Bygone and beautiful- Chettinad Travel Blog

As a true Indian non-vegetarian, Chettinad meant “tasty spicy chicken and quail curries” for me. Sahana’s favourite Attanggudi tiles and Chettinad sarees surfaced occasionally. But we never knew a mansion town existed in this region until we read about Tamil Nadu & South East Asian country connections. Indeed Tamilians were India’s first maritime traders.

Here is your complete guide to Chettinad Travel – The heritage town of mansions and pretty villages.

Watch the videos below to get a kickstart.

Index

Chettinad history

wooden low height cashier desk in an old house with old photos on the wall at a chettinad house

Chettinad is a group of villages where people of a community called “Chettiyars” lived. Their major profession was selling gemstones, salt and money laundering. They had trade connections with ancient Burma, Singapore, Malaysia and, Indonesia, & even a few European countries. A significantly large number of Chettiars live in Singapore and Malaysia today too.

Chettiyars were business travellers.

They travelled a lot overseas, so they settled in Kaveripoompatinam, where Kaveri meets the Bay of Bengal ocean. It was a major port of ancient times. Unfortunately. the city sunk in the sea, and Chettiyars migrated to the area “Karaikkudi”, 200km away from the ocean. After the horrific incident, Chettiyars were afraid of water and wanted to stay away from water sources.

Heritage rooms with old wooden cot placed on floor with brown and mustard colour checkered pattern at Chettinad

As business tycoons across the globe, they accumulated a lot of wealth and wanted to show their richness. Hence you get to see many expensive items and antiques from all over the world in their extra-large homes with multiple courtyards and ornated ceilings of woodworks. The community’s marriage is famous as one of the most extravagant weddings in India. So their houses with vast courtyards, halls and 50+ rooms are ideal for their private ceremonies.

Why Travel to Chettinad

Abandoned two storey old house by the road side at Karaikkudi

Experiencing bygone era luxury comes with the countryside charm. Most houses are located in rural areas of the Karaikkudi district. So the charm of luxury comes with a rustic touch.

After India’s independence, Chettiyars moved to bigger cities like Chennai.

From there, some migrated to Singapore, Malaysia and the USA forever. So many of these houses are vacant and locked, opened occasionally. An estimate says that there are around 11000 Chettiyars mansions in the region which is half of what it used to be in its glorious days. So you can easily make out in which abandoned house caretaker lives and the rest left to degenerate.

Narrow street lined with white buildings having coloued windows on the white walls at Kadiyapatti village, Tamil Nadu.

These village streets are so charming that you can hear the sound of a bullock cart carrying wealthy Chettiyars. You can eavesdrop on his servants with the luggage whine about how hot it is and how many more days they must be enslaved to their owner to repay the loan. The little girls running wearing anklets, ladies dressed in ankle-length Chettinad sarees wearing jasmine flowers around their buns and talking to neighbours, boys running around – You can feel all of it. Cycling or walking in the mornings is a true bliss as you can see bullock carts on their way to fields even today.

Chettinad Travel and mansion hopping are synonyms.

As of 2020, the villages and mansions had appeared in a few Indian movies. But it wasn’t too popular among mass tourists. So this was kind of a hidden gem, unadulterated without mass tourism. I trust Tamilians- They are proud of their strong history, heritage and culture. So they won’t let the over-tourism happen and spoil the atmosphere of the mansion villages here.

Cream and brown coloured house with sloping roof at Chettinad, Tamil Nadu

How to reach Chettinad

Indian man holding floral patterned rectangular tile made completely by hand

Wondering what those beautiful tiles are???

Chettinad comprises many villages – Kanadukattan, Attangudi, Kadiapatti are the famous ones. The nearest town is Karaikkudi, around 30km away from the villages. So this is the arrival point of Chettinad irrespective of your mode of transportation.

By Air – The nearest airport is Madurai (100+km). If you arrive in Madurai by flight, we recommend two or three days of wandering in Madurai and then taking a train/bus/taxi to Karaikkudi.

By Train – Madurai to Karaikkudi trains are plenty. Plus, many neighbouring cities are well connected to Karaikkudi by train. 

