We start from Ramanathapuram with two items on the agenda. One is in line with the TheBlueDrive charter which is touring Coastal India and the first two places are within its ambit. Chettinad is not exactly a coastal region but we decide to visit it for the importance the place has.
First thing first. We drive to Devipattinam on the coast of what is called the Palk Strait which separates India and Sri Lanka. The only major attraction of Devipattinam is the ‘Navagraha’ Temple which is located in the sea but connected to the mainland. This appears to be a popular religious destination with the pilgrims to Rameswaram making a stopover here. Nothing spectacular. Just a small temple but of ‘Navagrahas’, the nine planets with sun being demoted to the status of a planet and moon promoted.
We are visiting Ammapattinam as it is a coastal place and it also has a lighthouse. This lighthouse is not on the seashore. It must be among those which are furthest away from the sea. I will update later on this. This also appears to be among the tallest lighthouses in India.
Now we turn north-westwards and towards Karaikudi, the heart of Chettinad. The 75 Kms or so give us some idea of the region.
The road has a number of trees cut down to size as they were encroaching on the road.The roadside tree species need to be selected carefully.
As you drive you cannot miss the large number of Tamarind trees in the region. That perhaps explains the presence of quantity of this fruit in the Tamil cuisine and particularly in the Chettinad cuisine. By the time, we reach Karaikudi it is past lunch time and we look for authentic Chettinad restaurants. We are shocked to know that there are not many. We locate one in the old part of the town and they are sold out on most of the non-veg items. We need to make do with whatever is available. We don’t blame them as we are late. The best place in the world for Chettinad food is Chennai, I know it by experience of 38 years.
What do we do in Karaikudi town? Not much and we are already tired driving all the way from Ramanathapuram with two stops in-between. Most of the attractions of Chettinad are around Karaikudi and not in Karaikudi. All the same this is a well-planned town with broad streets. When the future historians find the buried remnants of this place, they will be all praise for it.
The local vegetable market has a rich variety of greens. Fresh and lovely.
We get up early and move on towards the ‘tourist’ places. We start with the temple of Muruganswami at Kundrakudi. Interesting place and temple. One has to climb up the stairs to meet God which I avoid, not on medical but on moral grounds. Having declared myself an atheist, I have no right (or obligation) to exert myself to meet the God. If the God is found by the way I can allow Him to meet me. My wife is very keen to photograph Muruganswami and his abode here. She also needs exercise. I am having other interests. Here we go.
The Muruganswami Temple pictures by Veena Naik:
The interiors. Photography is not prohibited here.
The idea of Mannequins was conceptualized here.
The landscape from the temple.
I am loitering around and find this lovely artwork.
I am not looking for any medicines but I find this Herbal Doctor here offering cure for all diseases, past, present and future. He also displays all the herbs (mostly green in colour) from which he extracts his remedies. I find it very difficult to communicate with him but I manage to gather that he has oils that can be applied to all parts of the body. This fact is communicated to me by gestures made at various parts of the anatomy. My biggest failure is to connect the ‘oils’ extracted to the vegetables displayed.
After this we become more serious and move towards Athangudi. This is the essence of Royal Chettinad, the Heritage place.
Chettinad – Sivagangai-Ramnad-Pudukottai – area of Tamilnadu gave rise to a unparalleled Merchand-Banker class of people. They carved out a niche for themselves, not only in the financial world of South India but also in other countries like Sri Lanka, Burma, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore and others between the 8th and 17th centuries.
As a consequence of their financial acumen the region of some 96 villages became rich as no other part of the country. The palatial houses bear testimony to this part of India’s history and its riches.
Some are maintained well as above and some are not. Most of them charge an entrance fee.
It is worth paying the entrance fee to see the rich interiors. There are two things that will strike you inside these houses- the use of teak and the tiles. Let us look at the teak wood first:
This is a very expensive affair in today’s money. Quite possibly the famous Burma Teak, the best of the Teak . This is explained by the presence of the Merchants/Bankers from this region in Burma under the British regime.
The doors of solid teakwood and the carvings on them are amazing:
Some of these palatial houses have very intricate wooden carvings on the beams and columns which could be subject matter of a detailed study.
Let us have a look at the artwork on the exteriors.
Most of the icons are religious, Lakshmi or Laxmi, the Hindu goddess of Wealth is very prominent everywhere. Given the fact that the Chettiyars were and are rich merchants, this is not surprising. Look at the various depictions of the Goddess in the pictures below at different houses.
Allow me take you back to the interiors of these houses once again to look at another aspect of Chettinad.
Athangudi tiles is obviously a fall out of the construction of the palatial houses. These tiles were once handmade and used a locally available clay. They are still being made. We even met an architect from Bangalore who had come all the way to select tiles for her clients’ new house.
Here is a set of designs which were used. I am sure most Indians have come across these. The images used here are of the actual tiles used in these houses and they are not ‘new’
Would you mind stepping out and have a look at the tiles on the roof, sir?
The roof tiles are very basic. Surprising. I was expecting some of these houses to have the improved Mangalore tiles. May be it was a time mismatch.
Apart from the houses, the cuisine,the tiles this region also honours another Indian tradition. It is the Saree, of course. There is a handloom industry here or perhaps they bring the sarees from Chennai and sell them here. Does not matter.
It is time to leave Chettinad and drive down south towards the Palk Strait again. There is a small fort we need to attend to on the way.
Thirumaiyan Fort. The 1687 fort built by the Raja of Ramnad in the Pudukottai district. A lovely 40 acre complex with confusing gates and temples and narrow streets.
What catches your attention is that the fortress is built on solid granite rocks and has still survived. The foundations need to be investigated.
And here I am wandering in the past, hoping I inherit one of those properties by way of an old will found accidentally in one of those lawyers chambers………………yes. the telephone is ringing. Let me attend to it.
Thanks for reading.
text by Suryakiran Naik
Pictures by Suryakiran Naik & Veena Naik