Cholan Tours-Chettinad - the Shekhawati of South India

Chettinad - the Shekhawati of South India

  • June 10, 2024

Chettinad is the home of the Nagarathar, a prosperous banking and business community. It is also known for its Cuisine, architecture, and religious temples. I am sure you will enjoy reading some fascinating facts about this merchant community, who are spread across many countries but adhere strictly to their culture and traditions regardless of where they live. To preserve their culture and customs, they make it a point to visit their hometown to celebrate local festivals in temples.

With two more destinations, we will complete Tamil Nadu, and then we will begin sharing information about Kerala.

Chettinad

Chettinad is a Tamil Nadu region made up of around 76 villages spread throughout the Sivagangai and Pudukkottai districts. As the name implies, this neighbourhood is mainly occupied by the Chettiar or Nagarathar people. The term "Chettiar" refers to the social caste of merchant bankers. Many traders, weavers, and agricultural and land-owning castes in South India use this title, particularly in the states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Karnataka. The Chettiars claim to have originated from the ancient kingdom of Chola, which lasted during the 10th and 12th centuries. The origins of the present-day Chettiar can be traced back to the 96 villages that once comprised Chettinad in Tamil Nadu. Chettinad is in the southernmost section of Tamil Nadu (South India). Karaikudi is the region's largest town, located 400 kilometres south of Chennai and 90 kilometres from the state's major cities, including Thanjavur (a World Heritage Site), Tiruchirappalli, and Madurai.

Chettiars were traditionally engaged in the professions of trading, weaving, and agriculture in pre-colonial India, and they were skilled entrepreneurs. Their original home was Kaveripoompattinam (Poompuhar), a coastal town in the Chola dynasty; however, by the 13th century, they had relocated to the 96 hamlets surrounding Karaikudi for a variety of reasons. Since then, the region has become their home. Naatukottai Chettiars, fondly called Nagarathar, meaning, urban residents as they have come from the coastal town. Since they came from the coastal area, their early occupation was salt trading and excelled in maritime trading during the Chola rule. They trade salt, jewels, spices, textiles, and jewellery to Southeast Asian countries like Singapore, Malaysia, Burma etc. Much of their revenues which they earned from other countries were spent in constructing luxurious palaces in their hometown around the 19th century, which used to be called Naatukottai or Local fort. All these palaces exist even today, and it has a minimum of 20 to a maximum of 50 rooms in it.  

So Chettinad is known for its palaces; you can find around 1000 palaces in this region. Chettiar community has decorated their luxurious homes with imported materials from East Asian countries and Europe. Their architecture is a fusion of both Indian and European styles. Every Bangla has a sit-out (referred to as thinnai in Tamil) on both sides of the entry and three to four courtyards supported by pillars made of Burmese teak and surrounded by verandas with spacious rooms. These courtyards are for social gathering occasions like marriage, and festivals, and to observe funeral rites. The distance between the front and back doors would be at least 100 meters.  

During the Second World War, most of them settled abroad. Now, the palaces are serving as mansions, heritage resorts & homestays.

Clan temples that the Pandya kings built are famous in this region. They are Illayathangudi, Pillaiyarpatti, Surakudi, Iraniyur, Mathoor, Velankudi, Illupaikudi, Nemamkoil, and Vairavankoil temples. The whole community belongs to these 9 major divisions, each with a temple and their own set of rituals to worship. They won't marry a person who belongs to the same clan since they consider them as siblings.  

Chettinad is well known for the unique taste of its culinary skills. Chettiars are experts in preparing sumptuous recipes. Initially, the cuisine is familiar with vegetarian recipes, but during their travel to different countries, they have adopted some non-vegetarian foods on their menu. But beef and pork are not on their list. Because of their coastal origin, seafood is the signature recipe of Chettinad cuisine. The aroma of freshly ground masalas, and banana leaf serving is their uniqueness. Chettinad cuisine is famous across the world.

