Chettinad, the ancestral homeland of the Nattukottai Chettiars, a prosperous merchant class who ventured overseas to do business in South and Southeast Asia in the 19th and early 20th centuries, is renowned for its impressive mansions and rich and distinctive cuisine.
Today the central region of Tamil Nadu, just north of Madurai, is still home to the wealthy Chettiar community. The Chettiar merchants built handsomely and extensively across their region, which is full of examples of huge mansions with exquisite teak and silkwood pillars, marble detailing and lime-plastered wall, and some of these houses are now open to the public. The houses are typically designed in a long narrow compound, with a columned veranda. Inside there is normally a formal room used for marriages and other occasions, and beyond this is a rectangular two-storey courtyard, sometimes covered, usually lavishly decorated, with small side rooms, normally used for storage, and often containing small family shrines. Beyond this are the living quarters, eating area and kitchen.
Karaikudi is known as the capital of the Chettinad culture because of the predominance of the Nattukottai Chettiars and the dozens of Chettiar mansions. Guests staying at the Bangala Hotel can visit one of the more modern mansions, the MSMM house which is the home of the Bangala’s owner; it is superbly maintained and has some beautiful tile work. The owner is a close friend of George Michell and helped him write his acclaimed book ‘The Mansions of Chettinad’. Karaikudi is also known for its Sri Meenakshi temple, sometimes referred to as the Sivan Temple, which was built during 1872 and holds over 108 statues of Ganapathy. 11km northwest of Karaikudi is the village of Athangudi, which is the centre of the local hand-produced tile industry. The workshops welcome visitors, who can also try their hand at the very precise and age-old craft. The biggest mansion in Athangudi is commonly referred to as the ‘tile house’ (although the owners like to call it a palace!). The village of Chettinad itself, 5km east of Athangudi, has a number of impressive houses near the water tank, but the Chettinad Palace is the largest and most impressive of all of them, and is open to visitors when the family is not in residence.
The region is also famous for shandys (or village markets), silver and goldsmiths, marvellous antiques and beautiful textiles (including the highly sought after traditional Chettinad saris), and the aforementioned distinctive cuisine – dishes such as chicken or mutton biryani, fresh fish curries and vegetarian stews are finely flavoured with up to 23 different spices.
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