Chettinad’s Palaces in View

T. S. Subramanium,in Frontline, 7 December 2018, with photos by Velankanni Raj …. where the title runs “The Palaces of Chettinad”

The palatial decorated homes of Chettiars in the Chettinad region of Tamil Nadu are symbols of a colonial-era architectural heritage marked by opulence. The stately mansions of Nattukottai Chettiars of the Chettinad region in Tamil Nadu are a statement of the affluence the mercantile community enjoyed at the height of its prosperity during the British Raj. The palatial houses, with the built-up area measuring anywhere between 20,000 square feet (1,858 sq. metres) and 70,000 sq. ft (6,503 sq. m), were mostly built in the period between the early 1800s and the 1940s. The Chettiars had set up flourishing trading and business enterprises in Burma (now Myanmar), Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia (including Java and Sumatra), Vietnam, Mauritius and the Philippines.

       At the Chettinad palace, a large patio with “thinnais”

There are thousands of mansions in the 76 villages in the Chettinad region, which straddles the arid Pudukkottai and Sivaganga districts (15 villages in Pudukkottai and the rest in Sivaganga). Karaikudi, an educational centre, forms the Chettinad heartland. The Chettiars of these villages are affliated to nine clan temples located at Ilayatrangudi, Iluppakudi, Iraniyur, Mathur, Nemam, Pillaiyarpatti, Surakudi, Vairavanpatti and Velankudi.

  A view of the rooftop of the Chidambara Vilas mansion at Kadiapatti in Pudukkottai district. Dome-shaped towers, pedestal urns and other decorations give the architecture a majestic look.

This writer and the photographer accompanying him stood outside a mansion at Keezhasevalpatti village stunned by its sheer magnificence, the flawless alignment of the buildings, and the craftsmanship that has withstood the vagaries of time. The mansion’s imposing facade is embellished with stucco figurines, murals, ornamental balustrades, cornices and domed towers. In the centre are tall stucco figurines of Gajalakshmi (the goddess of wealth) depcited standing on a lotus, flanked by elephants pouring water from pots held in their trunks, and women chamara-bearers. Above the Gajalakshmi statue are flying angels with garlands in their hands. Gajalakshmi is the leitmotif of the facades of all the mansions. The accompanying figurines vary.

The high-ceilinged central courtyard of the Lakshmi Vilas mansion at Athangudi in Pudukkottai district of Tamil Nadu. The tiles on the ceiling and floor are from Athangudi itself. The Chettinad region comprises 76 villages in Pudukkottai and Sivaganga districts and has thousands of mansions with a massive built-up area.

For sheer profusion, nothing can beat the Chidambara Vilas mansion at Kadiapatti. Kadiapatti has incredibly massive residential houses. S. Muthiah, who has written several books on the history of Madras, says in an unpublished paper titled “Ghostly memorials to the Chettiar saga”: “Here [in Chettinad], in their heydey, 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.”

Karu. Rajendran, an authority on the history of Pudukkottai and Sivaganga districts, said: “Every Chettinad house will feature a thalai vasal [the front entrance], mugappu [facade], the front porches, or thinnais in Tamil, and the central courtyard called valavu with a series of rooms around it. All these form the mudhal kattu, the first quadrangle. It is in the central courtyard that Chettiars even today celebrate family weddings and functions. The irandam kattu [second quadrangle] has a dining hall and women’s quarters around a courtyard. There is finally a pin kattu, or rear quadrangle, which includes the kitchen, servants’ quarters and a cowshed.

  Wooden and stone pillars in the porch of the Chidambara Vilas mansion

Typically, each house occupies the entire area between two parallel streets separated by a distance of 50 metres to 100 m. A feature of these houses is that “all the doors are aligned in a straight line”, says Rajendran. An important feature is the superb water management system. Rainwater falling in the open courtyard flows through covered channels to a channel on the street, from where it is conveyed through a network of channels to the oorani, or tank, on the outskirts of the village.The water stored in the tank used to be transported in copper pots on carts to Chettiar homes. The local maistry (supervisor of construction labour) designed and built these houses. Only a handful of houses employed qualified architects.Wood carvings on a door panel

In his book The Discovery of India, Jawaharlal Nehru says: “The Chettys of Madras have also been leaders in business, and banking especially, from ancient times. The word ‘Chetty’ is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Shreshthi’, the leader of a merchant guild. The common appellation ‘Seth’ is also derived from Shreshthi. The Madras Chettys have not only played an important part in south India, but they spread out all over Burma, even in the remote villages.”

