Chettinad – A Paradise of South Indian Artefacts

Temples and heritage buildings are certainly part of the itinerary of any Chettinad traveller. Ever wondered what other things make the region special? There is a bewildering array of art and craft forms in the district of Tamil Nadu for the curious eye to see. The Chettiars were and still are people with unique cultural interests that are reflected in their art and architecture. The people of Chettinad have migrated abroad and brought in valuable insights into how the various arts can be developed.

Their art is symbolic of this cultural exchange.

The assortment of artefacts from the Nagarathars, which are connected to trade, travel, temples, tradition and taste are not just relics of a glorious past. They are still being developed and popularized by the Chettiars. This mercantile community has run business ventures in India and South East Asia over two centuries. The fact that the artefacts are still thriving in Chettinad is testament of the patronage of the people of Chettinad to art and crafts.

The artefacts of Chettinad fall into the following craft clusters:

  • Ariyakudi (Brass, Bronze and White metal)

  • Athangudi (Handmade floor tiles)

  • Karaikudi (Wood)

  • Senjai (Chettinad cotton)

There are also craft clusters that use stone, silver and gold such as the ones produced in Karaikudi, Kandanur and Devakottai. There were many sculptors and stone workers who settled in Eluvankottai near Devakottai a couple of centuries ago and have been building many stone sculptures there ever since.

The classification of the various artefacts of Chettinad is not difficult since they are based on some medium which are easily recognizable. As mentioned before, there are artefacts made of wood and metal in addition to clay and fabric. They can be classified according to usage as well. The following are some examples of kitchen artefacts of Chettinad:

  • Aruvalmanai (Vegetable Cutter)

  • Thengai Thirugi (Coconut Grater)

  • Agappai Koodu (Spoon Holder)

  • Appalakattai (Papad Maker)

  • Uppu Jadi (Salt Container)

  • Anjarai Petty (Spice Box)

There are lamps, metal stool, birds and animal figures used for puja (worship) such as Kavadi Kattai and Vibhuty box. The major writing aids used by the Chettiars are ink pot, pen stand and book holder. The kids used to play with toys such as the push cart, Marapachi doll, Choppu or miniature kitchen vessels etc.

As you can see when you visit Chidambara Vilas hotel, there are many authentic Chettinad furniture pieces such as Kanakapillai Mesai or accountant’s table, Mukkali or three-legged stool, Galla Petty or cash box and Marappetti or Wooden Chest.

The following are elaborate descriptions of some of these artefacts:

Brass and Bronze Items

Within and around the region of Chettinad, there are many brass vessels, lamps and ritual items made in the local production centres. There are also brass and bronze items brought from various parts of Tamil Nadu and beyond. The designs depict the flora and fauna of the region in addition to other geometrical and abstract designs. These are not only about ritualistic practices but also about embellishments and themes. These brass artefacts are symbols of ornamentation. The craftsmen of Chettinad do the surface embellishment of brass and bronze items with figures of flowers, birds, animals etc. with great expertise. The subjects covered in bird and animal craft in Chettinad include parrot, peacock, swan, deer, elephant and the like.

Handmade Tiles

The Poo Kallu or Flower Stone is a tile making art specific to Chettinad. These tiles are produced manually in Athangudi. The process was introduced in the region about 80 years ago and have been in great demand among architects ever since. The materials required for producing these tiles are:

  • Brass mould

  • Oxides of various colours

  • Fine sand

  • Portland cement

  • Fine sheet of glass

  • Water tank

It is surprising that this marvellous piece of art can be produced from such simple materials.

Palm Leaf Kottans

This craft originally started as a favourite pastime and expression of creativity of the ladies of Chettinad. Kottan is the Tamil word for basket and Chettinad is famous for producing very beautiful baskets using palm leaves. In addition to Kottans, the artists also make purses and bags. These artefacts are comprised of intricate knots with square and diamond patterns featuring pleasing colour combinations. The baskets may not be made exclusively with just palm leaves. Some are hybrid with palm leaves, cotton cloth and beads. Glittering effects are created by placing colour foils between the weaves.

The tool used in the process of making Kottans is called Sathagam and is made of iron sheet, brass and ivory. The palm leaves used for this comes from Ramnad. The biggest advantage of these items is that they are eco-friendly and can be a great replacement for plastics.

Chettinad Cotton Sarees

No description of Chettinad is complete without mentioning the Chettinad Cotton Saris. These sarees have the distinguishing feature of a heavy look with striking colours. This is achieved through very deft combinations of checks, stripes and colour contrasts. The heaviness comes from the facts that the saree was worn in a much different way in the olden times than today. The modern version of the sari does maintain rudiments of the original design creating the heavy look. The base fabric materials used in this saree are silk and cotton. The huge borders called Kandanghi are merged with trendy colourful designs and embroidery.

These and other art forms make Chettinad a very special place to be. Tourists visiting the place should allocate some time to explore the region and see the various art and craft practices, still preserved in their original form. Chidambara Vilas offers many external activities for its visitors and if you are interested, you can take a tour to the various places where the above mentioned artefacts are produced.