Pilgrimage cum recreation tour.
By Deepak Bhatia
We boarded the train at Egmore in Chennai. After covering a distance of 490 km via Villupuram, Mayiladuthurai and Trichinopoly, we arrived the next morning at Chettinad at the scheduled time. It was a small rural station where my wife and I were the only two passengers to alight in the pre-dawn darkness. An auto driven by Mariappan had been sent by the Chettinad Court Hotel to pick up and ferry us to the village resort.
The distance was a mere 2 km., but the charge was a whopping `100! We sat huddled inside, feeling the chilly air as the vehicle rolled along the village road – partly asphalted, partly cobbled, partly kuchcha – past the Annamalai Polytechnic College, M. Ct. M. and C. V. C. T. C. School campuses – into Kanadukathan, the old name for Chettinad – in the Sivaganga Estate of Madura district in the Madras Residency of British India. We were welcomed at the gate of Chettinad Court by Gopakumar, manager, dressed in a hoodie jacket as protection from the morning chill. He explained that Chettinad, Karaikaudi and Pillaiyarpatti were situated at three corners of a triangle, as it were.
We had chosen to stay at Chettinad Court as it was close to Chettinad railway station, and also because visitors had written good reviews about the hotel and the service staff. The other hotels in the vicinity were Chettinad Mansion, with nine rooms, and Shri Narayan Vilas Coffee House which had been converted into a restaurant and hotel with seven rooms. All the three establishments were old houses built in the typical Chettinad style, and later converted into Heritage hotels. A typical characteristic of Chettinad houses is that they have carved and decorated pillars with flooring of distinct Athangudi tiles made from glass plates, with exquisite designs, superimposed on concrete blocks.
Chettinad Court consisted of two blocks of four rooms each. The eight rooms were named after the eight forms of Goddess Lakshmi – Adi Lakshmi, Dhana Lakshmi, Vijaya Lakshmi, Ghaja Lakshmi, Santhana Lakshmi, Veera Lakshmi, Dhanya Lakshmi and Vidhya Lakshmi. We were accommodated in room no. 5 in the abode of Santhana Lakshmi.
CC was originally named S.A.R.M. House after Rajah Sir Satappa Ramanathan Muthaiya Annamali Chettiar. The present owner is A. Chandramouli who shifted to CM with his wife, Sivagami, and now the couple runs two establishments – Chettinad Court and Chettinad Mansion – as village resorts in Kanadukathan, close to the NH 210 that connects Trichy, Madurai and Tanjore (Thanjavur).
Diagonally opposite the cross road from CC was the Narayan Vilas Coffee House, now a restaurant and village resort. Nearby on the south side of CC were primary and secondary schools and a small nursing college. There were vast open grounds, some of which were used as playing fields for the educational institutions.
The courtyard of CC had a neat lawn with well-trimmed green grass and a mound in front of the two blocks of rooms. Wrought iron chairs and a glass-topped table, also some benches with marble seats had been provided for the guests to sit and enjoy tea and snacks or to just relax in the peaceful atmosphere, breathing in the pure, clean air, surrounded by bright, colourful flowers blooming in beds and hedges. It was aptly named the Rose Garden with proliferating roses of various hues seen all around it.
The restaurant and kitchen were in a building adjacent to the blocks of rooms, in what apparently was the old house, converted into an unvagam or eating place, and modernised with light fittings and wall-mounted fans.
There were long, highly polished wooden tables with glass tops. Table cloths cut from the Chettinad style saris were spread below the glass sheets, with table mats of straw placed over them. The dining chairs had been crafted partly from cane and partly wood, straight-backed with intricate carvings on the headsteads.
The view of the establishment was very impressive from outside, with carved and painted pillars in the verandah, and thatched slanting roofs over the blocks of rooms. There were stairs leading up to the terrace, giving the appearance of additional rooms on the first floor, but it turned out to be an illusion. Being the month of February, most of the guests at CC were foreigners. Indian tourists and pilgrims would start arriving from March after the annual examinations were over.
