Exploring the land of palatial mansions and piquant cuisine- Chettinad

Educated, affluent, entrepreneurial are some characteristics that describe the native community of Chettinad- the Chettiars. The region comprises of 73 villages and spans over 2 districts of Shivagangai and Pudukottai.. Given only a weekend’s time in hand- we had to make an itinerary and list down the villages to cover. But one thing was clear, this time the stay would not be pre-booked and we would look out for some generous localite to offer us a patch of floor space to lay our sleeping bags- In one of the mansions if we get lucky 😉 Our backpacking trip started at the end of an overnight bus journey to Karaikudi. The hotel staff obliged by charging only half the price when we informed them that we will be checking out after freshening up. The day started on a high with a delicious south-Indian breakfast with aromatic ghee roast masala dosa and idiappams served with coconut milk sweetened to perfection. A piping hot cuppa filter coffee topped it up.

We worked out the mode of our commutation with a very friendly waiter at the hotel and figured out that hiring an auto was the best way if we had to get to the remote villages and unexplored lanes of Chettinad. The local bus or even a self-driven car wouldn’t be of much help as it needed someone familiar with the streets to wade through and the summer would just add up to our woes. We struck a good deal with an auto guy who would show us around and help us do a bit of mansion hopping. As per plan of visiting all temples ASAP(as they would all close by 11.00.a.m.) we were firstly ferried to Ariyakudi Perumal temple whose history mentions it as an alternative Tirupathi. Unfortunately, when we arrived- the temple remained shut due to the demise of the priest that morning. After spending sometime photographing random things around the temple, we headed to- ‘Ayiram jannal or the mansion with a 1000 windows’. We were disappointed for not being allowed inside as the people still live in this house. Our stint with Karaikudi somehow did not seem to have started well… Then was our road to Devakottai. It was a bumpy auto ride with the stiff tarmac withered off at several places with lot of dust entering our ears, eyes and nose. Enroute, we visited the Meenakshi-Sundareshwara temple where the assembly of 108 idols of lord Ganesha was the highlight. He is seen in rare avatars and seated on vahanas that are usually considered as the others’.

Up next, we stopped at the Koviloor Shiva temple. A beautiful little temple set in a very pleasant location and surrounded with mansions got us busy clicking photos. Excitement was at its peak when our entry into the first stately house happened. It was a strong structure built of granite blocks facing the temple. One part of it has been converted into a museum of antiques that were used by the Chettiars, one part has been converted to a government office while another part is used by some self-help groups for basket weaving, coconut de-husking etc. A few localites had gathered for the afternoon prayers in the two temples housed inside the mansion -one dedicated to Shiva & Parvathi each which had served as personal prayer rooms for the family in the yester years., We envied the people who lived there a century ago thinking of how peacefully they could decorate their own temple with flowers and lamps and celebrate the festivals without the interference of random people in their way of offering prayers. We weren’t keen on visiting the Kamban Manimandapam & Kaviarasu Kannadasan Mani Mandapam (memorials built for the famous Tamil poets) and hence gave it a miss.

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The Mansion filled streets of Devakottai

After a short ride, we stopped at Nagara Shivan temple where a sumptuous lunch was served that kept us full for the rest of the day. Our driver was very accommodative and knew what exactly we were interested in and stopped at several mansions letting us admire and awe at the vast and artistic dwelling places. He even spoke to a dozen of house owners to permit us inside their houses as this would help our studies (We never mentioned we were architecture students though!!) A couple of mansion owners were kind enough to entertain strangers like us to have a look at their magnificent mansions. There was one such incident where the proud caretakers gave us a guided tour of the entire house and we were even greeted by a colony of bats flying past our heads when one of the most unused parts of that mansion was opened. We climbed up the guano filled wooden stairs leading to an attic where hundreds of bats roosted. We ducked down as we further walked across a wooden bridge opening out into the terrace to be treated with an amazing view of the overstretching lanes of Devakottai filled with mansions. While we were permitted inside a couple more mansions, we got shooed away at the gate by several others. A short ride away on our way back to Karaikudi, we stopped at the 2 acres wide pond of the Kandadevi temple- the largest in Chettinad. Our driver showed us the Alagappa University & the Annavar memorial before he dropped us at the bus stand to board our bus to our next destination.

