Architecture of Chettinad, by Anaika Ajay

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The Chettinad region of Tamil Nadu consists of 76 villages and is famous for its cuisine, temples and mansions.These mansions (mainly the ones in Chettinad’s principal town of Karaikuddi) were built between the mid 1800s-1940s (British Raj); Chettiar merchants had set up trading businesses with Burma, Singapore, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and other neighbouring ports, primarily trading salt and spices.A quote from S. Muthiah’s unpublished paper ‘Ghostly memorials to the Chettiar saga’ “Here [in Chettinad] in their heyday, a glorious hundred-year period, they built for their homes fortress-like mansions, the cause for most others calling them Nattukottai (land-fort) Chettiars, and filled them with riches they earned from across the seas.”Baroque style interiors and paintings and intricate wooden and stone detailing adorn each house. Speaking of the “riches they earned from across the seas”- carved teak wood from Burma in the shape of flora and fauna, sometimes large murals of Ramayana, ceramic tiles from Japan and China, mirror and stained glass from Belgium, pillars made up of stone from Italy, metal girders from England, were all a staple in most of these mansions.The architecture of a typical mansion usually includes a front entrance, facade, front porches, and one or two central courtyards with rooms around it.The first central courtyard is where family events and weddings are celebrated even to this day. In order, the second courtyard comprises of the dining hall, and women’s quarters. (Back in the day, women were “not allowed” to enter the first courtyard [especially when workers were building artefacts and furniture for the house in the first courtyard.])The third courtyard consists of the kitchen, servants quarters and the cowshed. All the doors in the house are aligned in a straight line. Rainwater that falls in the courtyard, flows through covered channels that are connected to one in the sheets, from which it is transferred to a tank on the outskirts of the village. These were then transported to Chettiars’ houses in copper pots on carts when water was needed. Large terraces and balconies allowed enough natural light to brighten every room during the day.Several merchants fled once they realized that they could not maintain these enormous houses that required a great deal of effort and money. They packed all their things, sold the rest to antiquaries and left to settle abroad in places like Malaysia and England, leaving just the shell of their homes to caretakers who pay little to no rent to maintain them in exchange for living there.Now, just over a hundred years later, these huge houses still stand, but as abandoned, weathered skeletons in this ghost town. There is an overwhelming sense of absence that looms over this town, but its magnificent architecture makes you forget how quiet the nights get. These small towns are popular amongst tourists from neighbouring cities and places overseas such as Europe. Some of the mansions have been converted into quaint homestays; a safe haven for writers and artists alike to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life and just take in the artistry of the mansions and vast scenery. Blog and photos by Anaika Ajay+2

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