I had first heard of Chettinad with the mention of spicy Chettinad food. It came as a bit of a surprise then when I read about Chettinad as a region in Tamil Nadu with a similar profile to Shekhawati in Rajasthan. When I was actually able to explore the various towns and villages of Chettinad with CGH Earth Visalam, I realised that the mansions of Chettinad are in a different league with another level of grandness.
Also, the theory of Chettinad food being spicy was also turned on its head after a few meals; the spice levels being quite mild and the use of spices was to flavour the food in a balanced manner than to make it overpowering to the palate! Isn’t this what travel is all about? To let us experience for real what we have only read so far.
After about an year and a half of ‘living’ in the mountains; spending last winter in Kasar Devi, Uttarakhand – and then the next year in Kullu Valley; we were really missing the raw feel of travelling in unfamiliar territory and thereby ended up booking tickets to Chennai. At the outset; it felt like a sea change upon landing in Tamil Nadu. The weather was comparatively mild in Pondicherry and Auroville and that sort of allowed us to somehow adjust to the unusually hot weather in March.
The drive from Pondicherry to Chettinad was memorable as it was overcast the entire day and that turned the countryside into a veritable shade of green. We left from Pondicherry at about 8 am after a quick breakfast of idli, sambar vadas from a roadside stall. On one of the short stops, it was nice to sip sweet tender coconut water and bite into chunks of plump sugarcane sticks being sold on the road.
It started pouring as we neared Tiruchirappalli, and it made for an excellent stop at a small coffee shop on the way – it advertised Kumbakonam degree coffee and it definitely had a unique strong flavour to the steaming mugs of coffee. We saw men and women working in the submerged paddy fields and as we neared Visalam, I had a short glimpse of a fort on a rocky outcrop and made a mental note of asking more about it.
We were shown the way to the palatial Chettinad Room and informed that lunch was ready to be served in the aptly named ‘Sapadu Shala’, (literally food room). The welcome drink Chukku kaapi made with dry ginger and palm jaggery was tantalising in taste. Lunch was served in a banana leaf and included a delicious array of dishes that made me wish I had a bigger appetite / stomach!
The Sapadu Shala was housed in a traditional Chettiar kitchen and it was a memorable sight to notice that traditional brass utensils were used for cooking as well as for decor to provide an authentic experience of a Chettinad mansion. The dishes served are homemade lemon pickle, onion pachadi, kar paavakai varuval (bitter gourd fritters), podalangai poriyal (stir fry snake gourd), kodamilagai mandi (capsicum+garlic mix), pookose poriyal (cauliflower stir-fry), vazhakkai varuval (raw banana snack), nei sadham (ghee rice), aavarakai sambar (broad beans sambar), sundavatha kulambu (bitter berries mix), rasam, curd and payasam.
My biggest and most pleasant surprise at Visalam was the abundance of greenery in the outdoor spaces and the riot of bougainvillea blooms in different colours like white, purple, red, pink, yellow (maybe I missed a few other colours!). The flowers spread like a carpet on the grass and with the breeze blowing in the open air courtyard spread bouts of happiness. I spotted eclectic cast iron chairs in the ‘garden café’ – the usual haunt for breakfast at Visalam.
One of the doors opened to bring forth the sight of the swimming pool and after the longest break largely caused to covid; it called for a short tryst in the welcoming cool waters. The sunset colours were most epic as we climbed up on one of the rooftops for a better view. As night fell, the sound of cicadas filled the air reminding us that we were in a palatial home alright; with the right mix of nature’s gifts.
Siva (staff at Visalam) charted out next day’s plan and since the weather was excellent for the time being, we decided to go on a leisurely heritage walk across Kanadukathan. The staff at Visalam is mostly employed locally and it is delightful to hear their anecdotes while they narrate the stories. I was astounded at the grandness of the Chettiar homes (built between 1850 to 1950) and when Siva pointed out that some of the homes were so huge that 1 home covered an entire street; I had to actually go back and check every street to confirm the same and it indeed turned out to be true.
Some of the mansions owned by the Chettiars had 60 odd rooms (a few even boast of 100 rooms) and a typical mansion would have a garden and their own well. The Chettiar mansions were opulent with use of teak, chandeliers and glass from Burma, Belgium and Murano (Italy) respectively and a hallmark of these houses was the intricate wooden work on the doors, pillars and even on the ceiling.
A common theme among the mansions was that almost all of them seemed to be uninhabited. Siva took us across to a mansion that was in a family dispute and had an immaculately maintained half part of the house while the other half was in a derelict and crumbling condition. We also came across village ponds with temples constructed around them that served as water sources in the earlier days and also in the present times with well maintained clean water.
Evening was fast approaching and even though we felt like continuing the walk; the lure of fresh filter coffee was bait enough for us to return to Visalam. From 4 to 6-630 pm in the evening and 7 to 10 am in the morning, Geetha (staff at Visalam) is in charge of tea and coffee and I have no hesitation in saying that the filter coffee and masala tea at Visalam was the best during our entire Tamil Nadu trip.
Dinner was served under the skies by the pool and was an exotic mix of traditional ingredients made in a fusion style – all thanks to the chefs and Siva. The attention to detail was so immaculate and the experience so nicely personalised, I was compelled to ask Siva if there was a menu for guests or if he was a champion in reading their minds and knowing what they wanted to eat! It is the norm to eat a little more than usual when you are in Chettinad and that necessitated a walk around the pool. After gazing at the stars for a while, we decided to call it a night and slept in the cozy four-post bed looking at the Burma teak ceiling.
