The History of Chettinad Architecture

On June 29, 2017

The architecture of a region is directly linked to the culture of its people as well as the climatic conditions and natural resources. The Chettinad region of Tamil Nadu covers an area of about 1,550 sq km that is semi-arid in nature and home to about 74 villages that currently comprise the diminishing Chettiar community.

Chettinad Architecture History

Life in this community is very laid back and relaxed. In fact, you might even be forgiven for thinking you have landed in a deserted town! The area is an amazing mix of beautifully renovated mansions standing majestically next to crumbling ones; narrow dusty streets bordered by lush green vegetation; a population that gets active in the mornings and evenings, but disappears during the scorching hot hours. Something about these variances captures the imagination and makes you want to explore more.

This community is famous for two things…..their palatial homes and their mouth-watering cuisine. As far as their homes go, this community of former bankers, traders and merchants built homes to showcase their wealth. The richer the Nagarathar Chettiar, the more ornate and luxurious his home! These people made their money during their trading days with the south-east Asian countries; their business also introduced them to the good things in life which they brought back with them and included into the exotic houses they built. It is no surprise at all to find teak wood from Burma, crystals from Europe, marble from Italy, painted tiles from Holland, wall-to-wall mirrors from Belgium along with splendid chandeliers inside their palatial mansions.

These 19nth century mansions, though very lavishly decorated with ornate finishings, had very practical architectural designs suitable to the climate as well as the large families they housed. Chettinad homes are a testimony to the successful joint families that existed in the yesteryears. The basic floor plan consisted of an outside verandah with a room for receiving visitors and conducting business at one or both ends of the house; these usually abutted onto the streets. The verandahs opened into large spacious halls or inner courtyards through intricately carved wooden doors. The houses were designed longitudinally with one splendid courtyard opening into another, such that the backdoor could even be seen from the front courtyard! These central courtyards were great for hosting guests during weddings and other ceremonies and were surrounded by classy wooden pillars with granite bases.

The rear courtyards were the woman’s domains were they prepared meals, socialised and reared their young ones. A verandah encircled the courtyards and doors leading to spacious double rooms opened off them, leading to the private quarters of each family. Some doors opened to storage rooms and prayer rooms too. Though the ground floor architecture is typically Tamil, the upper floors have outside influences with cornices and double balustrades. Being located in a semi-arid area, the tiled roofs were designed with rain harvesting in mind and these led through a network of channels into the village pond. The designs were so well-planned that the interiors of these houses were always cool even during the hottest hours and natural light was available for maximal time possible.

Sadly, these architectural designs have become a thing of the past now and no longer being implemented.