“There are things you do sometimes, actions that you take by obeying sudden impulses, without stopping for even a fraction of a second to think, and then you spend the rest of your life either lamenting it or thanking yourself for it. They are rare, unique, and perfect moments”. Irene Gonzalez Frei
…..And thank I did for the unique and perfect moments on my maiden expedition to the mystical land of the Chettiars!
Three mad women sitting in 3 corners of the country, amidst their regular virtual banter, on a whim, decided to go on an adventure to the heart of Tamil Nadu!….and before we knew our tickets were booked, itinerary charted & Deeba and me were south bound! A pit stop at Chennai, where Sanjeeta joined us and we got on an overnight train to Chettinad.
Prior to this adventure, Chettinad to me was synonymous with just its spicy cuisine; the first time I heard about Karaikudi was last year, through Sanjeeta (of course) who couldn’t stop raving about the food prop ‘treasure trove’. As the train pulled into the quaint little Chettinad station we were greeted by an eerie silence, with nothing except our pickup vehicle in sight! Driving down narrow deserted roads, interspersed by a few desolate old structures we made our way to Kadiapatti, which houses the majestic Chidamabara Vilas, our abode for the next 2 days.
Chidambara Vilas is a century old heritage Chettiar home, meticulously restored and now managed by the Sangam group. One step into this grand Mansion and you are exported to another era. The typical Kallupetti (the accountant’s desk) at the reception, the ornately carved wooden doors and pillars, a central courtyard flanked by rooms on both sides, old family photographs on the walls of the people who once lived here, offer you a glimpse of the old world charm and the majestic splendor of the bygone Chettiar lifestyle.
Our stunning heritage room was spacious, with a large window and balcony overlooking a pool and a fruit laden mango tree. Handpicked paintings, wooden paneling, beamed roofing and the famous Athangudi tiles-the room was a perfect blend of luxurious modern amenities meets vintage aesthetics.
A traditional breakfast spread of soft Idlis -Sambar-chutney, Vellai Appam, feather light Idiappam, Katrikai Gojju and fresh fruit juices awaited us at the little interactive kitchen cum dining. Needless to say, we ate to our hearts content, not just this breakfast but all the following meals at Chimdambara Vilas.
We were women on a mission and headed straight to Karaikudi, to explore the treasure trove. We began by exploring the narrow by-lanes of what looked like qui a inventé le viagra the central market area. We were met by laid back, uninterested shop keepers in small hole-in-the-wall shops. Undeterred we walked into one such shop and what a revelation that was! Nothing prepared me for what I saw. The little hole-in-the-wall shop led us through narrow squeaky old stairs to a warehouse cramped with antiques of all kinds! Old dusty rooms stashed with assorted antiques, which must have once been a part of the rich Chettiar lifestyle- old Gramophones, cookie tins, brass ware, imported crockery, a wooden rocking horse, idols of various Gods, carved boxes, framed family photographs, kitchen wares, colourful bottles, cans, lamps, telephones, clocks -the list is endless. Once you get past the unorganized display and if you are prepared to dirty your hands, you keep discovering hidden treasures. Language can be a barrier, especially if you want to bargain. We were lucky to have Sanjeeta as our local interpreter 🙂
As we explored shop after shop, oblivious to the hot scorching heat and parched throats, we found another shop which I call as the ‘Enamel prop heaven’! A huge warehouse full of neatly stocked colourful enamelware of all shapes, types, sizes, I was like a kid in a candy store! Unused, imported Enamelware from Sweden and Czechoslovakia (with the tags still intact on most pieces) that was once part of dowry of the Chettiar women, was now for sale. We must have spent a fortune here but sadly could lug back only a few items (comparatively) with us.
Meanwhile word had spread around that three ladies were buying bagfuls of quirky old things and the frostiness of the shopkeepers had gradually started melting away. We were now requested to take a look at more such ‘gems’, tempted we ended up buying everything from old bottles to pieces of tattered wooden boards, apart from the other kitchenware!
We were fortunate to get a glimpse of everyday Chettiar life, as we strolled through the weekly market (Sandai), where fresh local produce, spices, gorgeous colourful flowers and other household items were being sold. I was specially surprised to see small pea sized Brinjals (Thai Brinjals). Gundu chillies, Vadagam, MorMolaga , Tuticorin Macaroons, Ginger Palm jaggery we bought it all!
The next morning we woke up at an unearthly hour to watch the sunrise atop one of the exquisite towers of Chidamabara Vilas…..and what a spectacular view that was! Mesmerized, we watched the soft orange -yellow hue illuminate the little town, adjoining paddy fields and the distant Thirumayam fort .
Most Chettinad villages have a couple of a water bodies to provide the villagers for their drinking and bathing needs. This dry-arid region was made self sufficient by employing unique water harvesting techniques, even a century ago.