Chettinad in Tamil Nadu resembles Shekhawati in Rajasthan. Shekhawati is a Rajput clan (a forward-caste community) that lives primarily in the Shekhawati region of Rajasthan. Chettinad is mostly populated by merchants known as Chettiars, who are involved in the pre-colonial Indian professions of trading, weaving, and agriculture, as well as being skilled in entrepreneurship. The Shekhawati region is famous for its havelis, which are beautiful old buildings. As history demonstrates, Marwari merchants created these massive and beautiful havelis. The exteriors and interiors of these havelis are covered with mandala, mural and fresco artwork, and Ragamala paintings, giving them a traditional appearance and feel. Chettinad is famous for the palaces built by the Chettiars, who have adorned their opulent residences with imported materials from East Asian countries and Europe. Their architecture is a combination of Indian and European elements. For almost a century, local handcrafted Athangudi tiles have given the floor a light and glitter. These are environmentally friendly cement tiles with classic motifs and patterns.

There are three main ways to reach Chettinad from other destinations:

By Air: The nearest airport to Chettinad is Madurai International Airport (IXM), located 100 Kms away. While Chettinad doesn't have an airport, Madurai offers connections to various cities in India including Chennai, Bengaluru, Mumbai, and Delhi. It also has some international destinations like Dubai, Singapore and Colombo. The second nearest airport to Chettinad is Trichy International Airport (TRZ), which is 110 Kms away and has regular flight connectivity to major cities in India, including Chennai, Bangalore, Delhi, Hyderabad and Mumbai and also has connections to some international destinations, such as Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Dubai and Colombo.

By Train: Chettinad has a railway station, Chettinad Railway Station (CDMR). The major station in the region is Karaikudi Junction (KRD), which connects Chettinad to major cities and towns within Tamil Nadu and neighbouring states.  

By Road: Chettinad enjoys good road connectivity to various cities across Tamil Nadu. Karaikudi, the largest town in Chettinad, serves as a major transportation hub. National Highways 45 and 210 connect Karaikudi to Madurai, Trichy, Thanjavur, and Chennai.

Main Attractions of Chettinad: 

Athangudi Palace:The Athangudi Palace is a beautiful palace in the village of Athangudi, Chettinad. It is one of the most well-preserved and popular Chettinad palaces open to visitors. The Athangudi Palace is a remarkable example of Chettinad architecture, distinguished by its huge size, detailed detailing, and use of high-quality materials. The palace has 64 large rooms, over 500 exquisite stained-glass windows, imported tiles from Italy, and colored glass from Belgium. The enormous teak timber doors and windows are embellished with exquisite carvings and vibrant works of art, demonstrating the workmanship of the time. A visit to Athangudi Palace is like going back in time. The Athangudi Palace has been expertly renovated and provides insight into the lavish lifestyle of the Chettiar merchants who built it. The elaborate features and craftsmanship in the palace are simply breathtaking. The vast halls, courtyards, and living rooms reveal much about their wealth and social standing. The palace was once a private residence. In the late 2010s, family members worked to open the Athangudi Palace to the public as a heritage monument. Today, it is a renowned tourist site where visitors may enjoy the grandeur of Chettinad architecture and culture. It is also known as the "Periya Veedu," which means "Big House" in Tamil, reflecting its grand proportions. The palace is supposed to have been built without ceiling fans, as the thick walls and architectural design kept the interiors cool. The Athangudi tiles, a characteristic of Chettinad architecture, are vividly displayed throughout the Palace.

Timings: 09:00 AM to 05:00 PM

Entrance fee: Rs.100 

Camera & Video Camera fee: No

Ayyanar Temple: This temple is located at the heart of Karaikudi. The main attraction would be a statue of Ayyanar, the South Indian Hindu guardian deity. Ayyanar is frequently shown riding a horse, therefore, you can expect a prominent horse statue inside the temple. The temple is characterized as smaller than other Ayyanar temples. The inner walls of the temple complex may feature murals representing events from Hindu mythology or stories about Ayyanar. The temple probably contains a courtyard for gatherings and rites. Enshrines the deity Ayyanar, who is associated with protection, rain, and the warding off of evil spirits. Murals representing mythology or local history may be present, but not in all Ayyanar temples.

