Some 100 kilometers from the ancient city of Madurai lived Nagarathar, otherwise know to be the Nattukottai Chettiar. They were a mercantile community close to the Kings and the Royals, their men traveled far and wide and came home with a lot of wealth. They were a opulent caste who had a very peculiar lifestyle, cuisine and architecture. Today Chettinad stands a mute witness to the kind of wealth the group of villages once had. Chettinad has a charm and it is that charm than attracts us to visit Chettinad when ever we do conduct familiarization trip, as tour operators operating tours to Chettinad and South India, once of the consistent things we need to do it to update our knowledge about each and every destination.
I had this chance to travel through the Chettinad region and when you pass by each village, you start to see a lot of large beautiful mansions, most of them locked and run down, almost giving you a haunted feeling. It is all about the past glory of the Chettiars of Chettinad.
Chettinad chicken curry was what I knew all this while about Chettinad. During one of our trips to Chettinad, it was Mr Chandra Mouli of Chettinad Mansion, who explained to us about Chettiars and who they were. He is a Chettiar himself, and treated us with great hospitality and also hosted us with a Chettinad lunch at his mansion. He is a living encyclopedia of Chettinad, sharing with us a lot of stories about Chettinad, its people and their overseas ventures and adventures. “Chettinad Mansion” was the first to start entertaining guests, offering an experience of the Chettiar lifestyle.
Nattukottai Chettiars is a business community hailing from Chettinad, spreading over seventy villages. They initially settled in the coastal villages of Nagapattanam (East Coast), when a cyclone brought them catastrophe, the community themselves decided to move away from the shores of the sea. The King of Madurai saw their business acumen and invited them to resettle in his Kingdom. He offered them land and many other grants to attract them to the present day Chettinad.
They were mostly into money lending and other financial businesses. They were not into anything that was perishable. Chettiar men usually moved to foreign lands, and established their business there; they travelled mostly to Far East nations like Burma, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Hong Kong. These peace-loving philanthropists used to build temples, and educational institutions, across their land. Chettiars were as wealthy as Kings, to an extent where they even offered loans to Kings and Kingdoms. They constructed, palace like mansions and stayed together as one joint family. These mansions will amaze us about the kind of wealth, architecture, and lifestyle they processed, having something similar to like those today would cost you a fortune.
One such Mansion is the "Chidambara Vilas", renovated and converted into a 25 room Hotel managed by the Sangam group of hotels. A beautiful mansion built some hundred and ten years back for approximately seven lakhs Indian Rupee (7,00,000). In comparison, during the same period, the Mullaperiyar dam in Kerala was built by the British for forty lakhs Indian Rupees (40,00,000). The wealth of Chettiars was something more than what we could imagine. The "Chidambara Vilas" is an architectural grandeur, considering the year it was built, it almost equals to a palace. The wooden pillars were brought from Yangon (Burma), mirrors from Belgium and the tiles from Italy. The paintings were done with natural dyes, and there are a lot of artistic designer paintings inside the house.
At Kanadukathan, you can find “Visalam”, an eighty-five-year-old mansion which was a wedding gift from a father to his daughter Visalakshi. Today the property is taken over by the CGH Earth experiential hotels, operating with 15 elegant rooms. They conduct a bunch of local activities like early morning cycling programs through the villages, Chettinad Cuisine cooking demonstrations, bullock cart rides, market visits etc.
As the years passed, Chettiars were unable to manage their wealth. New systems and Governments in foreign lands were not favourable to them, which eventually brought many of them back home. Most of them opted to work rather than doing business and travelled to foreign lands for jobs. But these Mansions still exists, most of them locked and reflecting a faint feel, with least maintenance. Today, the stories of these opulent men are folk tales for the people of Chettinad, and one could experience them through the mansion which are converted into hotels.