By Bus An overnight bus journey is ideal if you are coming to Chettinad from towns within 300km. We recommend you opt for the Private company buses listed on redbus over the state-owned buses because Tamil Nadu state bus comfort isn’t that great.

Women in saree riding bicycles on the empty roads liked with abandoned mansions and Kanadukauttan.

To commute in Chettinad, having a private taxi/vehicle or renting cycles from hotels is the only way to go.

How many days to spend in Chettinad

We stayed here for two days and are happy about it. If you are in snooze mode and want to concentrate on yourself with a book/writing, consider two more extra days. 

Which is the best time to visit Chettinad

The summers are harsh. But the charm didn’t stop us from exploring in April. The ideal time to visit Chettinad is October to February.

Where to stay in Chettinad

White palatial building with coloured glass cladding

Karaikkudi is a typical modern town – every amenity you can expect from a small Indian town are here. The real fun of rejoicing Chettinad comes when you stay in a village away from the town. Kanadukuttan is the main village, and a few mansions are converted into hotels here. I am sure most ancient mansions will be BnB or hotels in the next five years. We chose the best of all – Chidambara Vilas in Kadiapatti village– Because staying here itself is an experience.

This Heritage hotel is why we went to Chettinad to celebrate our 3rd wedding anniversary. Read ahead about why staying in Chidambara Vilas is the best thing to do in Chettinad.

PS – This isn’t a paid post.

Best things to do in Chettinad

Experience Chettinad hospitality at Chidambara Vilas.

Tamilians wearing dhoti inside a palace like mansion

A 1900s mansion was once home to powerful people from the area. Now a beautifully well-restored resort in a tiny village Kadiapatti. The three years of restoration by a hotel group have done total justice to keep the authenticity of the place. The hospitality culture here is truthful to Tamil Nadu. They put a shalya around your neck as a greeting when the guests arrive and serve you with local sharbat. All male employees wear white Veshti and shirts, and women drape beautiful Chettinad cotton sarees. So the Chettinad feel seeps into you beyond architecture. The hotel takes interested guests on a village walk or property walk and even lets you inside their kitchen. So you stay here, enjoy the royalty, learn history and gain weight over delicious Chettinad food.

Corinthean column inspired Chettinad columns

Right from the entrance, the building charms you with its ambience.

The Corinthian capitals on entrance pilasters, carved teakwood Burma column, and that bloody big ultra carved door with eight locks and a massive key – I wonder how much time a person took to lock the door in the night. Of course, with so much wealth, Chettiars needed heavy security in the “No CCTV ” & “Non-digital locking system” era.

Only a part of the mansion is leased to the hotel group, and the owner lives by the side we visitors cant enter. So you see many rooms locked on the ground floor.

Indian woman wearing saree holding a key of 2' length and 5kg in weight

Parts of a typical Chettinad mansion

It is fascinating to see how a typical Chettiyars mansion’s old spaces are carefully converted to suit modern functions without disturbing its originality. Like-

Valavu – Courtyard with Tulsi plant is a place where they teach interested guests about Kollam and garland making. In the olden days, it was the marriage ceremony hall.

Pattagasalai – In the first hall after the foyer, Chettiyars received other business people to discuss. Now you can peacefully lay back with your legs stretched on the marble top furniture.

Bommakottigai – The most beautiful double-height space in the entire house is this – The painted carved wooden rafters on the ceiling and the status on the corners of the wall can bring you neck pain- Because you can’t stop looking up at the beautiful ceiling. Now, a place for Dasara dolls was for ladies to catch up during ceremonies.

Wooden carved ceiling and stained glass windows adorning a white huge hall

What is Chettinad known for – This grandeur

Visiri hall – You can’t be not talking about Chettiyar wedding gifts when you talk about Chettinad homes. This is now converted to experiential dining, the hall for women in the olden days where the dowry gifts were displayed – A hall full of gifts! Think of the grandeur!

Black and white checkered tiles and walls on niches

Darbar Hall: Darbar means kings/officials meeting other important people privately. The carved wooden ceiling is the highlight and is made colourful now once a Darbar hall, now a conference room for corporate meetings.

