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Chettinad Part 2: Exploring Kaanadukathan- A Dreamland in Tamil Nadu

Continued from Part 1: Exploring Karaikudi

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.

Part 2: Exploring Kaanadukathan

Although we had listed down the must-see things, we felt lost upon our arrival at this village. The place looked like any other village in India and we wondered where had all the stately houses gone, the only reason that had brought us there. It was evening already, and we still didn’t have a definite place to stay. Without having a clue on how to go about further on our trip, we decided to follow our instincts.

Firstly, we decided to walk till that road’s end hoping to find some hotel for our night’s stay. After a short distance, we heaved a sigh of relief when we came across ‘Visalam heritage hotel’. It was a heritage property and expensive on our budget, but it was assurance that there was some place we could fall back to in the worst case of not finding a stay for the night. Having some relief, we decided to walk further down the street in our quest for both a hotel that would fit our budget or for the palatial mansions that had brought us all the way from Bangalore.

After walking further down the street, my friend and I stopped at the sight in front of us. We were psyched out for a minute when our eyes caught a never-ending stretch of road flanked by the Palatial- country homes on both sides… We were in for an unexpected shock!! We knew there were many large mansions but had never imagined a real street to look just out of a movie setting. The facades of these large villas had fine sculptures of their family deities and the heavy wooden doors at the main entrances were decorated with artistic friezes.

The streets of Kaanaadukathan village

This village in particular did not seem to be very tourist friendly with most of these bungalows being locked up and their owners living elsewhere for various reasons. A few residents, however, have been kind to the keen travelers by permitting entry to their princely manors. Here is a summary of our pursuits of landmarks at Kaanadukathan.

CVRM house: This is one of the very few Chettinad mansions that are open for public viewing that can be visited with a small entry fee. Although, nobody lives in this house now where once lived a large and an affluent family, it is well maintained with some of its antique cupboards, piano, swings etc. kept intact to retain the grandeur of this house. While we were admiring the grand interiors, the caretaker at the mansion recognized that we were lost and offered to accommodate us at her house for the night. Well, meeting such Samaritans needs a separate post.

The CVRM house at Kaanadukathan
The CVRM house at Kaanadukathan

We started early on the following morning to make best use of the time before the sun became fully active. There were (ancient) temple visits in the day’s itinerary and a lot of walking to be done. With our host’s support, we managed to book an auto-rickshaw for the entire day and to take us around places as listed below.

The nine clan temples of Chettinad: Temples of Soorakudi, Kundrakudi Murugan temple, Pillayarpatti Vinayaka temple and Vairavanpatti temples are beautiful structures dating back to the Pandya era. These architectural treasures are a win for history buffs in quest of places least touched by the maddening tourists. If one is a pious traveler, one may also consider visiting the temples at Iraniyur, Tirupattur, Velankudi, Kottaiyur, Kandanur and Mathur. Collectively, these temples represent the family deity of each of the nine major clans inhabiting around the region. After having our lunch served by donors at the Vairavanpatti temple, we headed towards our next destination

Aathangudi Palace: Fondly called as the ‘Periyaveedu’ for being the biggest house in the village, this mansion is aptly named as the Aathangudi palace. The roofs, the floors, the walls- they made our jaws drop in awe at their splendor and grandeur as we stood in the portico at its entrance. Although, we were charged an entry fee, we weren’t allowed to stay inside the mansion beyond 15 minutes by the caretakers. Their behavior towards visitors was somewhat a turn-off as they chased us out with verbal abuses. Forget observing the intricacies of the architecture of such a place, 15 minutes weren’t sufficient to even take a casual walk around the entire house.

Inside the Periyaveedu- The Athangudi Palace
Inside the Periyaveedu- The Athangudi Palace

There was no heed given to requests by our driver even as he tried to convince them in the local language. Pissed off with their attitude, our driver drove us off from there, towards our next destination. Before I continue ranting about our exploration of the region, I pause a bit to talk about my autorickshaw ride: The cranking lever of the vehicle had come off and was kept under our feet (in the rear seat) and the brake pads had worn out till their last dust. That meant, that the vehicle needed to be push started every time we stopped, and the driver had to jump out of the slow-moving rickshaw to stop it every time we wanted to halt. Especially under the blazing sun and some annoying caretakers like the one mentioned above, it is natural to gain a few additional horsepower in our muscles. So, the raging ride from Aathangudi palace until our next stop was quite a thing!

Aathangudi tiles factory & wood art restoration center: This is a place where we met the men who create beauty out of lifeless soil and wood. We observed demonstration of how these GI tagged colorful tiles are created. An art in themselves, apart from adorning all Chettinad mansions, I remember the grandeur of the Mysore and Bangalore palaces whose flooring is made with tiles sourced from Aathangudi.

Making of the Athangudi tiles

Chettinad railway station: This small and least haunted railway station on a typical traveler’s itinerary was included in our list after we had heard that the local Raja had a special waiting room for himself in the railway station. This quick and an exhausting ride ended in disappointment when we reached there. We learnt that the special room is not open to public viewing and will be opened only on special occasions for the members of the Raja’s family.

The entrance to one of the houses at Kaanadukathan

By this time, our tummies were grumbling of hunger. In spite of having been in the land of spices for two days, our taste buds hadn’t savored authentic Chettinad cuisine yet. It was a hard hunt for us to find a good hotel that served us authentic Chettinad food. Our craving gustatory cells were finally satiated with a lip-smacking array of culinary delight at a small hotel that we found on a random lookout. Post lunch, we decided to spend the rest of the day exploring the somnolent streets of Kaanadukathan by foot.

Local weaving centers: We shopped for the Kandangi handloom saris from one of the many local weaving centers.

Chettinad Raja’s palace: The largest mansion in the whole of Chettinad is a sprawling edifice extending over an entire lane on all four sides. And that’s why it is called as the Chettinad palace. We made futile attempts to get a small peek into the interiors of this massive dwelling space that I had seen in some of the movies.

Our walk tour of Kaanadukathan continued until dusk. We clicked some nice photos of this ‘heritage’ village with the perfect lighting by the setting sun. Along with the setting sun, we set ourselves for the return journey. We had to reach Trichy on time to catch our bus back to Bangalore. Thus, concluded a weekend in Chettinad- the land of palatial mansions and piquant cuisine.

Must-dos 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

Chettinad Part 1: Exploring Karaikudi- The Land of Palatial Mansions and Piquant Cuisine

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.

Our Itinerary:

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)

The Details:

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.

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The Inner courtyard of one of the mansions in Devakottai

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.

One of the warehouses at Koviloor

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.

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The Mansion filled streets of Devakottai

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.

The making of Athangudi tiles

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.

Click here to continue reading Part 2.

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