The stately homes of South India
Deep in the belly of South India's Tamil Nadu lies Chettinad -- a diamond-shaped network of 75 villages -- each with a name more lyrical, more unpronounceable than the next. When I set out to explore this area all I knew of the Chettiar merchants who lived here more than 100 years ago was that they were clannish, partial to marrying their first cousins, financially brilliant and gastronomically unrivalled. I also knew that in their heyday they had built elephantine mansions in the villages of their birth, which still stood in varying stages of dilapidation and glory.
It was the mansions I'd come to see and Tiruchirappalli, or Trichy, was going to be my gateway to the 1,000 sq km, lacy intrigue of Chettinad. The route I followed -- through a landscape of endless scrub and bush, hungry red earth, meagre Palmyra and sudden oases of white-headed sugar cane -- was one that many a Chettiar must have taken before. Not much has changed here over the years.
Sure, there are a few highways that link up the many skinny village roads but 1970s film posters still adorn the walls of mud-baked houses, goats and peacocks wander the fields, women carry water pots in the curves of their hips and the sun is still hot enough to bake tiles in. As you go deeper and deeper south, you may wonder, as I did, how the Chettiars ever thought to leave these quiet undulations to make their fortunes across the seas all those years ago. How could they even imagine places such as Burma, Ceylon, Malaya, when they were so far inland?
But travel and trade are exactly what the chettiars were masters of. In the 18th century they worked as chandlers, salt merchants and gem dealers, lived abroad for long stretches of time and made huge wads of cash that they repatriated to build their gargantuan houses. No matter how long or far a Chettiar travelled, the idea of returning home was always foremost in his mind.
Ultimately, the idea of "home" was not just a nostalgic yearning for his native village, it was rooted in the glorious physicality of a brick, wood and tile structure that could serve as a unifying point for the entire family and demonstrate their wealth and power in the larger community.
Exploring houses in Chettinad is a bit like doing the church circuit in Italy -- once you've seen one, you've pretty much seen them all. But nothing really prepares you for the first sight of them. There are no serpentine driveways, sentries or placards so these mansions spring from isolation without warning. No wonder the locals used to call them Nattukottai Chettiars -- literally, those who live in country forts -- because this is how their houses were built: tall, inward-looking, imposing; palaces in barren lands.
The particular wonder of Chettiar construction lies in the geometry of their design. From the outside they are foreboding, with ornately carved Burmese teak doors and raised formal marble platforms for guests. Once you cross the threshold, though, they open and open and open, into courtyard upon courtyard, rectangle upon rectangle of perfect light. Village after village choked full of these perfect rectangular lines; courtyards, pillared corridors, sloping red-tiled roofs, mansions cramming up the streets, side by side and back to back, in Venthanpatti, Devakottai, Karaikudi, Nachiyapuram, Kanadukathan, Amaravathi, Chokkalingaputthur -- the names go on and on.
Most of the really frenetic Chettiar mansion building took place from the 1860s to the 1920s when the Chettiars were appointed official moneylenders of the British Empire and their fortunes were running high. In a bid to further ingratiate themselves with their rulers, I suspect, or because they had an incredible love of the kitsch, they incorporated several western elements into their traditional house plans. Clearly, no one in Chettinad was concerned with going slightly over the top because stupendous juxtapositions and pointless ornamentation abound here: Belgian chandeliers, Italian marble, Victorian-style furniture, turrets, guardhouses, gargoyles, carvings, balustrades, friezes, stone sculptures, Madras plastered walls and Athingudi tiles. In their Zeitgeistian enthusiasm for fusion, they even had stucco embellishments of King Edward VII cavorting with bare-breasted apsaras alongside the goddess Lakshmi and her celestial elephants.
But the courtyards are the real jewels in Chettiar architecture. They seem to absorb every excess of the Chettinad home and bring it down to earth. Built in direct contrast to the fortress-like quality of the outside, the inside opens up to all the elements of nature -- sky, heat, rain -- and its openness ensures not only constant circulation of air but an easy exit for any evil spirit that may be lurking. The first courtyard, or the valavu, of the Chettiar household is the place where all jubilant announcements are made and celebrated: marriages, births, pujas -- with the sun as an eternal witness. The fourth and last courtyard, where the kitchens are located and the mistress of the house used to preside, is so cleverly built as to have a bird's-eye view of all the activities of the house.
The other distinctive feature of the Chettinad home is its separation of public and private spaces. Each house was huge enough for an extended family of 70-80 people to live in, yet there were clearly demarcated areas for women, men, children, guests, accountants, cows and servants. With their obvious love of hierarchy, they even managed to incorporate individual family areas within a communal house. Each household (son and his family) was called a shareholder and was in charge of their own separate kitchen; income was not pooled and expenses were not shared among the households. A daughter, from the day of her birth, had one room assigned for her dowry. It stored all kinds of treasures, such as grinding stones, brooms, stoves, vessels, fans and even scooters.
Many of these rooms, and indeed the houses themselves, are now dusty and locked, with only a single caretaker to look after them. After the second world war the Chettiars were forced to move to cities and recast themselves as pharmaceutical giants and business tycoons, which they did successfully. While Chettiars still make that long trip home for important family functions, the reasons for returning are fewer and fewer and consequently most of the houses are falling to ruin. Only 5.0-10 per cent of them are still maintained.
There is an old Tamil proverb that says that a village without a temple is not a village at all. By that same token, houses without people are mere museums of memories.
To wander into a Chettiar house now is to wear the mantle of the intruder. Nostalgia lurks round ever corner. What unsettled me most were the black and white photographs of the ancestors who peered from the walls; clean-shaven dark men in English suits and black leather shoes casually relaxed against chairs, their wives in frilly blouses and saris and heavy gold jewellery. Somehow, with their freshly anointed tikkas they seemed to dominate the houses still.
Before leaving Chettinad I met a Chettiar friend in her uncle's empty mansion in Pallathur. We sat on the veranda drinking coffee while the mosquitoes drew blood with all their monsoonal vengeance. In the overwhelming stillness of that village night, I understood something of why in the midst of such remoteness it was important for the Chettiars to keep their legendary wealth in the confines of their own community; why it was so important to build these wonderful houses in the first place.
It gave me a sense of sitting in another time, another age, different and unconnected to where I was going.
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A good base from which to explore the Chettinad region is Karaikudi and especially the Bangala hotel (tel: +91 44-2493 4851; www.thebanga(a.com), which can organise trips to see the mansions. The town is also an ideal stopover on the route from Thanjavur and Madurai (on the Temple trail) to Rameswaram