Chettinad’s Bounty of Arts and Crafts

On April 19, 2017

The Chettiars of Tamil Nadu, also known as the Nagarathars had a special knack of turning everything they touched into gold; their business acumen was visible even as far back as the 17nth century when they became established salt traders while they were settled along the eastern coast of India. Due to some catastrophic events, the Chettiars moved inland and received a parcel of nine villages from the Pandya King to settle down in.

These expanded to 96 settlements as the Chettiars travelled far and wide in their business ventures, but of recent these settlements have been reduced to 78 villages and towns in the Sivaganga district, with the area being known as Chettinad. It’s about 100km away from the temple city of Madurai and about 400km from the capital city of Chennai.

The Chettiars are a mercantile community with a rich cultural heritage and famous for their philanthropic works; they have built temples and schools all over the triangle patch of land that they inhabited as well as in the countries where they traded. With all the wealth that they accumulated, they built huge extravagant mansions which they filled with magnificent fixtures from all over the world. Their wealth provided them with the privilege of being connoisseurs of arts and crafts and they decorated their homes with all manners of objects of beauty. Sadly with the deterioration of most of these mansions, majority of these objects D’art are now finding their way into the antique shops of Karaikudi and surrounding villages.

Their love for arts and crafts can be seen reflected in the architecture of their houses, the elaborate carvings on their massive wooden front doors as well as the unique plastering of their walls with an egg white mix that lent a gleaming sheen to their homes, which is still evident today. Their women indulged in chunky intricately designed jewellery which often depicted various gods and goddesses.

The Chettiars are particularly famous for their contribution of the beautifully designed handmade clay tiles known as Athangudi tiles and the hand-woven Chettinad saris with their unique designs of checks and stripes in deep earthy colors. In the earlier days, only vegetable dyes were used for coloring, but times have changed now. Other crafts special to this region are their ‘ariyakudi’ or metal works; they make intricately designed brass, bronze and silver artifacts that you would love to take back as a souvenir with you! A stroll down the streets might reward you with the sight of craftsmen working at these trades and you might even get them to design something especially for you!

You can fly into Madurai which is 100km away and hire a car for the last leg to Karaikudi or you could go the cheaper way with railway or road travel.