Until the 1950s, the Chettiars were one of India’s dominant business communities. T E Narasimhan visits their homeland in Tamil Nadu to see what has become of their enormous ancestral mansions.
Umayal is 90 years old, frail but still active and sharp. She lives alone in an enormous old house in the small village of Athangudi in Sivaganga district, Tamil Nadu. She came to the village, and the house, at age 16 after her wedding. Her husband died many years ago, and her sons and grandsons live in Chennai or outside India. “Till 10 years ago,” says Umayal, “at least 30 people lived in this house. Now my children are married and have moved to other cities and countries.” But she does not want to leave the house.
Athangudi is famous for its handmade decorative floor tiles. It was once a matter of pride to use Athangudi tiles in one’s house. Now the village looks deserted. Like Umayal’s mansion, several houses here, each occupying one to five acres of land, are more or less empty.
Welcome to the land of the Chettiars.
Sivaganga district, 500 km from Chennai, is home to the Chettiars, once one of the richest communities in the country. It even had its own banks, like Indian Bank and Indian Overseas Bank.
The early history of the Chettiars is uncertain. According to one story, the Chettiars originally lived on the coast, but moved inland after an ancient tsunami.
The part of Tamil Nadu where they ended up is dry and tough. There the Chettiars lived on local trade and moneylending. According to Kannan, a Chettiar who does movie production and distribution, when his community arrived here it numbered just 140, including 30 women.
Over time the Chettiars grew rich. They built themselves huge, striking mansions. These almost-palaces have pillars, windows and doors made of materials like marble, tile and wood sourced from across the world. Many of the surviivng houses were built in the 18th century, when construction material, decorative items and furnishings were mostly imported from East Asia and Europe.
In Umayal’s house, which is fairly representative, the area between the gate and lobby is called the mogappu, or “entrance”. The main door is a foot thick, with a three-layered teak frame, into which is carved a figure of Lakshmi, goddess of wealth.
The entrance leads to the courtyard, or kalyana kottai. It is lined with carved pillars and the floor is imported marble set with precious stones.
The house has a thinnai, or covered porch. Umayal says that each pillar is the trunk of a single Burmese teak tree. “In those days even ships could not carry these trees,” she says, “so the logs were tied behind and they would float in the water.”
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One of the finest houses in Sivaganga, sprawling over three acres, was built by 74-year-old Nachiappan’s grandfather. Sitting in the thinnai in a dhoti, Nachiappan is negotiating with a television company that wants to rent his mansion as a set for a TV serial, while his assistant shows a foreign tourist some of the house’s 120 rooms (it also has 510 windows and 1,100 electrical points).
Rent from TV and film companies using houses for shooting is a significant source of income in the area, Nachiappan says. And the income is needed. “In 1933 when my grandfather bought this land, it was Rs 52,000. Today just maintaining the house costs Rs 10 lakh every three or four years.”
According to locals, nearly a third of the big Chettinad houses have been demolished. To paint a grill costs Rs 1 lakh, says Nachiappan sadly, in explanation. Maintenance is a Herculean task.
Another Chettiar village in Sivaganga district is Kanadukathan. From this small place come many of the industrialists whose swank offices stud Chennai. In Kanadukathan one walks along lanes flanked by semi-palaces built on 1.5-10 acres of land. Some have as many as 1,000 windows.
The village is on a deserted road 15 km from Karaikudi, Sivaganga’s largest town. There is a small, easy-to-miss signboard that points the way to “Chettinad Village”. Turning in, you are in for a pleasant surprise.
The first house is of M C T M Chettiar, founder of Indian Overseas Bank. His neighbour is M A M Ramasamy Chettiar, whose family started Indian Bank and the Chettinad Group. Their house is called Raja Palace.
Opposite this palace is the bungalow of A C Muthiah of SPIC, the petrochemicals-fertilisers major, and two streets away is the mansion of the family of the $4.5 billion conglomerate, the Murugappa Group.
Kanadukathan was planned as a full-fledged town. As it is a dry area, careful rainwater harvesting measures were built in. There are man-made tanks called oorani, to which rainwater is channelled after being filtered. Even today the locals consume water from these ponds. The town even has a small airstrip.
Facing one oorani is the 110-year-old Chettinad Palace. The oldest surviving building in this style, it was built by Dr Annamalai Chettiyar, founder of Indian Bank and Annamalai University in Chidambaram. Chettiyar owned 90 villages, so he held the honorary title of raja. His territory was the area called Chettinadu, which is about 25 km long and 15 km wide.
The Palace was closed to visitors three years ago. But I am here to cover a visit by Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram to his home district of Sivaganga, and this fact opens doors. I am able to enter the Palace.