The hall next to Darbar hall is another charm with its stained-glass rooms. All the glass panes have stained glass, but you see the reflection of one half-circle panel on the wall/floor late in the noon – That is because only that half-circle glass panel is ancient- The true stained glass and the rest are modern (after renovation) – How the might quality have fallen!

The most magical part of the heritage hotel is

Terrace – The place you either take a long breath and sit quietly watching the magical surrounding or scream like me jumping around! Coloured Minaret kind of things pops up at two corners, breaking the monotony of the sloped roof. Then you see the entire Village of Kadiapatti filled with clay-tiled sloping roofs – A view you haven’t seen anywhere else. 

Beautiful sunset with colorful minaret

Devour on Chettinad delicacy.

Fiery-Tasty-Coconutty-Spicy: These four words explain the Chettinad cuisine well. As a gem, salt and spice trader, Chettiar’s natural tendency is to make spicy food with lots of dried red chillies. Most foods are rice-based and traditionally served on Banana leaves.

Chettinad meals on banana leaves

Along with the typical Indian spices like star anise, red chillies, Methi, cinnamon, cloves, bay leaf, peppercorn, cumin seeds, Dalchini and nutmeg and Ajwain, their secret ingredient is “Masala Powder” that is made by grinding all the above ingredients using stone piston and mortar in precise amount along with “Black stone flower.”

Chettinad food ingredients make it unique.

The gravy is coconut-based, and the add-ons are dried vegetables to quail birds (which is my favourite). Idiyappam, Idli, and Paddu with coconut chutney for breakfast is heaven. In my opinion, their prawn, chicken and quail bird curries are the best of India’s non-veg dishes next to Hyderabadi Biryani. For Sahana, the Chettiyar style coconut chutneys and Idiyappam is heaven.

Beautiful Indian woman with short hair wearing saree grinding masala powder in traditional method.

One of the finest actresses in town – Posing as a Chettiyar cook with rolling stone.

Take garland making and Kollam class.

Indian Lady in saree  making chalk drawings in a courtyard surrounded by carved stone pillars

Since birth, as an Indian living here, garland making and Kollam( Rangoli) aren’t new for us. Sahana & I know the Rangoli art decently(chalk powder drawing on the floor). But doing it on a floor that is more than 100 years old Makes in a courtyard surrounded by antique teakwood columns with little sunshine above makes you feel royal. It was a good time to test my childhood skill.

Watch the sunset on the most beautiful terrace with the best views.

Cluster of tiled roof of Chettinad mansions during sunset time

Many houses in Chettinad are abandoned, but entry to them is restricted. If you know to tweak your way without getting caught, choose the tallest mansion in the evening to see the sunset in any of the villages. Or seek permission from the residents and rejoice in the sun setting behind a cluster of clay-tiled roofs of Mansions in the countryside.

Visit artisans making the most beautiful tiles of Attangundi.

Girl in gown watching Indian artisans making Attangundi tiles

One of the most eco-friendly building materials in India is Attangundi tiles. The opulent Chettiyars imported teak from Burma, Marble from Italy, furniture from Indonesia, and Tiles from Belgium/ Spain for their mansions. Over the time, during British time, when importing took a back seat and had to have a flooring material other than those days’ common – Mud or Stone flooring. They wanted something that looked as rich as Belgian/Mosaic tiles but was easier to maintain.

Attangudi tiles making

The Attangudi people came up with the solution- A tile made of cement, local soil, crushed baby jelly stones and synthetic coloured oxides hand-pressed and sundried after soaking it in water. The pre-independence art is still alive strong and visiting these workshops lets, you make your tile. The entire process is handmade and mostly stencil-based. But experienced artists can make a contemporary designs with their hands too. Though you can’t buy a lot for your home furnishing, buying 4 or 6 may help you get a unique tabletop done back home. The standard colours are Grey, mustard, maroon, bottle green and dark blue.

Colouful Attangudi tiles arranged to show it to vsiitors

Wander in Karaikkudi antique market.

