Friday, 6 June 2014

The Ghost Mansions of Chettinad





Old majestic mansions stand as mute spectators to the happenings over the decades. Well-designed structures with beautifully laid out interiors are locked. Some are lucky to have a caretaker, who lives around the house.  Each home stretches for miles, sometimes filling up the entire street. Walking around one can see facades with deities on their walls while an occasional statue of queen Victoria stands among st the shrubs........


I am sure many of the readers may have never heard of the affluent Chettiyars from Chettinad. Today there are not many Chettiyars in Chettinad, but their homes, 30,000 of them spread over nearly 74 villages stand as a cultural and architectural reminder of a gone by era. While most of them are locked, with only a caretaker to enjoy the splendor, a few palace-like mansions, like Saratha Vilas, have been meticulously restored and opened to tourists from India and abroad.

Kothamangalam is an obscure Tamilnadu village. Here sits a century-old palace with a giant terracotta horse carved by village potters, stands next to the bed as if guarding the guests. A heaving push on the ornate door, carved in teak, leads to the expansive hall. Within the 35,000 square feet of space the mansion occupies, pillars from Burmese teak, mirror and chandeliers from Belgian glass, tiles from Japan and Holland and marble floors from Italy.


Kothamangalam is one of the 75 villages of Chettinad, a region in Tamilnadu which was once home to the affluent Chettiyar community, primarily the Nagarathar, who are elite bankers and merchants. Sometime in the nineteenth century, most members of the community, which had maritime trade relations with South East Asia, migrated overseas to Malaysia, Myanmar, Vietnam and Sri Lanka.

The ancestral property of one of the prominent Chettiyar, Subramanian Chettiyar, who migrated to Malaysia many years ago; Saratha Vilas has been restored and converted into a boutique hotel by French architects Bernard Dragon and Michel Adment who, on their second trip to India in 2003, travelled around Tamilnadu and Pondicherry, and were lured by the majestic mansions of Chettinad and decided to stay here.

Today, Chettinad is in the process of being classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, government of Tamilnadu asked the architects to present Chettinad for inclusion into the World Heritage Tentative List for India.

Chettinad has been included in the Watch List of Most Endangered Sites of the World Monuments Fund, by a New York organization and a campaign to Revive Chettinad Heritage was launched in 2012, in partnership with UNESCO and supported by the Tamilnadu government.

Each home stretches for miles, sometimes filling up the entire street. Walking around one can see facades with deities on their walls while an occasional statue of queen Victoria stands amongst the shrubs. Most of these homes have been rented for Bollywood film shoots, like Virasat and Kollywood films like Aishwarya Rai starred Kandukondein were shot here.

A walk around the village reveals Chettinad as a colourful mosaic of arts, crafts, jewellery, culture, architecture and food. A drive through the villages takes around two hours, which connects you to old temples, markets, handicraft centres, local tile manufacturing units, lush green fields and brimming reservoirs.

Besides, the community and clan temples, each village has a local Ayyanan temple, the guardian that watch over these huge empty homes. The shrines are surrounded by symbolic offerings of terracotta horses and elephants, carved by the local porters. They remind you of a bustling civilization that once existed here.

Karaikudi is the main town in Chettinad and is connected by rail and road. It’s about 100 km from Madurai, 90 km from Tiruchirapally and 400 km from Chennai. All the three cities are connected by trains. You can also fly into Chennai and take a train or bus to Karaikudi. Once here, the sights will take you to a gone by era and a civilization that once thrived here.










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Food for thought!

Recently while conversing with a couple of senior citizens, I was a bit perturbed to hear their story behind their smiles. Amongst all of them, one thing was common. Their children were well-educated and are settled or working abroad.

They confided – ‘Our life is one of happiness and more of sadness. We live here and the children provide for us the material comforts. But that is not life. We miss our children- sons and daughters, the grand children, the hustle and bustle, the playful noise at home, the fights, the arguments, discussions, eating and going out together. Now it is silence or the sound of TV; and it is just reduced to their visits once in two to three years when they come on a short holiday. We get energized and feel the true happiness.

Otherwise it is me and my wife giving company to each other. Waking up in the morning, going through our regular routine, talking to each other and silently remembering the good old days when we worked hard and the children were growing up.’

And one of them made a passing remark – ‘Tell me, is money everything?’

I understand their feelings, their anguish, their sadness and all that they were talking about. Surely, life is much more than this. Remember, just as you needed your parents when young, they need you when they grow old.


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Picture Post:

Gaganachukki Falls, Mandya, Karnataka in India
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