Chettiar Mansions of Tamil Nadu
On June 29, 2017
The Chettiars refers to the ancient Nattukottai Chettiars of the state of Tamil Nadu who formed a formidably rich community during the nineteenth century and their mansions stand testimony to their wealth even today. The Chettinad region where they were settled comprised of 96 settlements, out of which only 73 villages and two towns exist today, covering an area of roughly 1,550 sq km.
The Chettiars made their money primarily as international traders and later on from banking and finance. They were the pioneers of modern banking system in India and were at the peak of their economic power during the nineteenth and early twentieth century and were essential to the South Indian economy. The wealth they amassed was showcased in the extravagant homes they built and lavishly overflowed with exotic stuff from the countries they visited. You wouldn’t be surprised to find a typical Chettiar mansion boasting of huge Burmese wood pillars, satin wood paneling from Sri Lanka, Marble from Italy and Belgium, elaborate chandeliers and mirrors from Belgium and France, cast iron and steel from England, tiles from Japan and Germany, etc. With their money to back them, they required the best in everything and imported expertise not only from other parts of India, but also from places as far away as Italy.
The Chettinad region consists of about 10,000-15,000 palatial mansions with the international ‘Art Deco’ architectural style, which became unique to this region. But these Chettiars were smart people and since they had settled in a hot semi-arid region, they designed their houses accordingly. Even as far back as the nineteenth century, they had mastered the rules of urban planning and used the north-south/east-west grid pattern that also included rainwater-harvesting facilities. Their villages are patterned on a north-south axis while the houses are aligned east-west. This type of configuration ensured that the series of central courtyards in these homes were always shady, cool and naturally lit.
The materials they used for building their homes were also dependent on the climate and hence they built their homes with thick outer brick walls, lime plastering, and multiple layers of terracotta roof and inner wall tiling; marble and stone floorings worked their own share of magic in keeping these mansions cool throughout the year.
Another unique feature of their homes was the series of central courtyards that ran through the center of the houses; they were designed in such an amazing way that from the front entrance door or first courtyard, you can see straight through to the backdoor through a series of courtyards. These courtyards were used for social events including festivals, births, weddings, etc. The women and children had their own private courtyard towards the back of the house, where multiple generations of the females of the family hobnobbed and worked together. The courtyards had a verandah running round it with doors opening into double rooms for each family, as well as for storage and prayer rooms, etc.
The best way to experience the extravagant lifestyle of these Chettiars would be to spend some time in one of their mansions – try the 108-year-old Chidambara Vilas hotel and you won’t ever forget the awesome experience of magnificent living in these Chettinad mansions!
Getting there is easy with airport access available in nearby Madurai and Trichy. Railway connections would take you straight to Karaikudi town or use the super highways to get to this heritage region.