History of the Nattukottai Chettiars

On June 29, 2017

Many historical myths, legends, folklores and events have been lost in the Indian history due to improper recordings, thereby creating confusions and doubts. However, as far the Nattukottai Chettiars or the Nattukottai Nagarathars are concerned, there is still enough evidence available to trace back their history to the times of the Chola rule in the second century AD, in present-day Tamil Nadu.

History of the Nattukottai Chettiars

Among the Chettiars of Chettinad, the Nattukottai Chettiars are considered to be of the elite class. They are a community well-known for their cultural heritage and philanthropy. Aside from building Shiva and Murugan temples wherever they went, they were also involved in building schools and universities. Their community is known for honesty and integrity as well as for their hard-working nature. They were also wealthy merchants that began their business with salt trading before moving on to gems and finally using their wealth to become moneylenders and financiers by early nineteenth century.

Respected by the kings and Britishers’ alike for their success in business and respectful law-abiding nature, they travelled with the Chola fleets and set up bases in the South-east Asian countries. When the Britishers took over Myanmar in 1826, these Chettiars with their unbeatable financial acumen, moved in as money-lenders. Their travels lead to their settling down in countries that included Ceylon, Burma, Singapore, Malaysia, Java, Sumatra and Vietnam. They built their temples and spread Hinduism wherever they went.

In Sanskrit, the word ‘shresthi’ means ‘leader of a merchant guild’ and it is believed that the word Chettiar is derived from this. Their cultured and honest nature won them the honour of crowning every new Chola king, a tradition that continued till the 13nth century when a rogue Chola king abducted one of their women. The Chettiars give a lot of importance to their women’s chastity and when this happened, all the Chettiar women, along with their female children committed mass suicide in protest. This again led to their migration to the land of the Pandya kings where they are settled today in 74 villages instead of an earlier 96.

The Chettinad region is located in semi-arid the south-east part of Tamil Nadu, about 35km away from the coast, in the Sivagangai district. They have well-planned towns, with defined road networks, marketplaces, temples, water reservoirs, etc. But due to the lack of rain, people have been moving out in search of better living.

During the early British regime, the Chettiars were known as the ‘Merchant bankers of the country’ who lent money at nominal interest rates. They were the first to help in setting up a bank in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). They were also the first to introduce the concepts of debit, credit, profit, loss and expenditure, which they collectively referred to as ‘trial balance’.

But after suffering a series of losses, they decided to start afresh and began as ‘middle-men’ to the British rulers. Their heydeys continued till the early 20th century, but the global depression of the 20’s and 30’s led to the decline and loss of their fortunes. This led to many of the Nattukottai Chettiars looking towards the education sector for inspiration. But their indomitable spirit hasn’t given up and many great companies and institutions are still run by them.