It was a hot March afternoon and we were waiting for a local bus in a town called Karaikudi in Tamil Nadu to visit Kanadukathan, a small village which is known for its big mansions. After almost half an hour and asking around, an old man told us to board the green bus as that will directly take us to the place we desired to go.
We were on a road journey from Madurai to Thanjavur and Karaikudi, which is on the way (around 90 km from Madurai), was top of our list. It is part of the Chettinad region known for its architecture and food. This region contains around 70-odd villages and 11,000 traditional courtyard houses spread across Sivaganga and part of the Pudukkottai district of Tamil Nadu.
Kanadukathan, which is around 15 kilometres from Karaikudi, is considered one of the best places to admire the heritage houses of the Chettiyar community built between the mid-1800s and early 1900s. Chettiyars were a prominent business community who were involved in sea trade to different countries of Southeast Asia. They dealt in the business of salt, spices, gems, etc. Many of them were and are still well-known bankers.
This exposure to the world per se heavily influenced the way they lived. Their houses are a direct representation of their wealth, social status, and most importantly their attitude of imbibing the best of the world.
A casual stroll around this village and you will realise that you have been transported to a different time and space. It has all the essentials of a village life but just turn around and you get a feel of being in some Southeast Asian tropical region.
Every house here has a story and its well-decorated façade speaks of it. The richly decorated porches show influence from various architectural styles, which in many ways define this Chettinad architecture. In the centre of the façade, there are figures of deities like Gajalaxmi, Krishna, etc. Another prominent feature is the different layers of balustrades and parapets that add to the grandeur of these mansions.
Most of these courtyard houses are locked and some are in dilapidated condition. Whereas some are open for visitors after paying a nominal fee. We visited such two houses — the first one being the CVRM-CT Heritage House.
As soon as you enter this house, you are greeted with a grand hall which is decorated with polished granite columns, old wooden furniture, chandeliers, Belgium mirrors, etc. The highlights of these houses are the courtyard which we experienced at this house more intimately. It connects many rooms and a staircase which leads you to the terrace and you get a stunning view of the whole place. You can see all the tiled houses till the end of the horizon.
Now some of these houses are getting rebuilt or restored to get converted into resorts or restaurants.
The Heritage House was built more than 100 years ago by CVRM Venkatachalam Chettiar and now it is managed by the third generation of the family. Here you will also come across many household items, intricate woodwork, pillars made from teak wood, etc.
Amid all these mansions, what stands out and grabs everyone’s attention is the Kanadukathan Palace or the Chettinad Palace. It was built in 1912 by Rajah Sir Annamalai Chettiar in the early 1900s who was a renowned banker in British India. This massive palace of 87,120 sq. ft is not open to the public but still, you can spend a lot of time admiring this white-washed building beautifully painted with colours of blues, reds, and greens on its glass windows, pillars, borders, etc. It has all the elements of Chettinad architecture with a canopy of metal cantilevers at the porch that gives an impression of a temple entrance.
What also makes this palace enchanting is its location. It is centrally located and it overlooks a village pond. These ponds in such dry regions were meant for water harvesting and they are usually found near the temple.
While taking one last stroll around the place a lady sitting near a green-coloured gate gestured and invited us to another mansion — VVR House.
What I loved about this house is the series of courtyards with each one having its character and function — from the main formal living, followed by dining and then with kitchen and services. This spoke volumes about the grand scale of the house and the joint family system.
This half-day trip to the sleepy village of Kanadukathan opened my eyes to such wonders which are tucked away in some corner of the world only to be discovered by curious travellers.