Sunday, October 26, 2014

On the Ghost Town-ness of Chettinad Houses: In The New Indian Express

Recent travel had taken me to Tamil Nadu and to the lovely heritage town of Karaikudi in the Chettinad region. Wrote about it for The New Indian Express. Read it here or see the edited version below.

These photos below are not part of the published story.


Opulence and grandeur. Rather big words. Yet some superlatives seem inadequate when you present yourself before a Nattukottai Chettiar’s house. Each house is big—the word that immediately comes to mind when you walk and sweat through the narrow roads of Karaikudi, Tamil Nadu. The town whose name sounds like a temple for the very devout is the largest and at the heart of the Chettinad region. It is where the immensely rich bankers, industrialists and other businesspeople of the community come home to, for weddings and 60th birthday prayers—the nerve centre of nine temples, one or the other to which each Chettiar family traditionally pays allegiance to.

Globalisation had come a century early to these parts. Reminiscent of the Gulf-returnees elsewhere in later decades, the Chettiars made their fortunes trading in Burma, Malaysia, Singapore and countries of Europe and money lending in Sri Lanka and closer home. After triumphant returns every two years or so to one of the 96 native villages that formed the larger Chettinad region, they built long, grand and very big houses. They also brought in the world to occupy the halls of these edifices with marble and tiles from Italy, chandeliers and teak wood for furniture and ceilings from Burma, crockery from Indonesia, enamelware from Eastern Europe, floor-to-ceiling high mirrors from Belgium, something else from Japan, adding to the local methods of construction and architecture. One of this was where thousands of egg whites went into creating wall plaster that felt and glistened like cold marble.

But now the houses, tall and once proud, stand forlorn. Its owners live in Chennai, Coimbatore, and Madurai. Several are abroad because Karaikudi, Devakottai, Athangudi and other villages with equally rustic names are not where they can run air-conditioned offices. The weather isn’t too pretty either; the roads are dusty and the people are almost always on the verge of leaving for the cities, like in any other Indian small town.

Karaikudi seems like a place designed to get lost in. Which is just as well. If you aren’t there to sift through piles of antiques on Muneeswaran Koil Street, mansion visits are what you’d probably want to do, to admire the dysfunctional mix of styles and try to work out just how rich these families are. Which is exactly what I did, with a friend, two weeks or so ago, for two whole days.

The town is delightfully tourist unfriendly. They do get well-heeled visitors who stay in one of the expensive renovated Chettiar houses. There are pilgrims who make their way to Pillayarpatti, a 4th century temple, or any of the other residences of divinity that dot the landscape. We fall in another category and the locals don’t fully know where to bracket us.

We do some of what we are required to do—walk down the antiques street, pick up a lot of dusty things at less than quarter of what Mr B, the antiques man in Bangalore, would charge us. Then we take a trip to Athangudi, where the famous tiles are individually hand-made using the special local soil, glass plates and colours from Chennai. We pick up samples to use as wall hangings and incense stands back home. We see the excessiveness of Periya Veedu, the big house that starred in many movies until recently. We stumble upon, thanks to a nice old taxi driver, another house with a helpful guide who practices his routine with us; the house is on its way to being turned into a museum soon and he will need to spill the same spiel often. We do the touristy thing and take pictures of the blue bicycle leaning upon a cream wall holding up a latticed roof, of the narrow lanes, of the cold beer in the garden of The Bangala, the restaurant all tourists end up at. We do not take selfies.

It is all a sightseeing trip should be. But even when I am aiming the camera towards a street along which two school girls in blue checkered uniforms peddle down on bicycles the government gave them, I cannot shake off the sense that I am in a part-ghost town. The taxi driver lets on that most of those who own these mansions are too happy to lock them up for the greater part of the year. They do not need the money that could come from turning these heritage houses into heritage hotels. Several others hold on to the vestiges of Old Worldness, living in their ancestral homes surrounded by the past, the photographs and fading Belgian mirrors. We stumble upon one, with a board in Tamil. The one English phrase says ‘snacks available’. We enquire, are misunderstood, and an old man asks us to leave; his house is not up for sightseeing. All we wanted was snacks. The house around him is falling apart; maintaining what must be a white elephant can’t be easy. We imagine the tiles and window panes would soon end up on Muneeswaran Koil street, where the antiques are. It isn’t pleasant, imagining the ruins of the future.

In the villages around, where the Chettiar homes take up whole streets, it is quiet. Almost eerie is the silence, even though people are going about their business, kids are playing, a cow meditates in a corner, and tea shops send out their mixed scents. Homes of this size seem to mandate that they should bustle with the voices and footsteps of dozens of children, their mothers chasing after them, as sounds from the kitchen arrive as a familiar orchestra. But these days in Chettinad, in the halls of houses lined with tiles from Italy, silence is the loudest noise.

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