Of mansions and spices

About colonial buildings, architecture, dressing style, food habits and a lot more was something very natural to know for those (of us) who were born and raised in the Eastern hills of India. It was quite common to speak about ‘Belgian mirrors’, ‘Three-piece suits’, ‘West End watches’ and all of that in a conversation at home. It intrigued me of the grandeur of how these ‘Sahibs and Memsahibs’ lived in these hills once upon a time.

I visited a stunningly beautiful area Chettinadu (in the state of Tamil Nadu) and it surprised me that it was not only the ‘Sahibs and Memsahibs’ (the Britishers in India) who lived such a grand lifestyle then but also did a mercantile community in South India (who lived on equal parameters or even grander).

Before I reached Chettinadu, I was at INDeco Swamimalai and the owner told me a story of a rare picture he had in his property. The below picture is of a Chettiar family (5 brothers) who were very wealthy. They booked the first vehicles (5 in total, 1 for each of them) and imported it from the UK. Well these vehicles arrived in Chennai only to be grounded as there were no roads (then) to drive these cars. Later they ordered for 5 planes (again 1 for each), below picture is of the brothers and their order the first plane in Chennai.

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The Chettiars had the reputation of establishing and running their business ventures from various corners of South East Asia. Apparently they moved to this dry area after they were displaced from their port city on the Bay of Bengal. It seems that in the 18th & 19th centuries they followed the British overseas to their colonies in Burma, Malaysia, Singapore and Ceylon and even went as far as Vietnam and Indonesia. Over these years they accumulated huge fortunes which they sent back to Chettinad in building palatial homes, with mixed architecture.

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Most of the mansions are treasure troves of architectural details that can perhaps signify love for art and crafts. A lot of these mansions have large halls and courtyards, have used Belgian glasswork extensively, intricate woodwork  (using a lot of Burmese teak, Rosewood), beautiful ceramic tiles (including their own hand-made ‘Athangudi’ tiles), stone, iron and wooden pillars. All these materials have been sourced from all over the world. Isn’t it  fascinating !

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One of the Chettiar Mansions, the Black Marble pillars imported from Italy

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Black marble pillars from Italy, Burmese teak for the wooden pillars, Rose wood carvings on the doors from South Africa.

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Intricate carvings on Rose wood for the main door

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Belgian chandeliers, Italian marble pillars, Burmese teak and the family portraits hanging in one of the Chettiar homes

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Large halls decorated and details with the best of everything available.

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Blue iron pillars made it’s way to this mansion all the way from Birmingham

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Belgian mirrors and amazing tilework

Not only that but they also have a great food culture popularly called the ‘Chettinad cuisine’. It’s spice based (using pepper mostly) but not too hot.

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Traditional Chettinad meal serving

So the next time we have a conversation at home that revolves around the colonial past and the heritage buildings etc of East India, I shall remember this little heaven in South India and share with my folks stories of my travel here.

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