Temples, like most other southern Indian villages, form a major role in defining the Chettinad culture. You find temples at every few miles some buzzing with activity and a few others not so much. We visited the ancient Pillaiyarpatti temple, which is considered as one of the most important of the nine major temples found in the area. In this temple, there are rock cut images of Gods as well as several small shrines.
The exterior of the temple was getting renovated and was hence covered. The street leading to the temple was abuzz with activity; people in their finery for the temple visit, wonderful Rangoli patterns being made, colourful fresh flowers being sold for offering a
nd little shops selling knick knacks. We indulged in some piping hot Vadas and coffee at one of the roadside shacks.
Chettinad as I said earlier is synonymous with its flavourful and spicy cuisine. Our request for buying ready-mix Chettinad masala was met with astonishment! A ‘ready-mix’ masala was unheard of! The masterchef at Chidamabara Vilas decided to set this right by taking us through a masterclass on Chicken Chettinad. It was like watching an artist at work. A melange of local spices coated the succulent chicken pieces and she conjured up the most aromatic and visually appealing non-veg dish I have seen.
Chettinad preparations use subtle spices and are spicy, not hot. Staunch vegetarians like Sanjeeta and me were tempted to have a go at this flavourful authentic Chicken Chettinad! Our inquisitiveness about the ‘how-to’ of each and every dish at every single meal and the flutter of cameras, as every dish made its way to the dining room, earned us the privilege to get invited into the central kitchen (which is usually off limits to guests). Several masterclasses followed, my favourite being the one where we learned the humble local specialty- beetroot and the drumstick soup.
We got to sample the most authentic delicacies at Chidambara Vilas, served on the traditional large Banana leaf, Chettinad style. Contrary to popular belief Chettinad cuisine has a fine repertoire of vegetarian fare. A lavish spread (the number of items numbered well over a dozen) with rustic local flavors, served by the traditional Mundu-Veshti clad staff, in the large dining halls is an experience in itself! Various rice preparations, sides like Chow Chow kootu , Senai (Yam)masiyal ,Parangikai (pumpkin) kuzhambu , Rasam, Sambar, Dal vadas, Vadagams, spiced Plantain fries ,Black Rice kheer and other such sweets, we relished it all!
The staff at Chidambara Vilas are at hand to guide you on the traditional method of partaking the meal, including how the various dishes are traditionally paired with each other for the best experience. At Chidambara Vilas, you can truly experience the combination of historical settings, traditional presentation and authentic flavours to understand the best of what this world famous cuisine has to offer.
In spite of this post lunch food induced coma, we went around the neighboring villages to explore as much as we could during our short stay. The regal splendor of the sprawling palatial homes in Athangudi or Kanadukathan like the other Chettinad towns now stands forlorn. We were allowed entry into the Peeriya Veedu (big House) in Athangudi by its caretakers ,once we agreed to pay some ‘entry fee’. All the palatial houses in Chettinad are architectural marvels. The construction material, decor items and furnishings were mostly imported, from east Asian countries and also from Europe where the Chettiars traveled for business. We were told that most mansions were built using limestone and the walls were polished with a paste made out of a mixture consisting of egg whites to give them a smooth texture.
Since the region is known for its hot climate, ventilation and lighting are given priority through the open areas within the house, with some of the houses having 1000 or more windows. You will be surprised how cool and pleasant you feel once you step into the house in spite of the sweltering heat outside. The architecture is a find blend of local needs, traditional styles and a wide variety of aesthetic influences from various countries visited by the Chettiars.
The Chettinad Palace in Kanadukathan was closed for visitors and we could only admire Chettinad’s most majestic edifice from outside.We also visited one of the many Athangudi tile workshops, where we got a live demo of the making of these handmade tiles. These tiles are prepared by a unique process in which a mixture of local soil along with cement, some chemicals and vibrant colours are cast in conventional moulds and set. The master craftsman skillfully went about his job setting tile after tile in the most gorgeous patterns.
We were invited to explore another heritage property Visalam in Kanadukathan. Since we were in a rush to get back to Chennai, we got a quick tour of the property which is a blend of the local Chettinad style of architecture as well as Victorian influenced aesthetics. An interactive kitchen houses an old style oven among other things and we sampled their baked goodies, along with delicious Paniyarams and freshly brewed coffee at the poolside sitout.
Rooster alarms, opulent mansions, unadulterated fresh air, Idyllic scenery, walking through history’s shadows- life stands still in this region tucked deep into the heart of Tamil Nadu. Waking up at an unearthly hour to catch that spectacular sunrise, mad laughter shared with two dear friends, the gorgeous enamelware and the dusty antique shops all remain etched in my memory. We missed visiting the Kandangi saree weavers or the Thirumayam fort, reason enough to visit this place again.