We woke up and rushed to get our dose of morning chai and filter coffee and ended up walking bare-feet in the lawn while listening to birdsong. It is delightfully relaxing and while Siva has made a hectic to-see list for the day; I am mentally prepared to take it slow. We have a light breakfast of the usual idli, podi dosa, uttapam, ragi upma and leave at 10 am.
What to see in Chettinad?
Athangudi Palace – Athangudi Periya Veedu
Hardly 10 odd minutes drive from Kanadukathan, the Athangudi Palace is a stunning Chettiar mansion with a dazzling hall. There are 2 young women at the entrance who ask for a 50 Rupee entry fee but language issues mean I couldn’t really ask them about the history of the Palace and resign myself to internet research for more details. Most of the rooms of the Periya Veedu are closed but it is the main hall that is the highlight here; and it comes as no surprise that it is a popular shooting location.
The defining feature of the mansions of Chettinad is the use of exclusively handmade tiles made in Athangudi and our next stop was to visit a tile maker. I spotted a tour group bus outside their premises and the eagerness of one of the managers to get us to ‘make our own tiles’ rather than simply explaining how the tiles were made meant we went for a quick perusal by ourselves and figured the different stages of the designing of these unique handmade tiles. The Athangudi tiles come with colourful patterns and are used on the floors, on the walls or even on the ceiling!
Sri Solai Aandavar Temple
It was nice to visit a temple in this part of the country and observe the rich architecture. There were a lot of locals also visiting the temple and the shaded part was a welcome break from the relentless sun.
Visalam Owners House, Kottaiyur
Aachi (Visalam House’s owner) is wonderful to talk to and she made sure we were shown nook and corner of the grand house. The hall had a grand ceiling decorated with yalis (mythical creature) and the inner courtyard with majestic round pillars made with Burma teak. She asked for a buttermilk to be served to us to serve as a coolant. Aachi affectionately means – grandmother.
This place in Kottaiyur was very authentic and ladies were frying murukku on firewood and making other sweets and snacks. We bought a packet of freshly packed murukku and wondered what all did they make! Later, after coming back Siva remarked that the ladies also made adirasam (a traditional sweet in Tamil Nadu.)
Karaikudi Cotton Weavers
Chettinad and Karaikudi region have a rich history of cotton weaving on handloom. We visited one of the cotton weavers and saw the excellent quality of sarees they wove.
Karaikudi Antique Market
A cluster of shops on the Muneeswaran Kovil street, Kallukatti in Karaikudi is more popularly known as the Karaikudi Antique market courtesy of the stuff sold coming from Chettiar mansions. The collection in some of the shops is excellent but the prices are quite inflated. Honestly, I think the shops have understood the game and quote 20 times the price of a product leaving you with almost no chance of buying it at a fair price.
It is excruciatingly hot with the sun beating down today and with no clouds to shield us, we get back to Visalam at 3 pm and immediately request for curd rice to be made for lunch. Siva is disappointed, having planned an elaborate meal for us. He coaxes us into sharing a vegetarian platter on a banana leaf, along-with the curd rice of course! I am especially enamoured by the carrot payasam.
We are advised to rest for a while because it is very hot outside. Once evening descends, we go for a short walk exploring the streets of Kanadukathan and are happily surprised at stumbling upon more Chettinadu mansions. There’s a curious looking place and it turns out to be a merchant selling freshly cold pressed coconut oil, groundnut oil and sesame oil. It is an especially pleasing sight when we see a spectacular sunset with the sun as a huge ball of fire. We come back to Visalam and wonder how will we manage to go to Madurai which is said to be even hotter than Chettinad!
Dinner is served early and is a simple affair for our tired tummies. We call it a night and wake up early the next day to enjoy seconds of the excellent masala chai.
CGH Earth Visalam, Kanadukathan
Visalam was a house built by KVAL Ramanathan Chettiar for his eldest daughter, Visalakshi, more than 100 years ago. Visalam has been splendidly restored by CGH Earth keeping in mind the aesthetics of the traditional architecture of the Chettiars. The Chettiar community of this region were prosperous traders and their palatial houses are standing testaments to their sense of class. Visalam is a fine example of the Chettiar’s aesthetic sense that was grand in its conception and painstaking in its details. Visalam is a heritage Chettiar mansion preserved in time and and today it is almost like a respected museum, having preserved almost everything of its original character and interiors from the time it was built. The furniture is period in style, flawlessly crafted and made from the finest Burma teak.
Chettinad region is similar to Shekhawati not only in the arid and dry weather conditions but also in the stories of its inhabitants – Nattukottai Chettiars are businessmen who made their fortunes through businesses in Southeast Asia; mostly in Burma, Malaysia and Singapore. They used to trade in timber, gems, salt and precious metals. There are about 74 villages and an estimated 15000 mansions in Chettinad in the present time boasting of the use Carrara marble Venetian chandeliers from Italy, British ornamental steelwork from Birmingham and fine Burmese teak.
Note : I stayed at Visalam on a collaboration. The words and opinions on this blog are my own, as always.