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The Inner courtyard of one of the mansions in Devakottai

The bus snaked through the narrow lanes and we craned our necks out of the window to stare at a few bungalows along the road at Pallathur before we finally alighted at ‘THE’ destination of our tour- Kaanadukathan. Although we had listed down the must-see things, we felt clueless on how to start. The place looked like any other village in India and we wondered where had all the stately houses that we had come all the way for gone. We followed our instinct and decided to walk till that road’s end to find some hotel for our night’s stay. We heaved a sigh of relief when we came across ‘Visalam heritage hotel’ cuz we at least got to know where to head in the worst case for the night. After walking further down the street, we were psyched out for a minute when our eyes caught the ‘Sight of the day’!! An ever ending stretch of road flanked by the Palatial- country homes on both side… We surely were in for a treated-Shock!! AMAZING!! The facades of these villas had fine sculptures of their family deities and the heavy wooden doors at the main entrances were decorated with artistic friezes. This village in particular is not very tourist friendly and most of the original owners have locked the huge bungalows are living elsewhere for various reasons. A few residents have however been kind to the keen travelers by permitting entry to their princely manors. One such place is the CVRM house… Well maintained antique cupboards, piano, swings etc. are kept to retain the grandeur of this house where once lived a large and an affluent family. While we were still admiring the grand interiors, what happened next was something beyond imagination for us. A lady had noticed the uncertainty in our faces while Madhu and I were discussing about our stay and asked us where we were put up. When we told her that we were looking for a place, she instantaneously offered us to stay at her place if we did not mind. Of course, it is quite ghastly to think about staying at a stranger’s house in the years where we hear of unhappy events, but there was some innocence in her personality that really did not bother us to doubt. We both nodded a yes in unison. A short stroll by the road’s end and a large gate opened into a typical Chettiar house. Very small compared to the mansions that have mesmerized us all day, but it was a home to people with really BIG hearts. We were served multi-grain-homemade-delicious-malt on our arrival and a nice dinner after we had freshened up… This greeting itself will take up an entire post if I had to write about it… The narrow colonnade verandah opened into a central courtyard that opened into the sky. We were engulfed by a sleep filled with solace right there on the ground with just a humble mat beneath and a glitzy starry night’s sky that stayed clear all through… A stay that was only a dream come true..!!

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The CVRM house

We started early in the morning cuz we had to do the temples and the walking before the sun showed up with his ruthlessness. We took a rickshaw and we visited Soorakudi, Kundrakudi Murugan temple, Pillayarpatti Vinayaka temple and Vairavanpatti temples. These are beautiful temples from the Pandyan era that are a win for history buffs in quest of places least touched by the maddening tourists. A pious traveler may also consider visiting Iraniyur, Tirupattur, Velankudi, Kottaiyur, Kandanur, Mathur temples covering all the 9 clan temples around the region. After having lunch served by donors at Vairavanpatti, we headed towards Athangudi. We visited the ‘Periyaveedu’, a house named aptly -the Athangudi palace. The roofs, the floors, the walls- they make your jaws drop in awe at their splendor and grandeur. Although, we were charged an entry fee, we weren’t allowed to stay there beyond 15minutes by the caretakers. COME-ON… you really need time to observe the details and intricacies of such a place. We somehow managed to pull off about half-an-hour but their attitude pissed us off… Our driver drove us off from there to our next destination. Sorry, I forgot to mention- The cranking lever of the auto-rickshaw had come off and was kept under our feet and the brake pads had worn out till their last dust. That meant, we had to push start the auto each time we stopped and the driver had to jump out of the slow moving rickshaw each time to stop it. Especially under the blazing sun and some annoying caretakers like the one mentioned above, you get a few additional horsepower to move your vehicle 😛

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The finally decorated central courtyard of the Aathangudi palace

That said, we visited Aathangudi palace tiles factory & wood art restoration centre where we met the men who create beauty out of lifeless soil and wood. It was a hard hunt for us to find a good hotel that served us authentic Chettinad food that our gustatory cells were craving for which was finally satiated with a lip-smacking array of culinary delight. A quick trip to the Chettinad railway station proved to be more of a pain than of fun when at the end of an exhausting ride, we got to know that the special waiting room will be opened only on special occasions for the members of the Raja’s family.

We got dropped back as we decided to spend the rest of the day exploring the somnolent streets of Kaanadukathan by foot. We shopped for the Kandangi handloom saris from one of the local weaving centres. We then walked across to be awestruck by the largest mansion I have ever seen- the Chettinad Raja’s palace, a sprawling edifice extending over an entire lane on all four sides. After trying our luck, we got saddened by the fact that we couldn’t gain entry into this palace that is still being resided at. Our adventure continued until dusk and when the light was perfect for some nice photos of this ‘heritage’ village. Along with the setting sun, we set ourselves for the return journey. We had to reach Trichy on time to catch our bus back to Bangalore..

To sum-up, the trip has taught us a BIG lesson. All who live in a mansion ain’t rich, All the rich are not humble, to be humble, you need no qualification.

Must-do:

  • Take a walk in the Muneeshwaran Koil street or the antique market in Karaikudi
  • Shop for a colourful palm basket- The local handicraft that has gained a GI tag
  • Treat your palette with Chettinad cuisine (I definitely mean Non-Veg)
  • Take a bicycle / walk tour around the streets of Kaanadukathan

This post has been featured on BlogAdda’s ‘Spicy Saturday’s Picks’ column.

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