This post has been made possible by a partnership with Kamalan.
Walking down a village street in Chettinad is an experience unlike no other–a street in a Chettinad village is lined with glorious mansions from another time. Expansive, exquisitely-detailed mansions that command attention for their unique character. These buildings stand out for their elaborate embellishments, telling tales from lands far away, connecting with a past rooted in the Tamil culture.
Located in the Tamilian heartland, Chettinad is the home of the Nattukkottai Chettiars, a merchant community dating back to the great Cholas. Once settled on the coast, the community moved to the interior of Tamil Nadu when frequent tsunamis repeatedly destroyed their homes. In the 19th century, this merchant community came into prominence through trade and consequently grew in affluence, displaying their wealth through the temples and homes they built for themselves.
Villages in Chettinad were organized in grid patterns by buildings of similar height. Construction followed principles of Vaastu Shastra, the traditional science of the architecture of well-being. This helped to create adequate ventilation and systems for water collection. Each grid is uniform with four houses per grid, separated by paved roads and oriented on a north-south axis. Water was originally stored primarily in the temple tanks, which were massive in size and even had provisions for a second tank in case they overflowed.
A Chettinad mansion is typically Tamil in decoration on the ground floor, with a marble columned thinnai (outer veranda) accessed through an elaborately-decorated arch placed a few feet above street level. The thinnai leads to a lavishly-decorated entry hall. These were once the spaces where men used to conduct business and they acutely reflected the wealth and status of the owner of the house. Inside, the naduvasal (main courtyard) formed the heart of the home. This is the area around which all rooms were arranged and which saw the most activity. Since the owners of these homes were incredibly wealthy businessmen and traders, they needed storage space for their valuables. These rooms were typically located off the naduvasal. The owners’ choice of profession meant frequent visitors and guests, so the reception hall was decorated in order to impress.
The central part of the house was the domain of the women of the house and it was where the activities of daily life took place. The last section of the house was reserved for the kitchen with an inner thinnai that provided light and ventilation. Serving as one of the most important spaces in a Chettinad home, kitchens were large and designed to accommodate many residents and guests.
On the upper floors, the architecture represented classical European influences. Balustrades, cornices, and parapets were typical to every house, along with concrete sculptures of gods and goddesses, motifs from nature, and kings and queens. Using imported teak from Burma, columns were customized for each home and decorated according to where they were located. The pillars at the front of the mansion were grand and elegant, while the ones in the kitchen courtyard were simpler. Each adornment added to the grandeur of a house, leaving a visitor gazing up at these richly-decorated facades in awe.
Despite the amalgamation of styles, these mansions were harmonious in their construction, achieving a successful blending of aesthetics. This intermingling continued to the interiors, with the palatial rooms showcasing embellishments the merchants might have picked up on their travels. The floors were made up of colorful Athangudi tiles, handmade and sourced from a nearby village. Walls and ceilings were decorated with intricate Belgian ceramics and beautiful glasswork. Heavily-carved pillars, doorways, and arches painted in rich colors complemented one another–the interiors of these homes were designed to impress.
These mansions were built to perform a variety of functions that formed an integral part of Tamil culture. Areas of the house were divided according to the roles played by the inhabitants, and their clever use of large spaces came in handy during rituals and family celebrations. Now, most of these mansions lie abandoned. The owners or their descendants have moved to the cities. However, these structures still play an important role when it comes to important events of a family. The common spaces make them ideal for hosting large functions like weddings, but the maintenance of these houses takes its toll. Recently, efforts have been made to revive some of these grand homes, with a few owners choosing to renovate and convert their ancestral homes to heritage accommodations for travelers.
History has a way of making certain things obsolete. It is tough to forcefully fit something that belongs to another time in our story, make it a part of our history. These palatial and beautiful spaces can’t fulfill the same roles they were initially envisaged for, but new opportunities present themselves in new worlds. It is up to us to see how much we can carry with us and how much we choose to let go.
Photos by Elke Frotscher.