Narrow room filled with antiques at Karaikkudi

When Chettiars migrated to Chennai and foreign countries, many sold their houses to locals. Some sold only valuable antiques to the Karaikkudi locals. Of course, some items are stolen from the locked and abandoned mansions. Because our taxi driver showed us a group of mansions by an isolated road en route to Attangudi that had 30 CCTV cameras around ten abandoned mansions. So Karaikkudi houses one of India’s largest and most beautiful antique markets.

A 500m length lane with multiple side lanes sells brass and wooden antiques. If you are good at bargaining, buy a thing after asking for half price. Otherwise, most shopkeepers are happy for window shoppers. Don’t forget to check out the ultra-detailed, multi-shelved iron safety lockers and carved wooden doors.

200 year old metal lockers by the streetside

Visit royal Lakshmi Vilas Palace.

This is a palace where we were convinced that Chettinad villagers won’t let tourism ruin their authenticity. Like a typical Indian village lined with big trees on either side of a narrow road, Attangundi didn’t seem different.

Colourful ceiling and railing inside a palace

My eyes were waiting for Tile makers while our driver stopped at a palace that didn’t look palatial enough from the outside. After paying 50Rs /head as an entry fee, a step inside the place without footware, I was stunned and confused about where to fix my eyes! The walls had patterned colourful small glazed clay tiles cladded like a painting on the wall. The Checkered Black and white flooring reminded me of our ancestral home.

Peacock on glaxed tiles at a Palace in Chettinad

The wooden carved columns with intricately designed capitals attracted me the most. The enthusiastic caretaker explained this architectural style to Chettinad with its elaborate courtyard. From ceiling to flooring, walls to columns was a traditional myriad of colours, geometrical and floral patterns. 

The glazed tiles magic and magical room

There were so many types of square glazed tiles on the walls that I forgot to look at anything else until Sahana called me to a hall that had stained glass – The reflections of yellow, blue and red made the wide hall even more mystic – As if there is a royal dance program arranged for us by some unknown entity.

Reflection of coloured class on red-oxide floored tile

Witness Chettinad handloom weavers in action at their house.

Orange, Blue and green threads bundle on the floor

Suppose you have seen a checkered cotton saree with traditional peacock and mangoes on the border or a blend of two colours on solid borders. It is very likely Chettinad Saree. Like Sungudi cotton saree makers, it is believed that these guys were also from Saurashtra. But the saree maker whom we met at Mahalakshmi handlooms said she is from Nanjangood, Karnataka and her family in Chettinad speaks Kannada and Tamil.

Their family lineage is mixed with Marathi, Kannada and Tamil. She proudly took us around speaking in Kannada and showed us the letters/photos they had received from foreign travellers. Their cosy house had a room where they had stored all sarees. Another room for customers where we buy it. The walls are adorned with photos of all foreign travellers who have visited them and not Indian travellers.

Witnessing Chettinad saree weaving

Essentially Chettinad saree cotton threads were bottle green, maroon, yellow, white and Grey. But now you get soothing to striking combinations in stripes and checks. The solid borders with two opposite colours woven against each other create a unique colour Gradient. Yellow and Blue woven together make a distinct green that neither looks blue nor yellow!. A soft quality Chettinad saree costs around 3000Rs, and you can buy dupattas for 600 Rs. These sarees are shorter than the usual ones purposefully to make the wearer’s anklet visible- So when Sahana (5’7″tall) wears her green Chettinad saree, she struggles a little to adjust her fleet.

Woman using a handloom to weave a yellow colour Chetiinad saree

Chettinad sarees were one of the significant types of cotton saree in India. With time, handlooms vanished, and the style spread throughout Tamil Nadu. Somehow, Chettinad style sarees don’t remain exclusive to Chettinad anymore.

Stand and wonder why you can’t enter the magnificent Maharaja palace.

