Once Upon a Time in Chettinad

”  Which Indian town has hundreds of mansions with  Burmese teak pillars,  Belgian mirrors, chandeliers, Italian marble, Japanese tiles, and Venetian glass?, “  I asked my friend.

” Delusions of grandeur!   Are you coming from a movie set?”   the friend was not convinced until I showed her the photos of Chettinad (land of Chettiyar).

Chettiyars, one of the richest communities in South India made their fortunes from banking and trading during the British Raj. They also established flourishing business ventures in South East Asian countries. In their heydays, they made palatial houses across  75 villages near Madhurai, Tamil Nadu.   This region came to be known as Chettinad. After independence,  declining economy forced many of them to move to the cities and other countries leaving their ancestral homes in the custody of caretakers. Many of the grand old mansions are now in a depressing state of disrepair; some are stripped off the valuables and demolished;  a couple of them are converted into heritage hotels.  Some houses are open to the public.

Our heritage trail started from  Karaikudi-the main town. The local driver Anand was an enthusiastic and enterprising guide. After a short visit to a temple, (there are a lot of temples around)   he brought us to Periya Veedu(Big House).

Periya Veedu

An old caretaker let us in for a nominal charge.   We stood at the foyer and took in the  visual feast.    Chettiyar houses follow a typical pattern: imposing entrance with arches,   huge courtyards,  granite and wood pillars, high ceilings, and they are aligned in such a way that from the entrance one can see right up to the back door. Some houses stretch along an entire street. The size and scale of ornamentation reflect their wealth and prestige.

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The reception area mugappu has raised platform thinnai on either side ; this part was used for the male guests. There was a clear demarcation between the public and private zones. With men away on business for long periods,  women were in charge of running the house. I wonder if the dynamics changed after they returned home for good!

The grand reception area

The ornate teak doors open to the main hall. It was like looking through a kaleidoscope and finding colorful surprises at every turn.

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The Main Hall

The influence of different lands and cultures is visible all around: Belgian mirrors(kept covered), Italian marble, Burmese teak pillars blend beautifully with the locally made Athangudi tiles.   Anand informed that this hall can accommodate thousands of people and was used for banquets, weddings, and festivals. It was interesting to know local masons were the chief architects for these “hybrid” homes.

Lord Krishna on the ceiling

Indian mythological figures and fairies

The windows and doors have a special charm:

Sparkling floor and grand pillars

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From the main hall, we moved to an open courtyard with large verandas and several rooms :

The Ladies Wing

The ladies’domain does not have the lavish ornamentation of the main hall but is more bright, airy, and personal. Many South Indian movies are shot in this house. Anand reeled off the names and I made a note to watch it on YouTube.

Next comes the dining hall which looks like the interior of a church:

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Only three sections of the house are open to visitors.  All the other rooms (40-50) are locked up. The family members come only for a wedding or other festivals. It must cost a fortune to maintain such a house! Out of the 50-60,000 houses, there are now only 10-15,000 (estimates vary widely) and they are scattered around Karaikudi, Kanadukathan , and Puthukottai. It seems the Chettiyars vied with one another in making bigger and grander homes.

We ambled down the deserted road marveling at the architectural splendours:

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Majestic Raja’s Palace was not open to visitors

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Stucco figure of Goddess Lakshmi,goddess of wealth and prosperity is seen in many houses.

Central courtyard in a mansion-this is my favourite spot.

Open to the elements

 

Many are crumbling: IMG_9854

Frozen in a time warp

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Another repository of memories

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After the heavy dose of history and art (I was getting a bit disoriented), it was time to visit the local market. The lively place was full of people and produce: fresh and seasonal. It was fun watching the buyers, sellers, and the range of items on display.IMG_0001

We went around buying as much as we could eat and returned to the hotel.

Dragon Tales,Thimphu-Out and about

Another day in Thimphu  and it began with a visit to The National Memorial Chorten – a  prominent landmark and  religious centre  for the Bhutanese.It was not far from the hotel and the huge white  structure with the gleaming golden spire could be seen from far.Going to this shrine every morning  is a ritual for the devout   Bhutanese.

