A two hour car ride away from Madurai airport, the sleepy streets of Kanadukathan are a deep shade of rust. Cows, goats and hens blithely wander past…the silence only occasionally punctuated by an odd vehicle. Then almost out of nowhere, a collection of crumbling but still splendid mansions start emerging…street after street lined with homes that cast a love spell! These painstakingly built abodes that were a collector’s paradise…reflect a past glorious but long gone!!
The wealthy Chettiar traders of Tamil Nadu built an oasis of 75 villages with palatial mansions in the midst of an expansive dry landscape, in the early 1900s. The recession of 1920’s followed by the world war turned their fortunes. Today, these structures stand as a testament to the immense influence and wealth that the Chettiars enjoyed once.
Stepping into any of these homes, one is greeted with a landing area that doubled up as a wedding hall, replete with old photographs of the family across generations.
This is followed by a large beautiful central courtyard flanked with pillars on all sides…and rooms for the family built around it.
These architectural delights feature marble floors from Italy…magical crystal chandeliers from Murano…coloured glass window panels from Belgium…intricate iron work panels brought from UK…tiles from Japan…humongous teak, mahogany and cedar wood pillars from Burma and Ceylon…Burma teak intricately carved into doors and entryways, resembling ornate temple alters…the list goes on!!
All these, beautifully brought together in shades of mustard, terracotta, tones of green, teals and tangerine, make u step back in time and witness the true opulence of those times!
A handful of these vilas have been converted into heritage hotels by their owners in the hope of preserving some of its magnificent past. We stayed in one such grand heritage home called the Chettinadu Mansion. Originally built in 1902, it has been lovingly restored to its past glory and partially converted into a hotel by Mr.Chandramouli.
Most families belonging to this land of lost glory are now settled abroad or in cities but return to these ancestral homes and roots for all major family functions such as weddings…baby showers and 80th birthday celebrations!
A look at the meticulously painted Chettiar Palace next door, gives us a glimpse into how spectacular these mansions would have looked in their prime.
Unfortunately not all of these historic ornate homes are as looked after. One encounters many padlocked mansions, desolate and in disrepair. Some however, have caretakers or owners willing to give us a glimpse of the beauty within for a nominal charge.
A bicycle or a bullock cart ride are the best ways to explore any one village. However, do make it a point to go village hopping to the neighbouring hamlets as each one has its own slight spin on the Chettinad architecture.
Our hotel manager very graciously offered us his bike to explore the historic treasure troves of the nearby villages of Athangudi, Karaikudi, Pillayarpatti, Kothamangalam and Kadiapatti. More on these in my following post…Join me to feast your eyes on some more breathtaking visuals next.