Architectural Features of Chettinad Houses

On May 16, 2017

In the heart of Tamil Nadu, a southern state of India, there exists a semi-arid area of about 1,550 sq Km that is known as the Chettinad region. It is currently occupied by about 110,000 Chettiars spread out over two towns and 73 villages. These Chettiars belong to a wealthy clan of traders and financiers who amassed their wealth by taking their trade to Southeast Asia during the 19nth century.

As a result of their travels, the community integrated the luxuries of the foreign lands they visited, with the traditional local culture, creating a unique blend that is special to this community. It is reflected in their house constructions as well as town planning of their houses contained in rectangular plots along a longitudinal axis to the orthogonal street layouts. The houses had their front doors on one street and their backdoors on a parallel running street. Their villages also had sophisticated water harvesting systems since those days of yore. The roofs of their homes were designed to collect waters which then drained into local village ponds through a network of channels, and used for drinking, bathing and agriculture. Each village had at least three ponds for these purposes.

The unique architectural design of these Chettinad houses is what sets them apart. They were usually built on palatial scales to show off the richness of the owner and consisted of a series of central courtyards. The materials and expertise to build these palatial homes were brought from all over the world and created an eye-catching glorious mix of the east and west. The elaborately carved front door usually opened onto a central courtyard, which progressively opened into more courtyards that finally ended on the backdoor; so standing at the front door, you could actually visualize the backdoor through these series of diminishing courtyards. The courtyards were surrounded by verandahs on all sides that opened out into cool spacious rooms and occupied by a large extended family; usually, there were at least three generations existing under one roof at any given time!

These large airy courtyards were used as socializing points for festivals, weddings, births or funeral get-together occasions. The courtyards were supported by intricately carved pillars usually made of Burmese teak and were a sight to behold. They also had a wonderful way of painting their walls with a mix of egg white, shell powder and limestone that lent a unique shimmering finish to the walls that can even be seen today after more than a century. It also helped in keeping the house cool, aside from the design of the house itself contributing to a comfortable temperature within its interiors.

Though the architectural design of the ground floor is typically Tamil, the upper floors have western influences, with cornices, multi-level balustrades, double columns, parapets, etc. Though most of the houses were built in the early 1900s, most of them are in a sad state of disrepair now. With the loss of business after the independence of Burma and Malaysia, most of the Chettiars suffered economic hardships and moved to the cities to look for jobs. With no one to take care of their luxurious mansions, most are falling into ruins.