chettinad: opulent mansions and spicy chicken in sleepy villages

India is full of surprises. Do you agree?

There are the usual suspects in India’s travel mix: Temples, forts, palaces, beaches, the Himalayas, and wildlife reserves. Throw in some yummy food, colourful festivals and yoga, and one may well be duped into believing—India, aah! Been there, done that.

Then, almost out of the blue, is a collection of around 75 sleepy villages in southern Tamil Nadu filled with uber-rich villagers’ mansions dating from the 1850s to 1940. Often filled with a hundred-odd rooms, they span across two streets in the neat grid plans which swathe the villages.

On their walls are massive mahogany framed mirrors all the way from Belgium while the floors are decorated with dainty English ceramic tiles spangled with roses, hand-made Athangudi tiles and Italian marble. Smooth Burmese teak pillars hold up ceilings from which enormous sparkling Venetian Murano glass chandeliers dangle.

I say ‘almost’ out of the blue, because the presence of these mansions is not random, even if they seem to be so. They belong to a rural community of zamindars or landowners called Nattukottai Chettiars who climbed the socio-economic ladder over the centuries and ended up as seasoned international billionaire mercantile bankers and traders under regional kings and the British Raj. Nattukottai, by the way, means country-fort, a reference to their grand fortified houses in the countryside.

Business and financial acumen came naturally to the Chettiars. As they travelled across south-east Asia and Europe, and made more and more money, they invested in family homes back in their villages and called the region Chettinad. However, things change. World War II took place. Countries became independent. Geo-political equations altered. And, thus, for the Chettiars, an era came to an end.

Some decided to stay on in their ancestral homes irrespective of the costs incurred in maintenance. These descendants have opened their houses to the likes of us at a minimal fee. The families, now living in Chennai or scattered across the country and globe, still gather together in them for weddings and festivals. Others have converted their homes into plush hotels. Whilst most, are just simply crumbling away. Tentatively listed on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list, there are over 10,000 mansions still standing; way less than the original number.

It took me two hours from Madurai, on a glorious Spring day this March, to reach the principal village of Chettinad: Kanadukathan.

A village with hardly a soul and remnants of the over-the-top, incongruously wealthy lifestyle of the Chettiars. I managed to visit quite a few houses, purely by trial and error and poking my way around. It soon dawned on me that they all followed the same architectural plan. The only difference being the level of maintenance and quality of embellishments.

Every home had a string of courtyards lined up in an exact straight line, surrounded by residential and store rooms, with a showpiece ceremonial hall in the front and a rudimentary kitchen at the back. Rain water harvesting ensured the large families were never short of water for bathing and cooking. A mixture of egg white and lime gave the walls that extra sparkling sheen. A porch topped with Vaishnavite deities guarded the entrance.

But, as I soon found out, Chettinad was not just rows upon rows of colossal historical mansions. There was more. Quite a bit more.

No trip to this triangular patch under the sun is complete without a visit to a workshop which keeps the traditional craft of Athangudi tile-making, using glass and local sand, still relevant and alive. And then there is the abhishek ceremony in the evening at Pillaiyarpatti Temple [one of the nine clan temples] dedicated to Ganesh which is guaranteed to give you goose bumps. It is one of the most dramatic and magical Hindu religious ceremonies I have ever attended in my travels.

Last, and not least, a meal of spicy, aromatic Chettinad chicken and steamed rice is mandatory when in Chettinad. It will have you gulping down your drink and licking your fingers, both at the same time.

But, first things first, let me take you on a virtual tour of Chettinad’s fantastical heritage homes. Come along with me.


I came upon this absolute gem purely by chance. On seeing a door slightly ajar, I called out if I could have a quick dekko. The caretaker ushered me inside and what a delightful place it turned out to be. Built in 1870, the V.VR. House is one of the oldest mansions in Chettinad. Left: Egg-plastered walls; Right: That’s me in the central courtyard.


Left: Intricately carved Burmese teak wood carvings on the columns at V.VR. House; Right: View of V.VR. House from the mansion next door.


S.A.S.RM. House, next to V.VR. House, was my second stop. Descendants of the S.A.S. family still live here. In Chettinad architecture, the upper storey, as a rule, contains the bedrooms. Rooms in the ground floor, lined around the courtyard, serve as storage and living quarters.


That’s the lady of the house and fifth-generation heiress of S.A.S.RM. House.


A little further down and across the road is C.V.RM. Heritage House, Kanadukathan’s most famous heritage house.


Lord Rama, his wife Sita, brother Laxman, and commander of the monkey army, Hanuman from the epic Ramayana grace the facade of its porch.


Ever seen a room more photogenic? Known as the thinnai or outdoor veranda, guests were received here.


Left: The safe; Right: C.V.RM. Venkatachalam Chettiar built his opulent mansion more than a 100 years ago. He owned three rice mills and used to be a money-lender in Burma. His grandson now lives in the house.


View from the rooftop. That, by the way, is the neighbour’s house. 😀


Raja Palace in the heart of the town. Not that the residents of this palatial abode ever ruled Chettinad. Just that they were so darned wealthy they were called Raja sahib by everyone.

It’s a twin house for two brothers, one of which was the founder of Indian Bank and maternal grandfather of the former Finance Minister of India, P. Chidambaram. The families only visit on key occasions. Rest of the time, a bevy of servants keep the place in immaculate condition. Note: Entry is prohibited, unless you have connections.


