Tamil Nadu, the land of temples, abounds in natural beauty and offers a myriad of adventures for an avid tourist. From the shopping hub of Chennai to the countless temples of Madurai, to the resplendent natural beauty of the Nilgiris, there's everything a tourist can ask for. Add to it the long stretches of beautiful highways and that makes a road trip in Tamil Nadu a worthy bet.
Just when you seem to have experienced nature in all it’s glory, there emerges a sleepy little town, not known by its natural beauty but by its people, it’s food, and its magnificent man-made structures- the town of Karaikudi, the home of the Nattukottai Chettiars. Situated in the Sivagangai district of Tamil Nadu, at a two-hour drive from Madurai, this town is home to some of the most famous business enterprises in the South. This includes the like of the Murugappa Group, The Chettinad group and AVM studios. Adding to them is one of the oldest Universities in India- Annamalai University and one of the oldest Indian banks with foreign connections- The Chettinad bank and you know what we are talking.
Architectural brilliance of Chettiars
Among the many huge bungalows lined across the street, one of the most striking pieces of architecture has to be the 'Aayiram Jannal Veedu', which translates literally to 'the house with thousand windows'. The very mention of the name personifies grandeur and royalty and the structure in itself is no different.
Built in 1941, Aayiram Jannal Veedu or Chidambara Vilas is a true example of the Chettinad culture. With a thousand windows, twenty huge doors made of Burma teak, 25 huge bedrooms, and 5 magnificent halls, it oozes royalty all over. Spread over 20,000 square feet, this magnificent structure abounds in natural lighting that would put any modern building to shame. The huge pillars in the hallway, tastefully decorated with intricate art and the colourful windows add to its glory. Some of the most exquisite wooden furniture awaits you in the huge halls. The beautiful courtyards complete with European tiles and Italian marble leave a lasting impression. Fortunately, this structure is well-maintained and has not met the same fate as some similar structures you will find all around. This trip is indeed bound to be a true reminiscent of the Chettiar way of life - beautiful homes and tasty food. Your taste buds will be in sync with your eyes and transport you to another world.
A taste of tradition
Having covered the people and the buildings, one can move on to the third and most distinct part of the Chettinad; the food. Delicacies abound in this area too, be it the prawn curry or the mutton pepper sukka or the most famous dish of them all, the chicken chettinad. Though Chettinad is relatively dry and humid, you will find a lot of their food influenced by the ocean. This can be traced to the history of the Chettiars, who had initially settled as traders near Kaveripoompattinam and later moved Southwards towards Karaikudi. The preferred food is non-vegetarian during functions but that does not take away some mouth-watering vegetarian dishes like kuzhi paniyaram, pal kozhukattai and kara kozhambu.
The most exquisite dish of the lot, however (apart from the chicken Chettinad) is the vazhaipoo meen curry. Yes, you heard it right, fish curry infused with banana flowers and fresh coconut milk, and surprise…this dish is vegetarian. It is made substituting fish with banana flowers, which resemble anchovies. This mouth-watering treat smells and tastes like fish curry only that it does not have any fish. It is a perfect compliment to a steaming plate of rice with a spoonful of ghee. The dish is believed to have been conceptualized by the Chettiars for consumption during the Margazhi month (Dhanu) when the people in Tamil Nadu usually turn vegetarian as a matter of faith. The masalas used in this dish in particular and Chettinad in general are usually homegrown like jeera, cumin, star anise, pepper and dry chillies. It is the duty of the Aachi’s (older women) of the household to hand-pound these masalas fresh every day. The combination varies from household to household and the secret is revealed only when a woman is married and moves out of the household.
For the people in Chettinad, life is a festival of colours and a celebration of joy, evident and visible by the nature of the surroundings and the vibrant colour palettes used for their buildings. This colourful journey will etch a lasting impression in the eyes and mouth of a traveller. It will be a journey you won’t regret taking.
Trivia: The history of the Nattukottai Chettiars can be traced back to over 65,000 years. They were one of the oldest communities to establish trade links with Sri Lanka and Burma. They are believed to have been prompted by Raja Raja Chola to establish foreign trade links because of their business acumen.
How to Reach: The Madurai airport is well-connected to all places in India and some international destinations as well. Karaikudi is around 90 km from Madurai by road.
When to Visit: The weather in the Chettinad is usually warm to hot. The best time to visit would be from October-February when festivities are in full swing and the Northeast monsoon bathes the surroundings to unveil its full glory.
Places to visit: Some places worth visiting include the Chettinad palace, museum, Vairavanpatti and Ilayathangudi (earliest temples of the Chettiar clan) and Pillayarpatti (beautiful temple dedicated to Lord Ganesha).
Where to stay: There are many good hotels in and around Karaikudi. If you have deep pockets, you can check into one of the many Chettiar mansions, now converted into a heritage resort.