The Chettiar house was representative of the power and social standing of the merchant. As a result the house was influenced by luxurious products and design concepts from the multitude of western and Asian cultures that the Chettiars were exposed to during their travels. The most iconic feature of Chettinad homes is the sheer scale of luxury and the mix of such a wide variety of aesthetic influences which come together to form one amalgamous and unique form of architecture.
Chettinad houses boast of Italian tiles, Belgium glass, Rosewood carvings, Art Deco influences, Anglo-Indian cutlery, Victorian furniture, Burma teak, imported chandeliers, intricately carved iron grills, Gothic domes and arches.
Exclusive local elements
The house also featured distinctive local elements like painting, woodwork and tiles. Athangudi tiles or Chettinad tiles are sought after even today for luxury homes. These tiles were made by master craftsmen by hand and available in many colors. The painting of the house was done with a special mix that is unique to the region and had a recipe that involved eggs. The plaster is renowned for its quality and long lasting nature.
Ancient science of vaasthu
The ancient Indian science of Vaasthu was strictly adhered to in Chettinad houses. Vaasthu is similar to Feng Shui and has a similar following in the sub continent. Chettinad houses are looked upon as authentic examples of strict compliance with the rules of Vaasthu. Ventilation and lighting are given priority through the open areas within the house that led to the rooms. The region is known for its hot climate and the inner walls of the house were kept cool by protecting them from direct exposure to the sun.
The exterior of the house was grand and opulent and designed to impress the visitor. The use of organic paint of various colors adds to the unique style of Chettinad opulence. This grandeur carried over to the semipublic areas of the house where the guests were entertained. Ornate carvings lined key exterior spaces. The architecture imbibes a western sense of scale with large windows, arches and tall ceilings, while merging that with a more intimate and personal traditional Indian style.
A palace of a house
A Chettinad ‘house’ is probably a palace elsewhere and is an understatement for these structures built over an area of 20,000 to 40,000 square feet. The entire extended family of the merchant used to stay together in these houses. Legend goes that they Chettiars built their homes on an upraised platform and added a second level to the homes to protect themselves in the event of a flood, even though they were now a long way away from the sea. This outlook was due to the devastation suffered to their native place which was destroyed by the sea.
Evolution and characteristics
Over the turn of the 19th century the Chettinad house had evolved to a large format multi courtyard structure with many traditional rooms for different functions like the Mugappu, Valavu, Visiri, Bomma Kottagai and more. A trademark feature involved doors lined up in a straight line from the entrance to the back of the house. The house often extended over the entire breadth of the street. Characteristic elements of the home included the multiple courtyards, the raised platforms on the corners, the inner walls, and the rooms.