According to R. Poongunram, retired Assistant Director, Tamil Nadu State Archaeology Department, Nattukottai Chettiars originally belonged to Kancheepuram in Thondaimandalam region but migrated to Poompuhar (in Nagapattinam district), which was a port town on the east coast of the then Chola empire. At Poompuhar, they flourished as merchants and traders, with several of them becomingmasaathuvans (big merchants). Poompuhar was destroyed in a tsunami in the fourth or fifth century C.E. The Silappadhikaram, the Tamil epic composed circa fifth century C.E., refers to Nagara nambiyar—Nagaram meaning town and nambiyar meaning youth. Poongunram said hence the term Nagarathar, referring to Nattukottai Chettiars. After Poompuhar was washed away, the Chettiars migrated to the region wedged between the south Vellar and Vaigai rivers, that is, between the Chola and Pandya kingdoms.

  1. Rajagopal, retired Senior Epigraphist, Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department, said records relating to the names of deities in some of the nine clan temples established the relationship between Nattukottai Chettiars and medieval merchant guilds. The names of these deities, which are references to trade guilds, include Jayankonda Cholisvarar, Desinathar, Iynootrisvarar and Pattinaswamigal. In a paper presented at the French Institute of Pondicherry, Rajagopal said Nattukottai Chettiars were salt traders in the 17th century. By the 18th century, some individuals had extended their business operations to cover pearl, rice, cloth and arrack trade in Ceylon, and rice and wheat trade in Calcutta (now Kolkata).

“As in the case of other mercantile groups, trade was inseparable from moneylending and other credit-extending operations.,” Rajagopalan said. From the early 1800s, they imported goods from South-East Asian countries to sell them in India, and with the opening of the Suez canal in 1869, they imported goods from European countries as well, he added.

Records reveal that the Nagarathars went to Kandy in Ceylon in 1805; Singapore and Penang in 1824; Molmein and Rangoon, both in Burma, in 1852 and 1854 respectively; and Matale in Ceylon in 1885. They traded in rice, wheat, pulses, millets and minor millets in Burma, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Ceylon and Vietnam. They lent money for rice cultivation in the fertile Irrawaddy delta region of Burma. In this way, 90 per cent of the land there was brought under cultivation, making Burma the rice bowl of Asia. They brought vast quantities of timber from Burma to India. But their merchant business came to an end at the end of the Second World War when these countries gained independence from their British, French or Dutch rulers.

Wondrous architecture

Our first glimpse of the wondrous architecture was at Athangudi, where stands Lakshmi Vilas, popularly known as periya veedu (big house). Its large compound wall is topped with grille work and the entrance gate has a canopy. In a rectangular niche below the canopy is a stucco figure of Gajalakshmi. There are also winged angels holding garlands. At extreme left is Krishna, with a flute in his right hand and a cow behind him. At extreme right, as a contradistinction, Krishna is shown playing the flute. There is another Gajalakshmi stucco work on top of the frontispiece emerging from the facade. On either side of the panel stands a sepoy armed with a musket fitted with a bayonet.

Inside there are spacious thinnais , paved with Italian marble tiles, on either side of the main doorway. A series of pillars, carved out of Burma teak line the thinnais’ edge and support the wooden roof. The wooden jambs of the main doorway are carved into a series of pleats. The two main doors are embedded with Belgium mirrors and tile work. Above the door is a panel of intricate wood carvings of scenes from the Ramayana.

The central courtyard is stunning in its dimensions and ornamentation. Its floor and the verandah running around it are paved with Italian marble. On the wall is a big Belgium mirror covered with a curtain. Above the mirror is a painting of two women chatting. The verandahs are embellished with polished stone pillars with wooden sculptures of yalis as capital. These pillars support the corridors of the storey above. The corridors, in turn, have ornamental balustrades and a series of twin stone pillars topped with arches. Above the arches are big windows that let in the sunlight. The vast ceiling is painted with floral patterns. At the centre of the ceiling are carvings, painted in golden colour, portraying episodes from the life of Krishna. In an adjoining hall are murals depicting scenes from a Vaishnavaite saint’s life.

Splendorous balconies

Konapet in Pudukkottai district has 70 huge houses. “At least eight of these houses are noted for their balconies,” said 78-year-old M.R. Narayanan, a long-time resident of Konapet. The balconies have marvellous ornamentation and embellishments. In one house, the balcony is supported by an ornamented cup-like structure, which in turn is supported by yalis. The balcony has ornamental pillars, arched windows with exquisite grille work and a dome on top. Above the dome are friezes of what looked like peacocks.

Another house has a balcony with pillars topped with arches and a dome above and supported by a petalled formation. This balcony is flanked by deep niches in which sepoys are depicted with their left arms akimbo. In yet another house, an elephant’s trunk supports the balcony. A yali with a protruding tongue is seated on the elephant. Above the balcony, there is a frieze decorated with a white man and woman.

