‘Naatukoattaichettiyars’ also called ‘Nagarathars’ are the prominent inhabitants of Chettinad from sixteen centuries. They once lived in Poombuhar, a coastal town in today’s Nagapattinam district of Tamilnadu. They were flourishing merchants, bankers and traders known for their business expertise. They traded with countries such as Burma, Ceylon, Vietnam, Malaya and Singapore to name a few. The town of Poombuhar was destroyed by Tsunami in the 4th century and upon the invitation of the PandiyaKing, they migrated to Chettinad.
Chettinad is an area comprising of about 75 villages surrounding the prominent town Karaikudi, which incorporates both Pudukottai and Sivagangai districts of Tamil Nadu. Chettinad being a non-coastal area with no rivers, is unsuitable for agriculture and industries like textile and automobile. Hence the Nagarathars travelled overseas to earn money and their business acumen paid them rich dividends.
With all the wealth they earned, they built Palatial houses in Chettinad for their entire generations to reside in. Having travelled overseas to many countries, they incorporated portions of foreign cuisines into theirs yielding the spicy ‘ChettinadCuisine’. The Palatial houses and the Chettinad cuisine brought glory to Chettinad with one village ‘Kanadukaathan’ which houses the ‘Chettinad Mansion’ which is now declared as a heritage village by Government of India.
The palatial houses of Chettinad
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There are about 11,000 Palatial houses in Chettinad. Each house was built in a minimum of 20,000 sq. ft to a maximum of 70,000 sq. ft. Each house has a ‘ThalaiVasal’ the entrance followed by ‘Mugappu’ the outer verandah. The Nagarathars built their houses about five feet from the ground so that they remained safe during natural calamities. Most houses consisted of a ‘Thinnai’ a place to meet the visitors. ’Valavu’ is the main courtyard surrounded by rooms for family members. Big events such as weddings and family gatherings are hosted in the main courtyard.
Image source: EVERYTHING WORKS by Tata Pravesh
From the open courtyard rainwater flows through a closed channel to the fresh water pond in the village called the ‘Oorani’. This is an incident of rainwater harvesting done centuries back keeping in mind the concept of ‘Cherish Water else Perish’. There are houses with 100 rooms and 1000 windows. ’Irandamkattu’ is the second quadrangle that houses rooms for women and a courtyard for them. Finally, the ‘Pinkattu’ the part that houses the kitchen and rooms for servants.
The ‘Nagarathars’ shipped teak from Burma for wooden pillars, marbles from Italy, mirrors from Belgium, steel from England, crystal chandeliers from Bohemia to decorate their palatial houses. Flooring is done with specially handcrafted colorful tiles called ‘Aathanguditiles’. The splendor of the houses is due to its nuanced woodcarving, well-crafted teak pillars, egg-plastering of the shiny walls, a technique borrowed from UK and Germany. The sunlit and airy houses feature typical multilayered tiled roofs.
The ‘Nagarathars’ are ardent devotees of Lord Shiva and spent a sizeable portion of their income to build Shiva temples. Their traditional mangalsutra called the ‘Kazhutheeru’ weighing about 100 to 200 sovereigns is a unique ornament.
Chettinad cuisines incorporate the concept of ‘medicine in food’. A variety of sweets made from sugar namely paal panniyaram, purple rice pudding kaviniarisi, sweets made from jaggery namely Ukkaru, Kandharappam,Inippukuzhipanniyaram, sweets made from karupatti (black jaggery) namely karupattipanniyaram, Uzhundhu kaliare unique in chettinadu cuisine.The meals include vendakai(ladies finger) mandi, cauliflower soup, kuruvaiarisi (brown rice) payasam, vaazhaipoo(bananaflower) vadai, vaazhaithandukootu, kola urandai kuzhambu, parangikaipulikari and variety of others. Non-vegetarian dishes like uppu-kari, a mutton speciality, Chettinad chicken, crab rasam, crab fry, prawn fry, fish fry, Chettinad fish curry, snacks like Manakolam, seepuseedai, seedai, Thaenkuzhal are unique in their cuisine. Dried mutton called ‘Uppukandam’ and marinated chicken can be preserved for many days atleast 65 days. You’ll be amazed to know that the name Chicken-65 originated from the Chettinad preserved chicken.
Most palatial houses are unoccupied for the reason that the most Nagarathars are spread out in different parts of the country and overseas, however they return to their palatial homes to renovate them and celebrate special occasions such as weddings, 60th and 80th birthdays.
Every aspect of the Chettinad palatial house is a marvel. Every item in the Chettinad cuisine is a tasty dish. If you haven’t visited Tamil Nadu yet and are planning to, then you should visit some heritage houses, have a pleasant stay in any of the Chettinad palatial houses and taste some delicious Chettinad cuisine.
Contributor: Praba N (PhD)
About our Writing Program Student
Praba is an Associate Professor teaching Electronics & Communication Engineering at the Ghousia College of Engineering, Ramanagara, Karnataka. She is interested in content writing, as it is her long harboured dream to continue her passion of ’Essay writing ‘ which got left in school.