The elaborate palaces of Chettinad are a triumphant mash-up of architectural styles, finds Caroline Bugler
Standing in a dusty street in the village of Kanadukathan in Tamil Nadu, it's easy to imagine you've been transported to a film set before the action begins.
The place is deserted, but stretched out in front of the main square is a palace, a dazzling spectacle of whiteness with door and window details picked out in terracotta, green and yellow paint. Balustrades on its roofline are topped with vases that could have been plucked from an Italian Renaissance place. A canopied entrance looks like Brighton Pavilion's version of Chinese, and windows on the first floor have pointed Gothic arches and stained glass.
This grand building, the Chettinad Palace, is one of the most spectacular examples of the thousands of mansions that were built between the mid-19th century and the 1940s by the Chettiars, a tight-knit community of wealthy merchants, bankers and estate managers who gave their name to Chettinad, an arid inland area about 400km south of Chennai.
The region doesn't attract vast numbers of tourists like Rajasthan, but many come because of its architectural heritage. Villages lined with grand but decaying mansions are embedded in a countryside that appears ageless. As I journeyed around, I saw sari-clad women in trucks on their way to work in the fields, a local temple festival and a roadside exorcism.
The Chettiars built on a grand scale — several mansions contain more than 100 rooms — because they housed all the grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, in-laws and children of an extended family. Lucrative trade with other south Asian countries such as Burma, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam brought contact with new ideas, resulting in a fabulous mash-up of Western and Tamil architectural features. A stroll around the streets will reveal Neoclassical columns, pillars and niches, Art Nouveau flourishes and Art Deco geometry.
Round a corner and you'll be surprised by a palatial home that looks like a perfect replica of a 1930s British Odeon, its facade painted turquoise or pistachio green. Grand frontages are crowned with statues of Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth, at times flanked by statues of British soldiers — a nod to the fact that the Chettiars did well under British rule.
According to our guide, a proud Chettiar, the merchants had sketches made of the buildings they saw on their travels so they could recreate their favourite details in their homes. A carved temple roof seen in Burma and recorded in a drawing could be reinterpreted by an Indian craftsman as an entrance porch; Rococo swags, garlands and cherubs perhaps seen in European engravings or books would reappear on a frieze running round the top of an entrance hall.
The Chettiars could afford to import the best materials: Burmese teak trees were shaped into majestic pillars; marble arrived from Italy for floors or columns; tiles from Japan and the UK were applied to walls. Diners might eat their meals beneath crystal chandeliers made in Czechoslovakia or Venice, or admire their reflections in enormous mahogany-framed mirrors that came from Belgium. Local Tamil temple decoration also supplied the model for elaborately carved columns and door surrounds.
The internal arrangement of these houses follows a similar pattern. An external veranda by the main entrance with raised platforms either side of an elaborately carved door is where men would traditionally conduct business. This gives way to a series of halls and interior courtyards that progress from lavishly decorated public spaces and banqueting halls to increasingly modest private ones and, finally, to a kitchen that was the preserve of women. Some of the banqueting halls could house hundreds of people; the Chettiars were and are renowned for their hospitality and cuisine.
Each house has a central inner courtyard lined with a covered colonnade, where the walls are coated with a special lime plaster so shiny and cool you long to rest your cheek against it. Family ceremonies are traditionally conducted here. When I visited it was the time of Pongal, the Indian harvest festival, and the courtyards were decorated with small shrines with kolams — intricate chalk designs — on the floor in front of them.
Several smaller rooms open off this main courtyard. Piled high with household items, these rooms are used to store objects given as dowries, and for prayer, rather than for sleeping. Often members of the household would take their bedrolls out at night and sleep together on the cool floors around the edge of the courtyard. Hooks in the ceiling once supported hammocks that contained babies who were lulled by gentle breezes.
But the grand age of mansion building declined with the Chettiars' fortunes. The Depression, the Japanese occupation of Burma, the end of British rule and the decolonisation of Southeast Asia brought an end to their long run of success. Today most of them no longer live in their palaces, but have decamped to larger cities in India or moved abroad. There used to be 96 Chettiar villages and now there are 75.
About 11,000 of the mansions are still standing. All are in private hands, but because they are so expensive to maintain, and multiple ownership is a nightmare when it comes to agreeing funds for repairs, many have been abandoned or are slowly crumbling. A number have been demolished. Others stand empty, guarded by caretakers, although their owners occasionally return to use them for weddings and festivals. A few have been turned into boutique hotels, offering swimming pools, Ayurvedic treatments, massage and yoga. But despite the widespread dilapidation there's an extraordinary poetry about these magnificent relics.
It is possible to visit some for a very small fee or if you get permission from the owners. For the full experience it's best to stay in one of the heritage hotels, which can arrange guides to take you around the houses of the local area, or lend you bicycles. The houses in Karaikudi, Kanadukathan, Athangudi and Kothanamangalam can all be visited, some by prior arrangement with the owners.
Air New Zealand flies to Chennai daily via Singapore. From here, Karaikudi is about a seven-hour drive or an overnight train ride.