by piece to trade off the rich timber and artefacts accumulated centuries ago. The line of antique shops in Karaikudi’s Muneeswaran Koil Street is reminiscent of recycling scavengers, which have left nothing to waste.
I met an owner lady in a mansion, sick and severely malnourished. Secretly she begged for some alms and hurriedly hid it under before one of the watchful caretaker could grab it. She is the inheritor of the title and a great mansion perhaps worth crores, with presently no enough food to eat.
I was exalted entering Chettinad, but left with a very heavy heart. The lady was merely an example of falling on evil days. Her misty eyes continue to haunt me now and will always do anytime I think of Chettinad!
in pic: an opulent Chettinad mansion!