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A Travel in the Lost Time, Chettinad

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Alternate Routes · Asia · india · Tamil Nadu · Una Meistere

A Travel in the Lost Time, Chettinad

Author: Una Meistere2 COMMENTS

A Travel in the Lost Time, Chettinad

The first time I heard about Chettinad was about 8 years ago. It was from a hotel owner in Kerala region as he was showing me around his villa, built on a hillock among tea-covered slopes. The house had fine wooden doors with lace-like carvings, and I could detect pride in his voice as he was telling about Tamil Nadu craftsmen. "It's all from Tamil Nadu. You wouldn't find such masters or such houses anyplace else in India," he said. Tamil Nadu is located in Southern India and is washed by the Indian Ocean. It starts right beyond Kerala Mountains and the scenery instantly changes there - narrow, rugged zigzag roads of Kerala straighten out and become twice as wide and considerably smoother. Land is very arid.

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Red and cracked it resembles a very dry skin. It is a sugarcane harvest season and brownish bundles are piled all along the roadside. It is also a culmination of the legendary Pongal festival, and we meet large groups of pilgrims coming into our direction. They are colorfully clad but mostly barefoot. Pongal is an annual four-day harvest festival coinciding with winter solstice in India. It marks the start of the sun's six-month long journey northwards when it enters the 10th house of the Indian zodiac i.e. Capricorn. To honor the sun, the source of energy and prosperity, a special drink is boiled from milk, rice, raisins, cashew nuts and sugarcane sugar on one of these days. Such a ritual takes place in every Tamil village, usually at midday. You can see women squatting along the line of steaming pots, in bright sunshine. Vapor is rising and forming a sweet-smelling cloud around them.

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Another important element of the festival is painted domestic animals, mostly cows. Their horns are painted pink, blue and yellow. You can see them grazing along the roadside and rummaging through food leftovers and garbage - plastic bags, paper packaging and other trash, dumped by pilgrims. As spiritually centered this event might be, people are not used to cleaning up after them. A well-known architect in Kerala once said to me: "That's the difference between Hinduism and Buddhism."

Foto: A Travel in the Lost Time, ChettinadFoto: A Travel in the Lost Time, ChettinadFoto: A Travel in the Lost Time, Chettinad

Chettinad is located in the south of Tamil Nadu, in about five-hour ride from the Indian Ocean. It comprises 73 villages and two small, according to India's standards, towns. They consist of about one thousand houses once built by wealthy merchants of this area. Chettinad covers 1550 km² and is inhabited by Chettinars. The first impressions are pretty surreal there - it's a place in the middle of nowhere with clayey, unpaved roads, mostly straight as arrows, stretching in north-south and east-west directions. Genuine stone mansions are rising along both sides of these streets, featuring façades embellished with numerous gazebos, pilasters, impressive entrance portals, sculptures and carvings. Many of them resemble lavishly decorated cakes. Unfortunately, many are abandoned for decades already. Ghosts are their only inhabitants and time unstoppably wipes away their old time splendor. The grandest ones are called naattukottais, meaning "country forts". Tall walls with ornate entrance arches separate them from street life and attest to former opulence of their owners.
With no clarity about the actual origins of this region, it is entwined with many legends and mythology. One of the legends goes that Chettinars once have lived close by the sea but after a devastating tsunami they have moved into deeper inland. Their houses feature prominent entrance stairs, as if safeguarding their inhabitants from yet another tsunami.

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It is known only that Chettinars were a prosperous and influential banking and business community and their golden age was in the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. They ran their business on a continental scale, connecting them with Burma, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore and Ceylon. They traded silk, teakwood, gold, gems and spices and transported their goods by sea. Chettinars owned banks in Burma and Malaysia and were highly respected both by local rulers and later - by British colonists. Their prosperity was brought to an end in the 20th century by the political consequences of the WWII and the national movements in South Asian countries.

A small number of Chettinars are still quite wealthy, although their wealth and influence cannot be compared to that of their golden age. Some of them are living in other parts of India, others are residing abroad. Times and customs have changed and they have no need or interest to return in their former houses in the middle of nowhere.

