In the arid heart of Tamil Nadu, Chettinad's architecture, cuisine, and culture are legend, making the region South India's best kept secret.
The Chettiar community comprises of 76 villages. Originally hereditary mercantile bankers, until the 17th c. their ventures led them as far away as Calcutta and Banaras. In the 18-19th c., following the expansion of the British Empire to Burma, Malaysia, Singapore, and Ceylon, they became extremely successful due to their keen business acumen. Over these years they amassed huge fortunes which they sent home to Chettinad. This funded the building of palatial homes on an astonishing size, scale and architecture, not seen anywhere else.
Essentially banks and homes rolled into one, the Chettinad mansion stands out for its large spaces in halls and courtyards, and ornate embellishments like Belgian glasswork, intricate woodwork in Burmese teak, spectacular ceramic tiles, and stone, iron and wooden pillars. Together, these create an amalgam of traditional Indian architecture and various European styles. Many exteriors sport plaster British sepoys as a nod to the colonials who enabled Chettiar success.
Traditionally, several family units lived under one roof -- or rather, within several interlinked courtyards. The men congregated in outer courtyards and women in inner ones. The kitchen and staff quarters were at the back. The Chettiars discovered early on that a large household yielded economies of scale. As one host said, "We are wealthy not because we make more. It's because we spend less."
A look around a Chettinad mansion initially belies that statement. Lavish use of Burmese teak, local Athangudi tiles, and egg white-washed walls made these mansions beautiful. But their durability was more important. Most mansions are at least a couple of centuries old and still standing with minimal repair. In a dry land, unique rainwater harvesting systems were perfected. To the economical Chettiar sensibility, the houses were good value for money.
A defining feature is the building's long rectangular imprint with no outer windows and all doors linking courtyards lined up front to back. The reason was security. After all, these mansions were primarily banks.
The other requirement is numerous halls and courtyards that could accommodate guests at marriages and other ceremonies. Even though many Chettiars have locked up and moved away, they open up the ancestral home for family weddings. Relatives and friends congregate from far and wide, and the feasting lasts several days.
They say one is lucky to eat like a Chettiar. The cuisine utilises pepper, and not chilli, making it spicy but not hot. Its secret is the instinctive hand of the "Achi" (aunt) dumping a handful of this and a pinch of that, leading the tastebuds on a journey of intrigue and delight. A start with the freshest produce and daily roast- and ground-spices is a must.
A Chettiar cooks uses grinding stones to pulverize regional spices, deploying them in masalas for dishes like a sinus-clearing black-pepper chicken, sour-scented tamarind crab curry, king prawns flavoured with spring onions, and, in a nod to the nursery palates of British memory, Raj-era dishes like mint-and-potato croquettes. Meals are usually taken communally at a teak dining hall and eaten from banana-leaf with one's hands.
A central theme of Chettinad culture is worship and every Chettinad village has at least one temple that host various festivals throughout the year. At homes, decorative rice flour kolam is drawn every dawn on the cleansed threshold of the house. Auspicious occasions like birth and marriage call for elaborate patterns.
Marriage is the grandest celebration in a Chettiar family. The bride's trousseau is legendary and famous for the sheer number of items in all forms of gold, silver and steel. Moving into a new house and attaining sixty years of age are also celebrated with much pomp.
Participation in these lifecycle rituals is almost mandatory for all family members and even the not so near and dear ones. It is the glue that holds the family together and tight-knit families are the glue that hold Chettiar communities together. While many Chettiars have crossed oceans to continue seeking out fortunes home is where the heart is. And the heart, for many, is still in Chettinad as they cling to the vestiges of a slowly vanishing traditionalism.
Sources: The Bangla Heritage Experience; Meena Suppiah
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