Timings: 09.00 AM to 05.00 PM 

Entrance fee: No 

Camera & Video Camera Fee: No 

Aayiram Jannal Veedu: 

The Thousand Window House, also known in Tamil as Aayiram Jannal Veedu, is a majestic home in Karaikudi, the heart of Chettinad. It's a vast 20,000-square-foot architectural masterpiece completed in 1941. The house's exterior is embellished with elaborate carvings and sculptures, which show the skill and artistry of Chettinad architecture. True to its name, the mansion has approximately a thousand windows, giving natural light and ventilation throughout the property. The windows are reported to be elegantly constructed and manufactured. The mansion features 25 huge rooms and 5 grand halls, which show the wealth of the Chettiar people who erected it. A wealthy Chettinad merchant family commissioned the mansion to reflect their wealth and social status. The home illustrates the distinctive Chettinad architectural style, which combines elements of South Indian, colonial, and Islamic architecture. This can be evident in the use of arches, tiled floors, and ornamental plasterwork. The mansion was built by a wealthy Nagarathar merchant family and oozes grandeur with its large interiors, elaborate detailing, and use of high-quality materials.Unfortunately, the Thousand Window House is currently closed to the public.

Chettinad Palace

The Chettinad Palace, also known as the Kanadukathan Palace, is a magnificent palace situated in Kanadukathan village in Sivaganga district, 15 kilometers from Karaikudi. Rajah Sir Annamalai Chettiar, a prominent member of the Chettinad community, built the palace in 1912. He founded the Indian Bank and Annamalai University. The palace's architectural style combines Chettinad and European influences, creating a genuinely unique and regal structure. The castle is decorated with ornate sculptures, arches, and brightly colored tiles. The structure is supposed to have taken seven years to complete because of the numerous magnificent ornamental elements. The interior of the Chettinad Palace is not open to the public, but tourists can still appreciate the beautiful exterior. The palace is set in calm surroundings, with gentle palm trees swaying in the sea breeze. The beautiful beauty of the area attracts photographers and sightseers.

Special Remark: Visitors are not permitted entry because most Chettinad community family marriages take place only at this palace, and it is a popular shooting location too.

Thirumayam Fort: 

The Thirumayam Fort is a 40-acre historical landmark in the town of Thirumayam, Tamil Nadu, on the Pudukkottai-Karaikudi highway. It is 22 kilometers from Karaikudi. It was constructed in 1687 by Vijaya Raghunatha Sethupathi, the Raja of Ramnad. The fort was built strategically atop a rocky mountaintop, creating a natural protection against intruders. Raghunatha Raya Tondaiman, his brother-in-law, eventually took control of the fort. The fort was an important part of the Polygar Wars, a series of wars between the British East India Company and local chieftains, or poligars, in the 18th and early 19th centuries. During these wars, the fort was particularly useful as a safe haven for rebel leaders. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) completed major modifications to the Thirumayam Fort in 2012. The fort is known locally as Oomayan Kottai, which means "fort of the dumb." There are several stories about the origins of this name. According to one tale, the name came from the fort's silence following the capture of Oomathurai, the brother of Panchalankurichi chieftain Kattabomman during the Polygar Wars. Another suggestion is that the name relates to a secret passage within the fort that has now vanished. Today, it is a major tourist destination, renowned for its historical significance and natural beauty. The fort has three entrances: north, south, and east. The fort's walls are built up of alternating stone and brick pieces. There is a Shiva cave next to the fort. Visitors to the summit of the fort can enjoy panoramic views of the surrounding area.