Sightseeing in Chettinad and surrounding areas
After breakfast and an early check-in courtesy Gopakumar and his team of service personnel, we were ready for the first tour of temples and other places of interest. Our first stop was the Karpag Vinayak Temple (KVT) in Pillaiyarpatti. The huge deity carved from stone was covered in a golden kavach or shell/casing.
As described in the brochure provided by the CC hotel, it seemed to be “growing” before our very eyes! Circular trays with burning oil lamps hung by chains over and around Vinayak from the ceiling, created on her awesome aura. We could enter the sanctum sanctorum and were allowed to stand close to the deity for some minutes, which was a privilege as most people in the queue were exhorted by marshalls, priests and volunteers to keep moving, and were able to stay there for barely a few seconds!
We made our way to the Kuber-Lakshmi Temple. Like the KVT, this one had also been developed with modern buildings and marble floors. There was a large tank in which we could see fishes of various colours from black to gold swimming back and forth.
The Big House in Athangudi was next on our itinerary for that morning. There were many large rooms, each with flooring of tiles of various designs and styles, and exquisite chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. The walls were decorated with murals showing scenes of activities in the house and outside in the village. The house had been kept very clean, looked after by a caretaker who charged visitors `50 per head. Photography was allowed, unlike in the temples, and I made good use of the opportunity.
The fourth and last stop of the morning’s tour was at a tile-making unit, listed as “Tiles Factory” in the brochure from the hotel. My wife and I witnessed a live demonstration of the process which went into producing tiles of exquisite and distinct designs on glass plates fused on concrete squares. There were piles of tiles all over the place – inside sheds and outside in the yard. The artisans were happy to pose with their creations proudly displayed before them.
Athangudi tiles are used in furniture as well as on the flooring. The headboard of the bed in our room at CC had a tile affixed in the middle. A small table in the bathroom was also inlaid with tiles.
There are a plethora of temples in Karaikudi and Chettinad area. We proceeded on the second tour after lunch and some rest. Our autodriver took us first to the Perumal – Padmavati Temple (PPT), which has its own prominence even though it may not be as famous or frequented by devotees as the Venkateswara shrine in Tirumala in Andhra Pradesh. The next halt was at the Opilly Appan Temple (OAT). The name may be expanded as Uppu Illai (without salt). No items containing salt are proferred to the deity. A visit to the Nayika Amman Temple (NAT) followed. This is a “sister” temple to the ancient and renowned Vadi Vudai Temple (VVT ) in Thiruvottriyur, north Chennai.
The temples are made of strong material and robust construction. Legend has it that they survived the deluge when the entire earth was covered in water. After the flood waters receded, the structures were found intact in their respective locations.
The third temple we visited was the Muthu Mariamman Temple (MMT), where an orchestra with nadaswaram and other instruments was playing and the performance was being broadcast over loud speakers. When we stood before the deity, a garland which had been offered was brought down by a priest and put around my neck, making me feel blessed.
On the final leg of the day’s tour we went exploring in the antique market in Karaikudi, but most of the shops were closed as it was a Sunday. So, we came back to the hotel to have dinner ordered over the phone, followed by an early night.
About chettinad homes
Chettiars were rich traders and money lenders. They brought back materials from their travels to Burma, Sri Lanka and South-East Asia. Their naattukottai (country) homes reflect opulence. The huge mansions were built from Burmese teak and decorated with colourful Italian and Japanese ceramic tiles in the entrance areas, black and white marble floors and handmade Athangudi tiles over glass surfaces super-imposed on a concrete base. Pillars provided structural support, being fashioned out of wood or Polish granite in the thinnais (entrances). Doors were carved, opening out into the vallavu (courtyard). The magnificence was enhanced by imposing European style facades, with the interior boasting of elaborately carved woodwork and decorated verandahs. Traditional Tamilian architecture of sloped and tiled roofs, painted ceilings and door brackets is still intact in these homes. However, they lacked plumbing and waste removal systems. Typically, houses had bathrooms only at the far ends.
