Off to the lost town of Chettinad

Let’s go meet the Nattukottai Chettiars.’’ The words rolled off the tongue deliciously and my husband and I set off for Chettinad — a region comprising of over 75 villages and towns — with the singular mission of eating authentic Chettinad food and exploring the region’s sprawling heritage mansions.

Karaikudi is liberally dotted with clan-temples and ancestral mansions of the Chettiars, a wealthy mercantile community of Tamil Nadu who were once astute traders and lived in a seaside village until a tsunami washed away their settlements, forcing them to relocate to a land locked region, far away from any water body.

With their profits from overseas trade and business, the Chettiars built really grand mansions. It’s hard to put in words our joy of finding in the heart of Tamil Nadu, century-old marble from Italy, hand-painted tiles from Japan, wall-to-wall mirrors and stained glass windows from Belgium, teak pillars from Burma, crockery from Indonesia, open courtyards, ornate doors that took three years to carve, high ceilings ornamented with gilded motifs… breath-taking would be an understatement. We were informed that even 200 years ago, families spent significant effort out-doing neighbors in the home decoration department, as is but natural. Old family portraits, exquisite copper vessels, enamelware, lockers emblazoned with the British emblem, cryptic diary entries and more in the antiques market in the village afforded a voyeuristic glimpse of private lives.

We checked ourselves into one of the heritage mansions run by a traditional Chettiar family. Click here to book your stay there:

Alternatively, there are more professionally managed boutique mansions as well where you can stay. The above photograph is from one of those. Click here to book your stay there:

The word ‘Chettinad’ means a social caste that specializes in preparation of food. It’s therefore no surprise then that the people are considered to be master chefs! The kitchens of the mansions serve up some of the most delectable and spiciest cuisine you’ve ever had. We lost count of courses and calories and savoured every elaborate meal. Black pepper, young black pepper (when it’s green, that is!), coconut, tamarind, curry leaves and more exquisitely coat banana blossoms, chicken, crab, fish and we could go on but recommend you fill in the blanks.

Post meal walks were spent walking down the proverbial dusty by-lanes and past endless rows of family fortresses, now in disrepair what with the crumbling of the joint-family institution and emigration to foreign shores. We guessed aloud what family heirlooms and artefacts could possibly remain forgotten behind their peeling façades.

We spent the rest of the weekend watching Athangudi tiles being lovingly hand-painted, cotton sarees being hand-woven at the local handloom, snacks being freshly fried at a family home-turned-enterprise and filling up on filter coffee and bhajis at blink-and-you-miss-them eateries (the best in the world, as food memories in the holiday tend to be).

Suffice to say, Chettinad made its way into our heart and bellies.

-Anu Chowdhry

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