08th October to 09th October, 2016.
Driving down from Puducherry, we headed for the land of Nattukottai Chettiars, Karaikudi. The drive took us through the red flat lands of interior Tamilnadu.
While we were a bit sad to leave the coastal route, the destination rewarded us richly. We spent most of our time here looking at jaw dropping houses. Calling these structures houses is an insult to them, and to the tiny flats of Mumbai. On average, these structures have around 20 bed rooms or so, around a central courtyard. The kitchen at the end can comfortably fit three typical one bedroom flats of Mumbai. But it is not the size of these structures that awes you, it is their sheer opulence. For example, most houses have elaborate gateways at their entrance. These wooded structures are carved to the teeth and often covered in silver. The walls are covered in murals, and Belgian mirrors adorn any empty space on the walls. Ceilings covered in art hold up antique chandeliers.
But with all this opulence and beauty, this region is now a collection of ghost towns. Most of these giant palaces have one or two people (usually octogenarians) living in them. Many others have a family of caretakers who live in one of the many rooms, while other structures are uninhabited, to be opened only for special family functions. The community as such is wealthy, and have little need to derive an income from these homes.
However, a few heritage tourism operations have started up in recent times, and Chettinad is slowly staring to see an inflow of tourists. While any house in this region is an impressive sight, we strongly recommend taking a look around Kanadukathan village for some truly impressive structures. One such house is the “Vazhamarathu veedu” with its wooden door frames filled with carvings from mythology. Another nearby house in the same village has opened half the living space to visitors. The terrace of this house offers a bird’s eye view of the region. .
The “Chettinad Palace” in Kanadukathan is no longer open to visitors, but a walk around this building is worth the effort. Similarly, the “Periya veedu” in Athangudi is worth a visit. Unlike the houses at Kanadukathan, this house (which is still very much inhabited) has more western influence, with Belgian mirrors, stained glass work, high ceilings, and arches. The Chettiars were world travelers, and each house is filled with treasures and ideas they collected from different parts of the world.
However, these houses are not the only legacy this region has to offer. The village of Athangudi, for example, is also famous for the unique Athangudi tiles. These hand made and colorful floor tiles have a glass like finish. It is said that the process cannot be replicated elsewhere, as the unique soil of the region is necessary for the tiles’ characteristic shine. The process of making these tiles have not changed over the last century. The tiles that were made nearly a century ago can still be seen in some of the old houses, and they are still pretty, sturdy, and attractive.
The village of Kanadukathan hides another attraction in one of its many lanes. There are weavers in this village who still use traditional pit looms (kuzhithari) to weave intricate Chettinad cotton sarees. We stopped at “Mahalakshmi Weavers” to take a look. As it was Navarathri time, the looms were not being operated. However, Mahalakshmi, the lead weaver’s daughter after whom this establishment is named, explained the weaving process to us. This small establishment supplies sarees to many celebrities and politicians, and their pictures adorn the walls. This center does everything from spinning yarn to coloring the thread to weaving. We left this place with a few colorful Chettinad sarees.
Any write up about Karaikudi is incomplete without mentioning the famous Chettinad cuisine. We strongly recommend any small eatery or road side stalls in this region. These local places serve meals with flavorful chicken, crab, fish and mutton curry, and can give any big hotel a run for their money.
From Chettinad we are off to Rameswaram to explore the best beaches on the east coast.