Where is Chettinadu? I am frequently asked.
Locate Karaikudi (district Thanjavur) on a map of Tamil Nadu. It is the area around it. 72 villages. Karaikkudi & Puddukottai being the large towns.
First impressions always count. Driving in, the countryside looks green & prosperous. This being the rice bowl that produces lentils too. It is the aesthetics however that catch the eye. Most homes have brick tiled roofs & hand made ceramic- pottery of exquisite shape & design still in use.
Karaikudi’s antique market at Muneeswaran Kovil has 17 shops stocked with a variety of interesting bric-a-brac. Cultural & household items of everyday use down the ages. One needn’t buy anything. One is not expected to either. Just scour around happily and enjoy it all.
The region is well known for cotton handloom. The ‘Kaandaangi’ sari its specialty – A checked weave in earthy colours, the border & pallu have traditional design.
More than anything else it is the food – the spicy/tangy, lip smacking cuisine now popular all over India. I had the most delectable chicken kurma – ragi roti combo. It was out of the world. Also because the chicken was not a broiler.
Most people come here for its heritage architecture. A mercantile & trading community, the Chettiars earned large sums & built stately mansions, decorated with the best from around the world. Unlike royal palaces built with public funds elsewhere, these were built with the owners own hard earned money.
Kanadukathan, a picturesque village on the outskirts of Karaikkudi, has ‘Annamall’ a Chettinad palace that you can admire from the outside. There are others one can enter paying a small fee. ‘Aayiram Jannal Veedu,’ the house with a thousand windows. Or ‘Periya Veedu’ on a one acre plot. It has a hundred rooms.
Village Athangudi had several. Also a factory making hand made tiles with local material – cement, sand & glass.
Built on several acres, nobody today lives in these mansions. They are empty palaces showcasing opulence of a rare kind: Belgian glass chandeliers, Carara marble, ivory & teak from Burma, Japanese & Portuguese tiles.
Not only are the Chettiars ultra rich, they are also great philanthropists. It was therefore heart breaking to find a wretchedly poor family where a twelve year old dropped out of school to take care of a bed ridden mother. Her 15 year old sister – the sole bread earner.