The sights of Kanadukathan
The facilities provided by the Chettinad Court hotel included a village tour by bullockcart. The heritage village had a well planned grid system, like the city of Chandigarh designed by the French architect Le Corbusier, with the streets parallel or meeting at right angles. The ride started from the hotel at about 10:30 a.m. and took us to the Chettinad Mansion – sister concern of Chettinad Court – and Museum, past many private houses, water ponds and a saree weaving centre. We could see Raja Vilas (Rajah’s House), the residence of M. Ct. M. Chidambaram from outside only as the bullock cart undulated along the unpaved roads, with the bulls with long horns trundling along. The cart had a curved, long concave roof covered in blue tarpaulin cloth with matching cushions on five seats, three on one side and two on the other, like squares on a checker board. This was a new experience for us, unlike riding in any other vehicle. In my childhood in Dehradun I had ridden on a tonga and ekka, but this was very different, unique.
Our driver, Peria Karrupa (the bulls had not been given names – they were simply 1 and 2), stopped at the Sri Mahalakshmi Handloom Weaving Centre (SMHWC) on K. M. Street. It was owned and operated by a couple, Krishnaveni and Venkatraman. They showed us the large skeins of yarn of different colours used to weave the multi-coloured saris with distinct patterns and styles. The cloth is ideal for hot weather and can be easily washed, dried and re-used even without being ironed. Priyanka Gandhi favours the saris made at the SMHWC, as her photographs displayed in the showroom were ample evidence. The Centre makes dhotis for gents also. The saris were of the same type which had been cut and used as table cloths in the restaurant of CC. There was a feature in the February issue of Traveller magazine about the centre, as well as articles in newspapers.
On the way back, the cart passed under the M. Ct. M. Chidambaram arch on the road of the same name, he having been a prominent citizen of Chettinad. We alighted at the hotel for lunch and a siesta. In the evening we again summoned Mariappan’s auto-rickshaw to take us for a second (and third – since there was not much rush, we went in for another round !) darshan of Karpag Vinayak.
On the third and last day of the tour we visited the Solai Andavar (short for Sivamyam Arulmigu Shri Cholai Yaandavar) temple about 3 km from the CC hotel on the way to Chettinad railway station. There were temples dedicated to other deities on the sides – Adai Kalangkaath Ayynar and Spat Kannimargal (the seveneyed deities). In the courtyard along the walls were rows of statues of cattle and horses made from mud and painted to look lifelike. They must have been crafted years ago, but were in excellent condition. Entry to the temple was restricted for women, as at Sabarimalai Ayyappan temple in Kerala – only pre-puberty and post-menopause ladies were permitted.
We had a typical thaali lunch of Chettinad cuisine at the Narayn Vilas restaurant. We also asked them to pack some items (chapatti-kurma and curd rice) in the evening, which I collected before departing for Karaikudi to catch the Rameswaram Express or our return journey to Chennai.
About Chettinad cuisine
Chettinad cuisine is the cuisine of a community called the Nattukotai Chettiars, or Nagarathars as they call themselves, from the Chettinad region of Tamil Nadu. Chettinad cuisine is perhaps the most renowned fare in the Tamil Nadu repertoire. It uses a variety of spices and the dishes are made with fresh ground masalas. Chettiars also use a variety of sun- dried meats and salted vegetables, reflecting the dry environment of the region. Most of the dishes are eaten with rice and rice based accompaniments such as dosais, appams, idiyappams, adais and idlis. The Chettiars through their mercantile contacts with Burma, learnt to prepare a type of rice pudding made with sticky red rice.
Chettinad cuisine offers a variety of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes. Some of the popular vegetarian dishes include idiyappam, paniyaram, vellai paniyaram, karuppatti paniyaram, paal paniyaram, kuzhi paniyaram, kozhakattai, masala paniyaram, adikoozh, kandharappam, seeyam, masala seeyam, kavuni arisi and athirasam. In Chettinad food, major spices used include anasipoo (star aniseed), kalpasi (a lichen), puli (tamarind), milagai (chillies), sombu (fennel seed), pattai (cinnamon), lavangam (cloves), bay leaf, karu milagu (peppercorn), jeeragam (cumin seeds), and venthayam (fenugreek).