Narayanan’s grandfather, who was a businessman in Malaysia and Singapore, built the house 150 years ago. It has some exquisite woodwork and murals. The main doors have circular, rotatable wooden contraptions in floral designs. Above the windows on the thinnaiwalls are murals depicting Krishna’s childhood. Murals on the ceilings of other houses in Konapet show Saraswati playing the veena, Gajalakshmi, and so on. The house had a water-harvesting system. “The channels are clogged up now and so water does not reach theooranis,” he said.

The Frontline team was turned away from every house at Nemathanpatti and Pallathur, but at Kanadukathan N.V.R. Nagappan, 80, welcomed it with open arms. It was twilight when we reached his palatial “V.VR. House” (V.VR. stands for Vellaiyan Chettiar and Veerappan Chettiar), built by his grandfather 182 years ago. “Chettinad has excellent town planning. Our houses are situated in a single alignment,” he said.

Another mansion of the family, NARS Villa”, is an art deco house with French design. Built in 1934, it was the first house in the region to use reinforced cement concrete, he said.

Also at Kanadukathan is the famed Chettinad Palace that Rajah Sir Annamalai Chettiar built in the first decade of the 1900s. Designed by an architect from Madras, it has a built-up area of 87,120 sq. ft. M.A.M. Annamalai Muthiah, a scion of the Chettinad family, allowed the Frontline team to visit portions of the palace. The main doorway leads to a spacious hall, which is filled with memorabilia of Annamalai Chettiar’s son M.A. Muthiah Chettiar and Muthiah Chettiar’s son M.A.M. Ramaswamy. The open central courtyard has a grandeur of its own. Beyond the central courtyard are other open courtyards with numerous rooms. At the end is a big kitchen. The mansions at Kadiapatti perhaps have the most magnificent facades. Bernard Dragon and Michel Adment, write in the book The Chettinad Trail in Tamil Nadu: “Kadiapatti has very unique, large and magnificent mansions embellished with a vast number of architectural features such as towers, domes, arches, cornices, parapets, balcony, important porches, terracotta figures, balustrades and pedestal urns.”

One of them, Chidambara Vilas, is now a heritage hotel. Its owner, T.S. Krishnappa Chettiar, built it over a period of seven years, from 1900 to 1907. He had made his money selling textiles (mostly lungis) and lending money in Penang in Malaysia, Rangoon in Burma, and in Singapore. The mansion consists of a mugappu (outer thinnai), a central open courtyard and rooms around it; a visiri, orpunkah hall; a big hall called “bommai koodam” for displaying the Chettiar’s collection of stucco figurines, murals and pencil sketches; a dining hall; a kitchen; and a room for storing grains (kalanjia kattu).

The porch gives an indication of the grandeur within. Besides being paved with Italian marble, it is flanked by rooms that are for the accountants (Kanakku Pillai). The main doorway, made of rosewood, has miniature carvings of scenes from Hindu mythology. The visirihall was the place where the Chettiar and his family members took rest while punkah-pullers fanned them.

At Kothamangalam, there are three identical-looking houses in a row, each measuring more than 70,000 sq. ft. “What is also special about the three houses is that their first floor is a replica of the ground floor,” said 70-year-old Muthu, who resided in one of the houses and was employed in Indian Overseas Bank. Muthu’s father, Rm. Lakshmanan, and his relatives built the three houses. Lakshmanan used to trade in paddy at Endatta and Neiphon in Burma. The mansion in which Muthu lives with his 88-year-old mother, Meenakshi Achi, is named S.S. Rm. House. It took five years, from 1922 to 1927, to build.

Muthiah says in his unpublished paper: “It was in Chettinad… that the wealth earned in the lands across the seas was transformed into a more permanent form. Homes were built, and as wealth increased, they became mansions…. Teak from Burma, satinwood from Ceylon, marble from Italy, granite that could be polished to gleam, and a gleaming mirror finish on the walls and floor, the last Chettinad speciality, using a mixture of lime, powdered seashells and eggshells, egg-white and myrobalan nut, ground to paste on the walls or floor, were all combined with local building and crafts skills to build ‘forts’ that were palaces and which still draw admiring gasps no matter what their condition be. Talking in numbers, one of the oldest and the best houses of the early heyday of the Chettiars has 300 tonnes of carved teak and 100 tonnes of satinwood pillars in it; its great doorway to enter the festival hall had the antique dealers bidding a million rupees for it on behalf of the American collectors. Indeed, the homes of Chettiars are what make it necessary today for the entire area to be given the protected heritage status.”

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