Half Chettiar, All Proud
Original adventurers, Chettiars, an ancient trading clan followed the trade winds to far off lands.
I peered through the window into a pistachio green room. The color conjured up memories of hot summer days in the temple town of Madurai, a dusty city on the barren banks of the river Vaigai in the Southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
Madurai is the city of my father’s birth, and where on hot summer days as a child he would cool off with sweet fizzy goli (marble) soda in thick green bottles manufactured by the British Codd Bottle Company, the only soda available in newly liberated India.
On hot summer days as a child, my cousins and I, while visiting my appatha (grandmother), would cool off with green pistachio flavored ice cream, from Arun Ice Cream, the only ice cream parlor in Madurai in the 1980s.
On the tiled pistachio green floor, an old man in a white dhoti sat cross-legged in front of a low wooden desk peering over a ledger. This room in a row of shop houses built in the 1800s on First Cross Street in Malacca, Malaysia was called a kitangi. The front room acted as an office and the back rooms as a home. The kannakapullai or accountant at work was a Chettiar.
I am a Chettiar. I share a history, a homeland and a double helix with this man, Mr. Palanniapan from the village of Puduamaravathi in Chettinad.
Chettinad, a group of 74 villages built on red-caked dirt where nothing grows is a mere 100 kms from Madurai. The sea is far away, and the rain bearing westerly ocean winds are spent by the time they reach these villages in the middle of nowhere that one NYTimes journalist described as “so sandy and arid that in places it resembled the African savanna.”
The Nattukottai Chettiars, seafaring traders settled here in the 13th century. Some say they fled the fertile Cauvery river valley, the seat of the Chola Empire, after an epic flood, and others say that honor forced them to migrate inland and southward. While the Chettiars might have severed their ties to the Chola Dynasty because of a King’s lustful advances towards one of their women, their allegiance to the trade winds stayed firm. When the monsoon winds started blowing, they continued to journey eastward from their new home of Chettinad to Singapore, Sri Lanka, Burma, Java, Sumatra, Cambodia, and Malaysia.
I am not easily recognizable as a descendent of this ancient trading enclave. My Chettiar blood is mixed with that of my mother’s, whose ancestors, white Anglo-Saxon Protestants from England and Germany, made their way across oceans in the 1800s to Pennsylvania and Nebraska. (But let’s leave parallels aside for now, because that’s another story.)
While my nose might not be all Chettiar, my surname is nothing but. Thiagarajan, was my father’s name, and his father, and his father before him. It’s not just a name, but an identity. It gives me a place within a community, and brings with it history and traditions. It’s a name with roots, a name that can open a door in the port city of Malacca.
I peered through the door of the kitangi and greeted Mr. Palanniapan in Tamil, my father’s language. I introduced myself as a Thiagarajan, the daughter of Karmutu Manickavasigam Thiagarajan from the village A. Thekkur. The door opened, and he invited us in.
I was in Malacca with David Hagerman, a Malaysian-based American photographer and we were exploring the streets of this ancient city for Project Bly, a website built on the philosophy that to really know a city you must wander its streets, the veins that fork and converge and inevitably lead you to its heart—the marketplace. Project Bly is about traveling far, but it’s also about bringing a piece of your journey home, something Chettiars were doing hundreds of years ago.
Original adventurers, Chettiars left their desolate villages to make a living in far away lands. But no matter how far they voyaged, they (almost) always made their way home, bringing back with them souvenirs of their travels.
Their houses, built during the height of their success in the 19th century were grand, fanciful fortresses, inward facing with imposing exteriors, a fusion of Western, South East Asian and Indian architecture constructed with marble from Italy, teak from Burma, art-deco tiles from Japan and Netherlands, and crystal chandeliers and stained glass from Belgium. They filled their homes with art and statues from England, colorful enamelware from Malaysia and deep red lacquerware from Burma.
Today many of these opulent mansions are crumbling, and tell stories of fortunes made and lost. Chettiars traded salt, cloth, spices and gems and also founded great banking houses of the 19th century, financing farming across the British Empire in Southeast Asia. Collateral for agricultural loans was the land that was to be seeded, and as paddy prices plummeted during the Great Depression of the 1930s, Chettiars foreclosed on farmland. In the following years as Southeast Asian countries gained independence from the British; Chettiars forfeited this land (and capital) and made their way back to Chettinad.
With no money and no way to make a living in Chettinad, most Chettiars quickly abandoned their ancestral homes for cities like Madurai and Madras (Chennai), and began to reinvent themselves. While some families took advantage of Britain’s loosening grip on the subcontinent, and began to rebuild their lost fortunes in India as industrialists, Chettiars, today, are also lawyers, doctors, accountants and engineers. These resilient descendants of an old trading clan now live and work in Madurai and Madras, Mumbai and Delhi, Kuala Lumpur and Colombo, Cincinnati and Silicon Valley.
And what happened to these mansions from a lost era? Some are slowly decaying, their descendants scattered and unable or unwilling to maintain monstrous homes; some have been torn down and sold for their teak doors, antique tiles and chandeliers, but others lie dormant until the Tamil month of Karthikai when a cluster of stars known as Krittika makes an appearance in the night sky.
This is wedding season. During this auspicious month of the God Muragan, houses are painted, giant pots that can hold sambar for 2000 people are dusted off, and doors are thrown open to guests from around the world who journey here to celebrate new alliances and hopeful unions. These grand houses might have been built as fortresses to protect women while the men were away for months trading, but they were also built with large pillared interior courtyards for celebrations and ceremonies. Multi-day affairs, all Chettiar weddings fittingly begin with paidapu, a ceremony honoring a family’s ancestors.
I have only been to my ancestral home in Chettinad a handful of times for family weddings. But my ancestors’ genes are woven into my DNA, and I like to think that besides a love for vellai paniyaram (a Chettiar fried delicacy made with ground rice and lentils), antique art-deco tiles and brightly painted Peranakan Chinese enamelware, I have also inherited their entrepreneurial and resilient spirits and their wanderlust and curiosity for the world.
Thiagarajan; it’s a name and a history I’m proud to call my own.
Rena Thiagarajan is the founder of Project Bly. She was born and brought up in Madras on the Southeast coast of India by a Chettiar father and an American mother of German and English ancestry. She took her first solo transatlantic flight when she was seven and has traveled to over forty countries. This article was orginaly published on Project Bly.