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National Memorial Chorten

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The Temple

 

Many elderly men and women are seen in the premises engaged in prayers  and circumambulating  the main shrine.Some are  seen spinning the giant prayer wheels and prostrating in prayers.This is  not so easy and I was wondering how some of those frail  old Bhutanese  were  doing  it with such ease and remarkable grace.  A group of ladies were  relaxing around the central  pavilion.This must be their favourite place for meeting friends.

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From the chorten I went to see the Centenary Farmers Market.This sprawling 2 storey building  is   the largest domestic market  for the local farmers. Being a week day it was not  crowded  and I could explore it leisurely.There are about 400 stalls displaying local  and imported  produce of vegetables,fruits,cheese, rice,spices etc.The whole market is kept remarkably clean and everything is clearly marked.

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Fresh organic local fruits

Bhutan has banned the use of pesticides    and agriculture is  wholly organic .Most of the Bhutanese are non vegetarians  and red rice,meat,cheese and chillies  form their staple diet.Chillies  are an integral part of their cuisine and  is used more like a vegetable than a spice.  Ema datshi is the national dish and it is  made of chillies and cheese. Cheese  products are seen in  all shapes and sizes.Asparagus and fiddlehead ferns called  Nakey were in season .I had  them almost every day and found it quite tasty.There is a section for dried fish and meat   but the odour kept me away.

 

As I came out of the market I saw a bridge  and had to  go there.Bhutan being a country with rivers has many bridges and most of them are pieces of art unlike the nondescript structures I have seen in India.This one  was also painted in  bright colors and decorated with prayer flags .

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Aesthetic and elegant

I spotted a pair of school girls and followed them to the other side and found many empty stalls . The  bubbly girls  informed  that this is the place for  the weekend handicrafts market.

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Leaving these charming girls I made my way to the National Institute  for Zorig Chusum(Zo=to make,rig=science,chusum=13)Here the students learn 13 forms of  art and craft which includes weaving,masonry,sculpting  and painting. It is admirable that the government has taken measures to preserve and promote their  traditional art.The courses take 4-6 years.

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National Institute for Zorig Chusum

I went inside  the  classrooms and  saw many young students . Some of the classrooms looked crowded  – could be the  junior grades. They  seemed to be engrossed in their  studies and I felt I was invading  with my camera though I was told that they are quite used to visitors. I was not convinced and preferred to observe their meticulous work .It was impressive to see  the talented youngsters.Girls were  seen mostly in the embroidery and sculpture classes  and boys dominated the painting section.I spoke to one of the teachers who showed  these sketches   by the students and gave  an insight into the  curriculum.

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Bhutanese art is also deeply rooted in Buddhism and was formally categorised into the  13 traditional art forms  towards the end of 17th century.Some of the eminent lamas themselves were great artists .

It was interesting to know that they use natural pigments and dyes and they have to  follow a set of iconography rules.Art is  considered a pious act and the artists remain anonymous. So what about artistic freedom?There are some art studios in the city that promote contemporary art.I must say that this glimpse into the traditional art  was the highlight of the day and I regret that I could not spend more time out there.

From the ‘Painting School’ I went to see the national animal-Takin.I have not heard of such an animal before and was curious .Legend has it that takin was created by the famed Lama Drukpa Kunley  who is also known as the Divine Madman for his unconventional ways.It seems he fixed the head of a goat on the skeleton of a cow and created this new species.Wikipedia informs that takins  belong to the category of goat antelope and they are also found in Tibet and China.Motithang Takin Preserve  is on the outskirts of Thimphu and  we drive through  a dense forest    and walk up a  short distance and there he stands.They do look rather odd  and  docile.

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Takin-national animal of Bhutan

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He looks melancholic

 

Can I leave Thimphu without seeing  the famous dzong? Tashichho Dzong  is the seat of the government and houses the throne room and office of the King,secretariat and ministries of finance and home affairs.It  is also the headquarters of  the central monastic  body and their summer retreat.By the time I reached it was closed and I could only see  the magnificent building  and surrounding gardens from far..

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Tashichho Dzong-Fortress of the glorious religion

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From the lookout point

It had been a memorable day and I went back to the hotel after a stroll in the central square.

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Clock tower square at night