chettinad – love at first ‘site’!!

had heard so much about chettinad cuisine over the years, but being vegetarian it never really excited me. but, then my husband and i saw pictures of some old mansions in chettinad and knew we had to visit… the old mansions looked beautiful, and there seemed to be way more to chettinad than food and saris!

first steps we had to find a nice place to stay. we chanced upon Visalam managed by CGH Earth. it seemed to have captured that old-world charm without going over-board! none of the places in karaikudi or nearby seemed nearly as good! when we reached at an early 8am, we were awed by the beauty of the house. how they had managed to renovate it!

there were photos bought from antique shops in and around the town that dotted the walls… felt like entering someone else’s world. furtively, i paused before the picture of a baby, before realising i was allowed to stare here!

teak wood beams as thick as an elephant’s leg
supporting solid roofs and archways
walking into the courtyard
the sound of giggles –
girls, in dhavanis with jasmine in their hair, pass by…
we are transported!

there is so much to chettiars and chettinad that we learnt from the locals!

kannadukathan is one of the 78 villages that are currently part of ‘chettinad’. there used to be around 93. the chettiars were the business community of south. they lived along coastal tamilnadu – which made sense as it explained the coconut in their cuisine. but post a devastating tsunami they shifted into the interiors… to a place with no water! so chettinad on first site seems arid and dry…

the business community, that they are, travelled all over south-east asia and traded! these riches were ploughed back into their villages in india. they built houses over years… gorgeous, large homes… some took 10 – 20 years to complete. when money came their way they built, then the house was put on ‘pause’, till the next in-flow! they decorated their house lavishly, refusing to buy any local material. a walk around a house and you can see tiles from japan, glass and mirrors from belgium, teak wood beams from burma…

they were vegetarians to start with. but as their ancestors traveled to countries that did not even know vegetarianism, they were forced to eat non-vegetarian food… to survive. and today chettinad cuisine is famous for the chicken and fish curries!

going around these villages and towns was something we wanted to do, and not by hiring an auto that would work out expensive, plus make us dependent on someone else! we borrowed the bike from the manager of the hotel, who lent it to us without a blink of his eyelid… it made everything so much more convenient and accessible, as we zipped around the villages! we visited houses, temples, villages, shops, towns… everything… got lost in the by-lanes… but always returned ‘home’ to a warm dinner under whirring fans…

every village had the road full of houses of chettiars… each house was more beautiful than the previous one. with the huge statues of laxmi above the entrance welcoming money! the magnificent palace-like interiors, these houses enthralled us. the first thing built, in every house, was the marriage hall – a large high ceiling place with verandah like structures along the side. there was no concept of rooms in those days, given that most of the men were away in other countries, all the women slept together, in the courtyard… it is still a matter of great pride to own a big house, and have your marriage conducted in your own house!

today, many families do not have the kind of resources required to maintain and renovate their houses. while the village is a unesco heritage, if anyone chooses to accept unesco money for renovations, they will need to let the unesco collect money by allowing tourists to visit. while most houses open their homes to tourists, they don’t want to make it a regular business… added to this it’s tough to sell a house as each place has multiple owners. the house has passed down generations – and everyone gets their bit! we saw a house divided amongst close to 10 families… so each family owned just a room!

it was a great trip. i saw a part of tamilnadu that i didn’t know existed. and while i might never really own such a beautiful house. it was lovely to be a part of it, even just for a couple of days!

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