So much of Chettinad is improbable that where the magic ends and the realism begins is hard to determine
To wander through an inner courtyard with a display of the silver, brassware and lacquer that would typically accompany a Nattukotai Chettiar bride to her new home is to immediately understand why so many Chettinad mansions have rooms with large locks on them. The 50-60kg of silverware included salvers and fruit baskets that could have doubled as props for Downton Abbey. The brass cooking utensils were so enormous, a child could have hidden in them.
Walking visitors around the dining room, large enough for a state banquet, with Chettinad saris dropped from the high ceiling as if for a kite festival for giants, Sivagami Subbiah remarked that the last large celebration in the house was her wedding more than three decades ago.
Her poignant comment brought back the discussion from lunch with visitors from Mumbai and Goa that Chettinad would be ideal for destination weddings. Indeed, it is hard to think of a place other than Sicily where gigantic homes in a jumble of architectural styles ranging from Neo Classical to Art Nouveau to Art Deco rise out of an arid, rural landscape as if in a hallucination. The Nattukotai Chettiars, however, are likely too reticent a community to hire out their homes as marriage halls. There is also the practical need to lock rooms jammed full of silverware and other family heirlooms.
Instead, the Chettinad Heritage and Cultural Festival, the second edition of which was held earlier this month, is a sumptuous alternative. Evenings featured concerts by flautists, dance performances and talks by the photographer Bharath Ramamrutham and the historian Manu Pillai. Mornings featured tours around ninth century temples in the area and walks through these palaces built in the 19th and early 20th century by the Nattukotai Chettiars as a celebration of their success in banking and trade in Burma (now Myanmar) and South-East Asia.
A mountain of silver, brass and lacquer objects would accompany a Chettinad bride to her new home, and these would be stored in locked rooms for most of the year.
The mansions are the reason to visit at any time, but during the festival many more are open to the public. The Burmese teak used in most mansions appears to have had a supernatural quality; the horses and guardian creatures that clamber up doorways are that finely carved. The Belgian mirrors and Italian marble speak of a community wildly cosmopolitan in its decorative tastes. The Chidambara Vilas, now an excellent hotel, had a ballroom so gigantic that a person at one end could not easily spot someone at the other end, The New York Times reported in a 2017 magazine cover story on Chettinad.
This sounds like legend, but then so much of Chettinad is improbable that where the magic ends and the realism begins is hard to determine. The first wave of inhabitants, traumatised by a tsunami, are believed to have sought refuge from coastal areas by settling in the dry plains of Chettinad. The houses are on elevated platforms to protect them against the danger of being flooded. Another quirk is the low doorways within the typical mansion. A Madurai architecture student, volunteering in the Chettinad Palace, explained these as daily indoctrination in humility.
The paradoxical simplicity and majesty of the Art Deco in Chettinad aside, among my favourites is the Art Nouveau mansion owned by Meenakshi Meyyappan: Italian black marble is used for enormous columns and the checkerboard marble floor might be a chessboard for the gods.
The checkerboard marble floor in the Art Nouveau mansion owned by Meenakshi Meyyappan might be a chessboard for the gods.
Then there is a candy-coloured Neo Classical mansion with grand colonnades along its first-floor facade that also features gargoyle-like decorations, which make it look as if it was inspired by an Oxford college building, but Indianised with Hindu deities and East India Company sepoys. This will open in April as a hotel run by Park Hotels. The loveliest Art Deco mansion is Visalam, managed by CGH Earth. Asked to explain the architectural prowess on display in Chettinad, Ramamrutham, whose coffee-table book Mansions Of Chettinad has a three-dimensional quality to it, confessed to being as bewildered as us. “They may have been built by aliens,” he joked.
It is as good an explanation as any. As I visited the towns of Chettinad, Salman Rushdie’s words on what migration has given the world seemed apt: “Melange, hotchpotch, a bit of this and a bit of that, is how newness enters the world.” This is especially true of the food at The Bangala, owned by Meenakshi Meyyappan, where the charismatic food historian Rakesh Raghunathan hosted cooking demonstrations with the hotel’s master chef, Pandi. The last dinner at The Bangala was emblematic. Crab meat dosas were on offer alongside murtabak, the stuffed crepe available in the Middle East and South-East Asia as delicious street food. There were delicate egg hoppers, served unusually with Sri Lanka’s pol sambol (grated coconut mixed with chili and lime juice). The latter is a nod to Meyyappan’s childhood in Colombo. A table of Sri Lankans enthusiastically praised the food. Desserts included mango phool and a passionfruit mousse.
At The Bangala, fruit stars in salads and pachadis long predate Yotam Ottolenghi’s now famous salads that often combine fruit and vegetables. That afternoon, green apple had elevated a more kozhambu to something else altogether. I left a kilogram heavier, planning to bring friends who exercise and a personal trainer on my next visit. This week, the Bangala was ranked 17th on Conde Nast Traveller’s India’s best restaurants list, notably the highest ranked establishment outside the five metros and Goa. There is no hotel in India at which I would rather eat three meals a day.
The festival was organised by the renowned Bharatanatyam dancer Leela Samson and Yacob George, who manages The Bangala, as an elegant series of miniatures of Chettinad and south Indian culture. The walks through the temples and to a thrilling, newly excavated site in Keeladi, which pushes the earliest habitation in the Sangam age in southern India back by a few hundred years, were led by an articulate academic, Madhusudhanan Kalaichelvan.
Meyyappan, 89, magisterially kept an eye on things, just as she has propelled the resurgence of Chettinad since opening The Bangala in 1999. She added an introduction to Saurashtrian culture in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, this year. Scarcely was the festival over than Meyyappan was soliciting suggestions on how it might be improved. A geography student while at college in Chennai, her immense legacy is putting this jewel box destination on the tourist map.
The revival under way is essential to preserving the region’s culture and buildings because most younger Chettiars have understandably settled abroad or in metropolitan India. Who would buy, as The New York Times put it, “a 150-year-old, 85-room villa two hours from the nearest airport in an area that modern industry has forgotten?”
The educationist Alaga Alagappan lamented in his talk, “Once we exported capital, now we export people.” The good news is that visitors quickly become repeat visitors. This was my third trip and yet, within a day of my return to Bengaluru, I twice caught myself checking driving times to The Bangala. This is a perennial puzzle with Chettinad. Thousands of its mansions may lie abandoned and covered in soot and mould. Yet, travel there as a tourist and it is the return to normal life that feels like a banishment.
Rahul Jacob is a former travel, food and drink editor of the Financial Times, London.