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The formerly magnificent properties now serve as monuments to the bygone times. Given that families are usually large in India, these properties have many owners with sharply different level of prosperity, and while they cannot come to any consensus as to further fate of them, house are slowly perishing. Or else, they are pulled apart by coldblooded antiquities dealers, piece by piece selling their exquisitely carved doors, wooden pillars and other items. Some trophies travel to Europe, but most of them stay in India, turned into interior elements of luxury hotels and are increasing their value by adding a certain touch of authenticity.

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Four former Chettinar mansions are opened for public viewing now for a symbolic entrance fee of 100 to 200 rupees. A little dusty but still maintaining their magnificence, they resemble somewhat ghostly sets of their former life, cut short few decades ago. Some former mansions are turned into hotels now. They are comparatively small as there are no mega-hotels in Chettinad, and you won't see crowds of tourists either. Few visitors that you meet are mostly from France, attributable to the colonial past of Tamil Nadu costal town Pondicherry. "French people are fond of cultural heritage tourism," says Bernard Dragon, French architect. He and his friend architect Michel Adment abandoned a flourishing architectural office in Paris six years ago and moved to India. Instead of global projects, they chose to renovate a former residence of a Chettinar family, turning it into an eight-room luxury lodge. Saratha Villas opened its doors in winter 2010 after eleven month of renovation and has already been featured on pages of numerous interior magazines as a unique restoration project and one of the most outstanding lodgings of the region. The story of Bernard and Michel is not a unique one - after an intensive marathon of large project (e.g., Peking National theatre, Osaka Sea Museum, the National Railway Museum in Deli and design projects like Cassina, Durlet, Porchere, etc.), they decided to take a break for a year.

Foto: A Travel in the Lost Time, ChettinadFoto: A Travel in the Lost Time, ChettinadFoto: A Travel in the Lost Time, Chettinad

They went to India in 1996 and spent four month in Kerala and it was then that they heard about Chettinad for the first time. Locals treasure the place and were reluctant to give away too much information. They both visited Chettinad in 2003 and were amazed to find not just dozens but several hundreds of veritable palaces. "We wandered from one village to another and streets of each one were packed with abandoned and deteriorating buildings. Fading splendor of their façades and interiors provoked our imagination and we pictured fascinating stories about their former owners."

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They are both struggling to save what can still be saved, with final goal being the UNESCO heritage status for Chettinad region. This process is not easy, although Chettinad was offered as shortlist candidate for inclusion in Tentative List for further nomination for UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2012. Yet huge changes have to take place in India and its attitude towards its own historic heritage to achieve that. Wiping away the past and replacing it with concrete monsters according to their own peculiar understanding of contemporary architecture is a common practice in India. This is the way Bangalore, Hyderabad and many other Indian cities have lost their former face.

Foto: A Travel in the Lost Time, ChettinadFoto: A Travel in the Lost Time, ChettinadFoto: A Travel in the Lost Time, Chettinad

"Europeans value their architectural heritage but in India it is quite on the contrary - living traditions are considered to be heritage, not buildings. Apart from temples, no other architecture has any value in their eyes. The same refers also to Chettinad - people attribute value to that what is going inside the house, not the building itself. They don't reflect upon the fact that these buildings have served as a stage for their traditions, and if they no longer exist, the traditions may disappear as well. Such attitude only slowly starts to change," says Bernard. "If Chettinad will be included in the UNESCO Heritage List," he continues, "It would become a sort of precedent - the very first time that UNESCO list includes an urban heritage consisting of a group of villages to protect architectural ensembles under private ownership."

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The building that now houses Saratha Villas dates back to 1910 and was a merchant's family home once. "Even though the epicenter of his business activities was Malaysia, typically to most of the Chettinars it was important for him to have home in his native region as well - as a proof of business success," tells Bernard. Such past time show-offs have actually formed the uniqueness of the region and turned Chettinad into a genuine gourmet destination for architects. Most of these mansions are built according to Vastu Shastra principle, widely applied in Hindu architecture. Its main concern is maximum well being for the inhabitants of a building.