White mansion with brick red and green windows

All over the Chettinad villages, you see mansions. But this abode is a landmark palace in the entire region. Even if you haven’t heard of this particular home, the wide white building with a splash of bottle green, maroon and mustard paintings and structures won’t go unnoticed because of its sheer size from the outside. Why do you have to stand and wonder – Quite like other Chettiyars, the family who owned this lived in Chennai in another palace. But unlike those abandoned homes, this is maintained well & the family uses it during functions and festivals every year. I am sure your taxi driver will also be fond of telling the family story of Mr Ramaswamy Chettiar- the owner of the Chettinad group and this palace.

The family dispute & no entry to Chettinad Maharaja Palace

There is some dispute between father and son, leading to confusion on who should run the Chettinad group of companies and own the luxury. In case you are desperate like me to get inside to see the epitome of Chettinad luxury, all the best in finding your way out. Nothing is impossible, but you must know them inside Mr Ramaswamy’s family. Or the hotel in Chettinad where you stay must have connections with the Maharaja. So it may take you lots of phone calls, emails and messages on Facebook to get in touch with the useful links. If you get one, show me some love and share the contact with me too, as I am still trying to get in touch with the right contact. 

Visit The Terracotta Horse Temple.

terracotta dolls in horse shape

The atmosphere in each temple may vary, and the architectural style may vary. But most south Indian temples will have some features, something in common, making commoners feel all the temples are similar. So going on a temple tour in South India may get monotonous for many. But Ayyanar temples across Tamil Nadu make it different and interesting because of Terracotta horses.

Who is Ayyanar god

Ayyanar is the main god who safeguards the town ride a white horse or elephant. The Ayyanar temple in Chettinad is small, but the locality is enthralling. Surrounded by woods and paddy fields, this roadside temple compound is full of terracotta dolls. (at least 3-4′ in height). In March, villagers and devotees offer it to the god during a particular festival when they pray for boons or after their asked wish is fulfilled.

Take a morning walk in Kadipatti village.

Cowshed in an indian village with white cow eating dry grass

Everything in Chettinad is about experiencing luxury. But how is it today? To know that, you must take a walk in Kadiapatti village, where the current day’s village thrives. The open cowsheds, old school building, women carrying water from 100m away from the water source, men smoking beedi in a local petty shop catching up with neighbours, kids rolling tyres and others going to school – An 8 am walk shows you the Kutcha houses next to an old laterite stone mansion – The first one where poor life and the latter that lies in poor/worn condition.

White and blue school building of two storey designed in colonial style at Chettinad

Go for an evening walk at Kanadukattan.

Empty indian street with beautiful mansions on either side at Kanadukkuttan

We both love wandering in nice streets. Unfortunately, only a few streets in India are suitable for pedestrians with clean and paved paths. For aimless wandering. Kanadukattan streets are one of the cleanest streets in India and are lined with Chettinad mansions-abandoned and occupied both. As you take your morning walk, ladies ride bicycles on their way to handloom centres. Men carry a load of green grass in cycles to feed the cattle. The least traffic, more life and ancient mansions by the sides are a dream road for joggers, walkers and cyclists.

Abandoned mansions in Chettinad

Go to Chettiar Temple- a temple with a pond.

After moving away from the seashore to an almost dry area without water, Chettiyar’s water source remained the Kalyani of temples. Every Chettiar mansion’s open courtyard will have an underground pipe that sucks fallen rainwater and connects it to the pond! So visiting this temple a few kilometres away from mansions may make you want to dig to see the underground pipes like an archaeologist.

Go Mansion Hopping in Chettinad

If every mansion in the Karaikkudi district lets you in, I wonder how many days you need. Unless you talk to locals and hear the stories/history behind the 100/200-year-old mansions, things don’t get exciting. Some famous mansions that let visitors inside with a nominal entry fee of 10 or 50Rs are 

Heritage builind with Jhoola at the centre.

CVRM House

  • CVRM House – Their long front hall with a Jhoola is unlike anything else. The family lives in the backside of the mansion. Their lifestyle seemed like any other Indian family without all the grandeur and luxury of ancient Chettiyars.
  • VVR House -The carved wooden doors and wooden purlins in the courtyard are the best of Chettinad.

Would you travel to Chettinad after reading our post? Let us know in the comment section below.

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