Timings: 10.00 AM to 05.00 PM 

Entrance fee: Rs.300 for foreigners & Rs.10 for Indians 

Camera fee: free 

Video Camera fee: Rs.25

Kanadukathan Mansions: 

The Kanadukathan houses are a cluster of old Chettiar mansions in Kanadukathan village, Chettinad district, Tamil Nadu, India. The Chettiyars, a wealthy merchant family, built these stately houses in the early 1900s as a result of their successful commercial activities. The Kanadukathan houses are known for their architectural magnificence, which reflects a distinct blend of influences. They are often enormous and imposing structures constructed with high-quality materials such as Burma teak, Italian marble, and Sri Lankan cedarwood. The exteriors of the homes are embellished with exquisite carvings and embellishments that represent the artistry of the time. The entryways are generally designed to replicate large temple entrances, complete with stunning statues and gateways. These grandiose houses reflected the riches and position of the Chettiyar families that erected them. The interiors were grand and vast, with high ceilings, polished floors, beautiful furniture, large living areas, and separate prayer rooms. While some Kanadukathan mansions still serve as private residences, others have been turned into heritage hotels and homestays. This metamorphosis allows visitors to appreciate the grandeur of Chettinad architecture while also gaining insight into the Chettiyars' rich lifestyle. Chettinad estate: This beautiful estate was erected in 1902 and has since been renovated into a luxurious resort. The Chettinad Mansion allows travellers to experience the grandeur of Chettinad architecture and hospitality. Kanadukathan Pethaperumal Chettiar Palace- This magnificent home is another example of Chettinad architecture at its best. While it is not currently a hotel or a public building, it is an important landmark in Kanadukathan.

Special Remark: There is no permission for the visitor to go inside the place; they can only see from outside. 

Activities in Chettinad: 

Bullock Cart Ride: Some hotels in Chettinad may provide bullock cart trips to its visitors. A bullock cart ride is a traditional and relaxing way to see the villages and landscape of Chettinad. These slow-moving carts, hauled by a pair of bullocks, provide a unique view on the region's architecture, beautiful landscapes, and rural lifestyle. A bullock cart trip allows you to explore Chettinad at a slower pace, soaking in the sights, sounds, and scents of the village. Bullock carts are a traditional means of transportation in Chettinad, and riding them is an excellent opportunity to learn about the local culture. Bullock carts are still utilized for transportation in some parts of Chettinad, and you may see them transporting anything from people to products.

Cooking Demo: Some hotels in Chettinad may provide cooking demos for its visitors. These demonstrations are typically less hands-on than cooking workshops, but they can still be an excellent way to learn about Chettinad cuisine and observe how the meals are created. They provide cooking workshops where students can learn how to produce Chettinad dishes from scratch. These workshops are often taught by expert chefs and cover ingredients, methods, and recipes. They frequently involve a visit to a local market to observe the fresh products utilized in Chettinad cuisine. They also provide live culinary demonstrations as part of the dining experience. This is an excellent opportunity to observe Chettinad’s cooking skills up close and learn about the various spices used. There are numerous Chettinad specialities, ranging from fragrant curries like Chettinad chicken and seafood dishes like Meen Kulambu (Fish Gravy) to vegetarian pleasures like Vazhaipoo Vadai (banana flower fritters).

Antique Market Visit: The antique market in the heart of Karaikudi is the pinnacle of treasure-seeking in Chettinad. This hidden gem is a little road lined with shops full of treasures awaiting discovery, ranging from tiny European curiosities and lamps to intricate Indian brass and bronze statues. The market has a bustling atmosphere, in stark contrast to the vast Chettinad houses. A true treasure hunter's paradise, with everything from tiny European curiosities and lamps to intricate Indian brass and bronze statues, exquisite Burma teakwood doors from Chettinad mansions, timeless Chettinad furniture, handwoven cotton, and silk sarees, and Athangudi tiles, unique type of clay tile known for its geometric patterns and vibrant colours. The market is a treasure mine for anyone wishing to bring some of Chettinad's rich history and culture into their house.

