Under the influence of watching Tamil movies, my friend and I had sufficiently heard about the mansions of Chettinad. Further, our curiosity was piqued when we heard stories about how rich a land this region had been around a century ago, how the native people were involved in a lot of trade between Chettinad and Burma (present Myanmar). There is a Tamil settlement in modern day Myanmar consisting mainly Chettiars who decided to settle there. Burma Teak is still a word that is abundantly used for those familiar with timber and carpentry, primarily adorning these mansions of Chettinad. With that, we wanted to visit this region over a weekend and worked on our google research to set our travel plan.
The native community inhabiting Chettinad are the Chettiars. Well-educated, affluent, entrepreneurial are some adjectives that are synonymous with the Chettiars. The region comprises of 73 villages and spans over two districts of Shivagangai and Pudukkottai. Since we couldn’t be driving down, our usual resort for commutation was public transportation. Given that we had only a weekend’s time in hand, we wanted to plan our itinerary well and be able to make the most use of whatever time and resources we had.
The stay options on the other hand were limited to just a couple of Chettinad houses that have been converted to luxury resorts or heritage homestays. Although we wished that we could stay at one of those palatial mansions, we were restricted with our budget (we had just started to work after graduation from college). There were no budget stays anywhere in the region. So that was something we wanted to figure out after reaching there. In the worst case, we wanted to find at least a floor space where we could lay our sleeping bags.
This article is a first of the two part story about my trip to Chettinad. This post has been featured on BlogAdda’s ‘Spicy Saturday’s Picks’ column.
Day 0: Leave from Bengaluru (Overnight bus to Karaikudi)
Day 1: Explore Karaikudi- Koviloor, Devakottai & Pallathur (Night’s stay at Kaanadukathan)
Day 2: Explore Kaanadukathan- Aathangudi (Return to Bengaluru by overnight bus from Trichy)
Upon reaching Karaikudi on Saturday morning, we freshened up at a nearby hotel. Our day started with a delicious south-Indian breakfast with aromatic ghee roast masala dosa and idiyappams served with coconut milk sweetened to perfection. A piping hot cuppa filter coffee topped it up. Meanwhile, we worked out our options of commutation as we got taking with a very friendly waiter at the hotel. We figured out that hiring an autorickshaw was the best way if we had to get to the remote villages and unexplored lanes of Chettinad. The local bus or even a self-driven car wouldn’t be of much help as it needed someone familiar with the streets to wade through and the hot summer sun would just add up to our woes. After finishing our breakfast, we struck a good deal with an autorickshaw guy who would show us around and help us do a bit of mansion hopping.
Part 1: Exploring Karaikudi
Ariyakudi Perumal temple: Following the plan on our list, we decided to visit the temple first as the temples in South India close by 11.00.a.m. The history of this temple mentions it as an alternative Tirupati. Unfortunately, the temple remained shut at the time of our arrival due to the demise of the temple priest that morning. We spent some time photographing random things around the temple before heading to our next destination, to see the Chettinad houses in Karaikudi.
Ayiram jannal: This was our first tryst with the palatial residential structures of Chettinad. The name that literally translates to “mansion with 1000 windows”, this Chettinad house in Karaikudi is a common shoot location for those familiar with South Indian cinema. Much to our disappointment, tourists do not have access to the inside of this house as the people still live in this house.
Meenakshi-Sundareswaran temple: We were surprised to see the assembly of 108 idols of lord Ganesha at this temple. He is seen in rare avatars and seated on vahana that are usually considered as the others. We had visited this temple on the outskirts of Karaikudi, while on our way to Devakottai. It was a bumpy auto ride with the stiff tarmac having been withered off at several places and a lot of dust entering our ears, eyes and nose.
Koviloor Shiva temple: This beautiful little temple is set in a very pleasant location and is surrounded with mansions. We had gotten busy clicking photos.
Koviloor antique museum: Excitement was at its peak when our entry into the first stately house happened. It was a strong structure built of granite blocks facing the temple. One part of it has been converted into a museum of antiques that were used by the Chettiars, one part has been converted to a government office while another part is used by some self-help groups for basket weaving, coconut de-husking etc. A few localites had gathered for the afternoon prayers in the two temples housed inside the mansion -one dedicated to Shiva & Parvathi each which had served as personal prayer rooms for the family in the yester years. We envied the people who lived there a century ago thinking of how peacefully they could decorate their own temple with flowers and lamps and celebrate the festivals without the interference of random people in their way of offering prayers.
Memorials built for the famous Tamil poets: Since we weren’t keen on visiting memorials, we gave it a miss to visiting the Kamban Mani mandapam & Kaviarasu Kannadasan Mani Mandapam.
Nagara Shivan temple: This temple stop happened by chance as our auto-driver cum guide stopped for a break at a random place after a short ride. We walked into this temple where a sumptuous lunch was served as part of donations from the devotees and that kept us full for the rest of the day.
Devakottai: We had read that this village has some of the well-kept mansions in the region. By now, our driver had a good understanding of our interests in exploring the region. Over the course of the day, he was very accommodative and stopped at several mansions thereby letting us admire and awe at the vast and artistic dwelling places. He even spoke to a dozen of localites to permit us inside their houses as this would help our studies (We never mentioned we were architecture students though!!) Although a couple of mansion owners were kind enough to entertain strangers like us to have a look at their magnificent mansions, we got shooed away at the gate by several others.
There was one such incident where the proud caretakers gave us a guided tour of the entire house and we were even greeted by a colony of bats flying past our heads when one of the most unused parts of that mansion was opened just for our academic purpose! We climbed up the guano filled wooden stairs leading to an attic where hundreds of bats roosted. We ducked down as we further walked across a wooden bridge opening out into the terrace to be treated with an amazing view of the overstretching lanes of Devakottai filled with mansions.
Kandadevi temple: We stopped at this temple on our way back to Karaikudi from Devakottai. The temple pond is spread across 2 acres and is believed to be the largest in Chettinad.
Alagappa University & the Annavar memorial: Originally, these were not in our list. But we visited these places as our enthusiastic auto-driver wanted us to see these landmarks named after prominent personalities who have contributed in the development of this region.
After an exhausting day exploring the streets crammed with Chettinad houses in Karaikudi, we were dropped at the bus stand to board the local bus to our next destination. The bus snaked through the narrow lanes and we craned our necks out of the window to stare at a few bungalows along the road at Pallathur before we finally alighted at ‘THE’ destination of our tour- Kaanadukathan.
Must do’s in Chettinad:
- Take a walk in the Muneeshwaran Koil street or the antique market in Karaikudi
- Shop for a colorful palm basket- The local handicraft that has gained a GI tag
- Treat your palette with Chettinad cuisine (I definitely mean Non-Veg)
- Take a bicycle / walk tour around the streets of Kaanadukathan