As Viji, resident-turned-guide, says, the Chettinad Palace’s architecture is traditional Chettinad. The marble was imported from Italy, chandeliers and teak from Burma, crockery from Indonesia, crystal from Europe and wall-to-wall mirrors from Belgium. The woodwork and stonework is inspired by French and other European examples.
Beyond the big iron gate is a marble-floored waiting area for visitors. One enters the house at the meeting hall, which is decorated with several pairs of tusks; one pair, from South Africa, is over 8 ft long. There are also portraits of family members and a collection of coloured crystal pieces.
The ceiling has artistic patterns in vegetable dye on roofing plates of copper soldered with a particular variety of aluminium. The walls are 1.5-3 ft thick and keep the interiors cool. The bricks are bound together with a mortar of egg white, the extract of an unripened medicinal fruit from the Kadukkai hills, and ground lime.
The hall opens on to the central courtyard, which was used for weddings and religious ceremonies. The pillars around it are of Burma teak. The roof is blood-red tiles on sloping woodwork. A week before my visit, says Viji, Bollywood actress Aishwarya Rai Bachchan was here to shoot an advertisement.
The ladies’ hall has another courtyard, and a dining hall that can accommodate 250 people in the traditional style, seated on the floor.
The third courtyard is ringed by several small rooms, once used to store crockery, food and kitchen stuff. In this courtyard are two kitchens and, at the far end — that is, at a proper distance from the main living rooms but handy for the kitchens — the servants’ quarters.
In this kitchen courtyard, domain of the ladies of the house, large stone hand-grinders are fixed on the verandah. Food is still prepared here in the traditional style, with freshly ground spices. The kitchen has eleven firewood ovens and two teakwood cupboards. Rows of aruamanai, or iron blades, hang below shelves outside the kitchen; they are for cutting vegetables, grating coconut.
In a puja room in the corner, Rani Seethai Achi, Annamalai Chettiyar’s wife, spent most of her time.
Also off this courtyard is a small dining room for private dinners. It has an extendable rosewood table and features photographs and paintings from colonial times. This dining area has its own separate kitchen and a storeroom.
The bedrooms and private living rooms are on the first floor, which is not open to outsiders.
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According to an article in the UK magazine Geographical last year, at their height there were once over 110,000 Chettiars, distributed in 96 villages and towns — and they lived in an estimated 60,000 mansions! By 2004, the same article says, the Chettiar population was about the same, but they lived in 73 villages and just 25,000 mansions. Mansions, it goes on, are being demolished at the rate of 20 per month.
Even as they vanish, the mansions release massive wealth. Their contents, including well over a thousand tonnes of valuable teakwood from each of the larger properties, are sold as antiques in Karaikudi and Chennai.
More than half the Chettiar mansions are gone forever. But in the mid-2000s, local heritage-lovers stepped in. The Revive Chettinad Development Project, for example, convinced Unesco to put Chettinad on its watchlist for the World Monument Fund. Funding is coming in, from the state and Central governments, as well as from France.
It is a short step from “heritage” to tourism. Sivaganga district has no major industries, so tourism is a significant opportunity. Some Chettiar houses have now become hotels. Some are let out for film and TV shoots, for some of the biggest names in filmmaking. Kandukondein Kandukondein, for instance, starring Rai Bachchan, Tabu, Ajith Kumar and Mammootty, and directed by Mani Ratnam, was shot in a Chettiar mansion. For the proud people of Chettinad, the hard work of saving their heritage has begun.
|THE CHETTIAR FORTUNES: FOLLOWING THE BRITISH
|When East India Company arrived in Madras in the 18th century, the British found they needed dependable intermediaries through whom they could deal with the locals. The local rulers recommended the Chettiars.
At first the Chettiars’ role in business was minor. But in 1774, East India Company began to look to Burma, which the British ruled from the 1820s until the mid-20th century. The Chettiars went with them, and in Burma they got into business in a very big way.
So what went wrong? The Chettiars established coconut and rubber plantations throughout South-east Asia, but they also functioned as moneylenders. Thus, when the anti-colonial movements broke out in South-east Asia in the last century, they found themselves unpopular. The growth of economic opportunities in India were also eclipsing the Chettiars’ overseas business.
Ultimately, the British withdrew from Burma. The Chettiars, too, had to leave, and when they did, they left most of their wealth behind — 70 per cent, by some estimates. In India, they had just their mansions and a little capital; they were not able to push their way into the Indian market. Since the midcentury, many Chettiar families have lived by breaking up and selling bits and pieces of their mansions and land.
With education and liberalisation, things are now beginning to change for the Chettiars — but too late for the majority of their fabulous houses.