Athangudi Handmade Tiles Factory: Athangudi tiles are a popular choice for individuals seeking a one-of-a-kind and visually appealing method to bring a touch of tradition to their home. These handmade tiles are manufactured in Athangudi, a village in the Chettinad district. While there is no information on a single, large-scale factory, the community is home to various workshops and family-run companies that continue this legacy. The tile-making process is intriguing and has been passed down through centuries. Artisans use a range of techniques to create the elaborate designs that distinguish Athangudi tiles. The process of creating these classic and elegant tiles, including the basic layer: The technique starts with a base layer of coarse sand and concrete, coloured powder. Then, powdered colours are put into the foundation layer to form the desired design. Smoothing and polishing: After the design is completed, the surface is smoothed and polished to a shine. Each Athangudi tile is a one-of-a-kind work of art because the entire process is done by hand. Athangudi tiles are well-known for their long-lasting quality and fade resistance. They come in a wide range of colours and designs, making them an excellent choice for any home decor project.

Timings: 09.00 AM to 05.00 PM 

Another Important Temple located near to Karaikudi: 

Pillayarpatti Temple: The Pillayarpatti Temple, also known as the Karpaga Vinayagar Temple, is a 7th-century CE rock-cut cave sanctuary that has been greatly extended in subsequent years. It is in Pillayarpatti village, Tiruppathur Taluk, Sivaganga district, approximately 15 kilometres from Karaikudi. The temple is dedicated to Karpaka Vinayagar (Ganesha). The temple's primary sanctuary is a cave cut into the side of a steep hill. The cave temple's rock-cut carvings include Ganesha, a Shiva linga, and another carving that has been attributed to Ardhanarishwara, Harihara, or an early ruler. The sculptures are renowned for their peculiar iconography. The temple's principal deity is a six-foot-tall idol of Lord Ganesha known as Karpaga Vinayagar, who is shown in a distinctive Valampuri stance with two hands, as opposed to other portrayals of Ganesha, which have four hands. Over 15 inscriptions have been discovered within the temple complex, which help to determine the temple's age. Vinayagar Chathurthi, the temple's principal festival, is held in magnificent style for ten days in August and September. Every month on Sankata Hara Chaturthi, the temple is decked and a special pooja is held. Unlike other Ganesha temples, the Pillayarpatti Temple features shrines to Shiva Linga, Ardhanarishwara, Harihara, and three goddesses: Sivagami Amman, Vadamalar Mangaiamman, and Soundara Nayagiamman.

Timings: 06.00 AM to 12.00 PM & from 04.00 PM to 08.15 PM 

Entrance: No 

Hotels in Chettinad:

Hotel Names

Category

Website Link

Hotel Visalam

Premium (5*)

https://www.cghearth.com/visalam

Hotel Chidambara Vilas

Deluxe (4*)

https://www.sangamhotels.com/chidambara-vilas-pudukkottai/

Hotel Bangala

Standard (3*)

https://www.thebangala.com/

Hotel Chettinad Mansion

Standard (3*)

http://chettinadmansion.com/

Hotel Chettinad Court

Economy

https://chettinaducourt.com/

Hotel Saratha Vilas

Boutique

https://sarathavilas.com/

Hotel Chettinad Heritage

Economy

https://thechettinadheritage.com/

Hotel Chettinad Heritage Wellness Resort

Economy

https://www.chettinadresorts.in/

Restaurants in Chettinad:  

Please note, we do not have proper good local restaurants in Chettinad. So we would like to suggest the below-mentioned hotels for guests' lunch at Chettinad. 

  • Hotel Visalam 
  • Hotel Bangala
  • Hotel Chettinad Mansion 
  • Hotel Chidambara Vilas 
  • Hotel Nanchi Residency 

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