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Moreover, designing their mansions Chettinars evidently applied all the knowledge and experience they had acquired while travelling abroad. Their architecture is an original fusion of East and West, featuring such elements as Murano glass chandeliers (in the middle of nowhere in India!), Belgian mirrors, Italian marble, Art Deco influences, etc.
Otherwise Chettinad buildings are quite similar in their layout - they consist of an inner courtyard and several halls, revealing the perspective of an entire length of a building. The front veranda is supported by dark marble columns but handrails along both sides of stairs are replaced by long marble benches with a stylized backrest, pleasantly cool and precisely mimicking a shape of one's back. Just a small matter, but it proves Chettinars care for finer details.

Foto: A Travel in the Lost Time, ChettinadFoto: A Travel in the Lost Time, ChettinadFoto: A Travel in the Lost Time, Chettinad

A veranda with richly decorated arches once represented the entire house and demonstrated the affluence and social status of its owners, the same way as a façade, embellished with numerous statues, starting from Hindu deities to Flora and Fauna, Indian Rajas, hunting scenes and even weather-battered African lions. A large hall was usually decorated with exquisite wood carvings, oftentimes also with portraits of former owners. Teakwood was brought from Burma, and local masters had refined their wood carving skills to creating lace-like patterns. Similarly to Iranian carpets, each wooden door has an entire story to tell, featuring a multitude of different characters. Moreover, such a visual narration boasts absolute harmony and impeccable symmetry. An open courtyard represents a symbolic heart of the building and is surrounded by granite pillars in the style of Dravidian temple, but from the above it is safeguarded by decorative metalwork, keeping away monkeys and other uninvited guests. A patio also has a vital role in the region's complex water supply system. There are neither rivers nor lakes, and life depends on two monsoons and the water reserves that are accumulated during rainy seasons. Roofs are built so that all the rainwater flows into a courtyard, and then, via special drainage system, it goes to various reservoirs, each intended for a different purpose. There are also impressive water reservoirs in the centre of each village, although nowadays they are almost empty due to dry weather of the last three years. It has lead to dramatic consequences - rice prices are going through the roof because of water scarcity and drinking water is delivered to the villages in large tanks. In the past, neighboring Kerala helped to overcome such crises, but the last monsoon was unexpectedly weak there too.

Egg plastering is yet another traditional technique used in Chettinad buildings. It is used to paint walls white and keep the insides of houses cool. Customary it was made of shell lime and eggs. "It is becoming impossible to repeat this technology as local craftsmen are gradually losing their ancient skills. And they are no longer in demand either," says Bernard. It is great that the legendary Chettinad tile making tradition is still alive - bright and decorative they cover almost every floor and their surface is soft, silky and cool, just perfect for walking barefoot. These tiles are hand-made and are produced in Ahangudi village factories, as locals proudly call them. In fact, those tile "factories" are just large courtyards where you can see a few men sitting in the sand next to cement piles and cans of natural dyes and making tiles all day long. They pour color into special forms or in just few seconds deftly draw the required pattern by hand.
Uniqueness of Chettinad lies also in the fact that life still flows strictly according to centuries-old traditions there. Each villager belongs to his particular clan, while each clan has its own temple. There are nine temples in Chettinad, apart from small places of worship in every village. "Various festivals are taking place throughout the year, almost once in every two weeks. Basically the entire life of people is predetermined by strict life-cycle rituals - from the very birth to ones final hour. And they cannot be separated from building and the village life in general."

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Asked if life doesn't become too monotonous in a place like this, Bernard laughs: "It's not all that peaceful. Anything can turn into a problem in such a remote place - electricity, water, health. There is a very good hospital nearby, but its fees are enormous for the locals. Moreover, if an employee happens to have a serious health issue, we usually check what kind of medication a local doctor has prescribed and then consult our friends in France. Sometimes particular symptoms require absolutely different treatment. We also have to teach the locals seemingly self-evident things, like how to properly clean wounds, the importance of hygiene and so on. Of course, there are moments when the Indian system of administration and bureaucracy also can drive you crazy. On the other hand, in those moments when we are alone and sit in the courtyard at night, we can actually hear the silence. It's unbelievable. You can hear birds flying, the sound of their wings, and nothing more. Unbelievable silence resides in their temples, too, interrupted only by swish of bats in the air, disturbed from their daytime sleep."

As I was leaving Chettinad, I felt like Alice coming back from the looking glass world - a weird, 21st century interruption in time.

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