Close to Raja Palace is this lovely crumbling edifice. Notice the pair of lions and goddess Lakshmi on the facade.


Chettinadu Mansion is another one of those I just stumbled upon, this time as I followed a brightly painted bullock cart. Built in 1902, it prides itself on being ‘the oldest unaltered heritage resort in Chettinad’.


A sixth generation grand-daughter has painstakingly preserved the family heirlooms, photographs, and architecture of the hotel.


Looks familiar? If you’ve ever seen pictures of the Chettinad palaces, they most likely were of this one: Athangudi Palace in Athangudi village, 8 kilometres away from Kanadukathan.

Chequered Athangudi floor tiles, an exquisitely carved and painted wooden ceiling, and ethereal frescoes made it a popular choice for film shoots. Though the film angle, I was told, was now a thing of the past.


The magnificent mansion is maintained by the family [who still live in the right wing], and dates back to the early-20th Century.


Loveliness overloaded. Left: British sepoys on white horses flank the stucco sculpture of Lakshmi at the entrance; Right: A pair of tiled graceful peacocks further enhance the already striking courtyard.


Mrs. & Mr. The original owners of Athangudi Palace.


Most Chettinad mansions, as mentioned above in the post, have colourful handmade Athangudi tiles on their floors: a 100-year-old indigenous craft in which dyed local sand is poured into a glass-backed mould …


… to give this result! If you would like to buy these tiles or know more about them, do have a look here

I hope you enjoyed the above virtual tour. To come back to the claim, “what is Chettinad without its aromatic delish food,” I would like to share a recipe of the mouth-watering Chettinad chicken, a recipe that I personally am fond of, by chef Varun Inamdar.

Wishing you happy travels and meals, on the road less travelled, soon. ❤

– – –
Travel tips:

  • Chettinad is 90 kilometres, a 2-hour drive, from Madurai. I explored the area as a day excursion from Madurai.
  • Entry fee: Rs. 50 per person for each heritage house.
  • Getting there: I hired a car with a driver from RBC Travels Madurai. Super professional and helpful, with great vehicles at competitive rates.
  • Eating: I had the Chettinad chicken and steamed rice at Sree Narayanaa Coffee House on Raja Sir Street. Delicious and easy on the pocket.

[Note: This blog post is part of a series from my solo and independent travel to the temple towns of Tamil Nadu over 7 days in the first week of March 2020. To read more posts on Tamil Nadu, click here.]

38 thoughts on “chettinad: opulent mansions and spicy chicken in sleepy villages

      • Rama, I have explored TN when I was a kid. I have been planning on traveling deeper into TN and Karnataka but it somehow doesn’t work out. I tried a failed attempt last summer. So I guess I will have to be content with your posts.😊

        Liked by 1 person

        • Glad my posts are coming in handy. 🙂 The south is incredibly beautiful. And so different from the north. I bet when you went as a kid, it must have been less crowded and more laid back than it is now. Apart from that, I doubt much has changed.

          Like

  1. We also visited Chettinadu when we were in Tamil Nadu. We were budget travelers and this was our treat to stay in a gorgeous mansion for a couple of days. It was in or near Kadiapatti. What a strange experience to walk through the small town with dozens of these mansions, most in disrepair.

    Liked by 3 people

    • True. It would be a wonder if they even survive this current decade. There is so much that can be done though. Promoting the region in the more touristy places such as Madurai and Thanjavur. Having heritage trails. Hosting special events celebrating Chettiar history and heritage. Unfortunately, it is not in yours or my hands. The least, I feel we, as travel bloggers, can do is write about it and make it more accessible through travel tips. Chettinad’s stately homes are way too beautiful to be lost to the vagaries of time.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Rama I simply love this post.

    Chettinad is one place that is on my list and your photos and info is pushing it further up the list. I love these mansions ……. wouldn’t mind living in one or maybe I have lived in one in some lifetime hahahahhaha.

    Chettinad chicken is one dish I really enjoy with coriander rice.

    The handmade Athangudi tiles are simply out of the world. They add so much colour and style to these mansions.

    Did you stay in any of these or just did a day trip?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hello Shivanjali, lucky you to be living in such an incredibly fascinating place! Yes, I am very much from India. I moved back to India in 2011 and currently live in Mumbai. Thank you for stopping by and your warm invitation. Stay safe, stay healthy. 🙂

      Like

  3. It’s amazing to see this place.. Its been my long term wish to reach there and to taste authentic chettinad food.The artistic luxury of chettinad mansions fascinating me a lot. I wish to construct a sweet home in chettinad style. Your blog kindled my wish again. Thanks for lot of information.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hello Mitty, welcome to my blog. What a wonderful idea to build a house in the Chettinad style! I hope you get to do it and I also hope you get to travel to the region in person, soon, once this pandemic is over, and have their yummy food. Thank you for stopping by and commenting. Keep well. 🙂

      Like

  4. Beautiful post, I hope I’m able to visit places like this once I move back to India! Seeing the various architectural innovations you captured here got me thinking about how this tradition will continue on in the future.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hello Kiran, thank you for sharing your thoughts. Large chunks of Chettinad are deteriorating and unless some serious efforts are made to conserve the region as a whole, it may well all crumble away except for a handful of mansions as stark reminders of what could have been saved.

      I read your blog this morning. I especially liked the post on the mediating mind and the way you explained it with diagrams. Keep writing. 😊

      Like

  5. Pingback: palaces of madurai and thanjavur | rama arya's blog

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