We are off again today, but not before we have a breakfast thali at our hotel, Mantra Veppathur. It’s the favourite so far of our wonderful Southern India breakfasts:
Suitably blessed we are on our way to Kanadukathan in the heart of the Chettinad region, but we will take a small detour first to visit the Big Temple in Tanjavur – which is officially known as the Brihadraswera Temple. I must admit it is very impressive, and much less painful for us as today we have come armed with socks!
We are highly amused by the temple security. You will see in the photo below that everyone must enter to the left so that they can go through the scanner. We dutifully went through it, the buzzers sounded loudly and neither of the security guards so much as looked up from their phones! We saw this happen to others repeatedly. Ah India.
From here we have a couple of hours drive, with our only stop being to buy cashews from the roadside sellers ($8 for 500 gms). The cashews are roasted in their shells, using the old burnt shells as fuel, then cracked open with a stone by these ladies. There are numerous stalls clustered together in one small stretch of road. Rajesh says the price has gone up 100 rupee in the last 12 months.
Our arrival at Kanadukathan is a revelation. The small village, about the size of a postage stamp, sits plonked in a dry red dust plain, flat as a tack for miles. But within this small space sit some 100 magnificent mansions, on red dirt roads, in varying states of disrepair.
The Chettiars were traders and merchants of salt, gems, textiles and jewellery. They travelled extensively, to places like Burma, Sri Lanka, Mauritius and Cambodia.In the 19th century they moved into banking and finance, growing and consolidating their wealth. The combination of great wealth, travel and importing exotic goods resulted in the building of huge mansions that used a combination of styles from around the world, and were stuffed with treasures. The mansions housed all wings of the family comfortably and were very much the ancestral home. However, with migration of many Chettiars to places like Burma and Sri Lanka, and changes in fortune of subsequent generations, the homes have fallen into disrepair.
Some are being restored, some have been ‘modernised’, some have become home to many disparate families, and many are empty. Most have stayed in family hands but the family may no longer live in the village, having moved away for work. Many struggle with the upkeep of such huge places, especially if their visiting is restricted to major family celebrations. But for us, who don’t have to worry about the practicalities of all this splendour, it is a truly amazing sight to wander around the village and ogle these wonderful buildings.
We have the pleasure of staying in one, a hotel called Visalam (http://www.cghearth.com/visalam). The mansion was built by a prominent banker for his beloved daughter as a wedding present, but was never actually lived in, rather was used for family ceremonies. The mansion is still owned by the family but has been leased to CGH Earth Experience hotels, who have poured love and attention into the house (and pay more than lip service to environmental claims).
Our room is simply furnished, and vast in size. On the floor are red and black tiles with a Japanese lacquer feel, but are from the neighbouring village of Athangudi. It is all very beautiful, and the staff are universally delightful. And we have their full attention as we three are the only guests staying here.
This area is only really starting to get on the tourist map, so as we wander the streets oohing and aahing, we in turn are being examined. Everyone smiles, and most say Hi. The children in particular love to wave at us.
Then it is on to the tile making town of Athangudi but because it is Sunday none of the tile makers are open, which is disappointing – although Rajesh gives us a pretty good description, with diagrams, of how they are made. But luckily one of the old mansions is open for us to have a look inside, and the main reception hall is magnificent – Italian marble columns, detailed carvings on the ceiling with gilt trim, painted decorations.
We also visit the main town of the area, Karaikudi, which has a street of antique shops that sell off the bits and pieces from the mansions. Kitta and I could have bought our Burmese lacquerware here! And a coveted tiffin box. But, we resist the temptation. Pete does however purchase yet another mortar & pestle to add to the collection, and I spy a beautiful but rundown old deco theatre.
Apart from its glorious mansions Chettinad is also famous within India for its food, which is deemed one of the spiciest and aromatic in all of India. A wide variety of spices are used in every dish. So, in the afternoon we venture into the hotel’s kitchen for a cooking demonstration. In the space of 20 minutes the lovely local lady, overseen by what seems to us to be the teenage aged Head Chef, whips up a delicious Chettinad chicken curry for us to sample.
The dish uses the usual suspects of star anise, cinnamon, garlic, ginger, turmeric, chilli, bay leaves and so on. But added in there is a spice completely new to us, kalpasi, which is a lichen known locally as the black stone flower. We are not sure if any old rock lichen back home will do the trick.
Then it is back to the hotel, as even at 6pm it is still hot and our G&T’s are calling. We dine like royalty poolside, with candles on the tables and more jokes from our aspiring comedian of a waiter (I must say it is pretty darn impressive to be able to pull off a joke in a second language). All in all our last two days have been a special experience.