These mansions of Chettinad will make you go wow for their splendour!

Take a walk through the grand foyers, wide inner courtyards, spacious rooms and wood work that encases the ceiling in intricate art work. Lakshmy Venkiteswaran talks to Meenakshi Meyyappan and Bharath Ramamrutham, who worked together to bring out Mansions of Chettinad, a masterpiece that chronicles Chettinad houses

Published: 10th August 2016 02:45 AM  |   Last Updated: 10th August 2016 11:17 AM   |  A+A-

CHENNAI: If a picture can speak a thousand words, Mansions of Chettinad wouldn’t stop talking! A brilliant historical record of the Chettinad community through some of its sprawling mansions, this book is the brainchild of Meenakshi Meyyappan, the founder and owner of The Bangala, a tourist heritage guesthouse in Karaikudi.

Documenting the history of Nattukottai Chettiyars in a book was a long cherished dream of the septuagenarian. “Out of the 50-60,000 homes that used to be filled with families of the nine clans in our community, we have just about 10-15,000 left. The rest have been destroyed,” avers Meenkashi.

Veiled Legac.jpgWhat she calls homes are massive structures that have a minimum of 3-4 courtyards and owned by several members of the family. “It’s expensive and labour-intensive to maintain these homes, most of which have multiple ownerships; so there is bound to be difference of opinions about maintenance,” she explains. “Who has the time or funds to maintain them? So families destroy the house, divide the land and wood among themselves and take the proceeds after the sale.”

So a lot of young people within the community are unaware of their rich past. “A lot of Chettiar families live abroad, and I wanted the youth in those families to know their heritage, and understand the splendour of their ancestors’ lives,” she shares.

And you cannot help but be in awe of the said splendour! Long beams covered in teak wood and rosewood, huge foyers, seemingly endless courtyards, pillars that are easily over 10 feet tall, and intricate carvings on doors and windows…to say Chettinad history shines through these photos would be an understatement. And Bharath Ramamrutham, the man behind the lens, cannot stop gushing about it. 

“It’s the most outstanding example of hybrid architecture, the likes of which I have never seen anywhere else in the world. The eclectic styling that has a mélange of styles from Europe, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, the wood that came from Burma and Malaysia….it’s incredible! I have never seen art décor like this across India,” he claims.

Veiled Legaciesss.jpgMeenakshi looks at him quizzically and prods him about the havelis of Rajasthan and heritage homes in Gujarat, but he sticks to his statement. “Those are beautiful works…and no doubt, historically relevant too but I’m talking about the art décor used in these homes – the aesthetics and grandeur of it cannot be denied,” he adds.

You’d have to agree with him, especially considering his body of work. A world renowned photographer, Bharath is famous for using only natural light. An architect by education and a photographer by passion, his uncanny eye for detail is evident in the photos. Mention that to him, and a very pleased looking Bharath chuckles, and adds, “I’ve been doing it for over 30 years… I have to get something right, no?”

And in the same breath, he avers that Indians do not value their heritage. “We have no respect for our history. The fact that we are one of the oldest civilisations in the world is lost on us. I’m trying to communicate that to people….that creating a record of our history – whether it’s through mansions, art, culture etc, is our duty,” he adds.

The mansions have been chronologically divided in the book by architectural historian, George Michell. He was unavailable for a chat; so we asked Bharath how he chose 25-plus mansions from hundreds in 70-odd villages. “Look, we had zero research to work with. There were no records or blue-prints of these homes anywhere in India. So I chose the house that grabbed me by the throat,” he laughs.

2.jpgWhy did Meenakshi look for a historian outside India when her brother — S Muthiah, is famous for his knowledge of Madras and its history? “Because I wanted someone who knows architecture and archaeology and also link it with history and give us a perspective,” she says.

Isn’t it ironic though scholars outside India have a better understanding about the country than we do? Bharath doesn’t agree, and says, “You could say that perhaps 20-30 years ago, because their education system was more oriented towards an understanding of global society and cultures, and ours was not. But today, there are many scholars in India who are doing fantastic work. Though foreigners opened that door for us to get excited about our heritage and history, the work of our scholars’ work is not disseminated.

It just remains as a thesis hidden in a dusty library somewhere.”

Point taken, Bharath!

No record of anything!

Bharath claims that all these homes came up within a span of 100 years. “I’m sure the craftsmen who built them were local residents. Where did they come from? What were their names? What’s their lineage? There must have been factories that made these doors, beams and windows frames. What happened to all of that? There are no archives or records of any of them anywhere in India or abroad!” he explains, and avers that it’s a huge loss of history. “These were simple, ordinary folks with families. They had their own masons and carpenters, who would have never travelled anywhere else outside their village. So for craftsmen to understand a foreign style of design, conceptualise it without any research or photo to fall back on and give life to it….I mean it’s something extraordinary…it’s an art that the public should be made aware of. Then perhaps someone somewhere would be willing to explore a little more and come up with more historically relevant info, and start creating records. I want this to achieve that goal,” he adds.

‘No access to some of these mansions’

While working on the book, Bharath and his assistants spent a lot of time on the road travelling back and forth from The Bangala, where they stayed, to the mansions. Sounds like an adventure, doesn’t it? Not when you listen to this narrative: “First thing was getting permission from the families to photograph them. Most of them do not live here; families are scattered across the world, and understandably, they were not enthusiastic about opening their homes to a stranger. But thankfully, Meenakshi managed to get permission from them. More often than not, these permissions were verbal promises,” explains Bharath.

Veiled.jpgBut that was one of many obstacles to overcome. Some of these mansions were built in villages that were 40-50 km from The Bangala. “The roads were not easy to access…these were rundown villages with barely a soul in sight,” he recalls. Why didn’t they stay at the mansions? “Stay where? There’s no electricity in most of these villages. Nobody lives in these mansions. It’s like walking into a ghost town,” says Meeenakshi.

There are caretakers of the mansion but then again it’s just a handful of people. Bharath describes the scene perfectly. “In each village I went to, I would have probably found a couple of elderly people, a few cows and 2-3 goats tied in a corner. When I go to the mansion, I found a huge padlock hanging on the door with nobody in sight. So I had to travel back to the elderly couple and ask them about the about the guy who has the key. Now this guy might be sleeping somewhere or having tea in someone’s house. Since I had a driver who knew the locality, we went looking for him. More of than not, a caretaker would be a doddering old man who would have received a call a few days back about us. He would have forgotten about it until he saw us. Then he’d go looking for the key. So you see the amount of time we had to spend just getting our foot into the door?”

It’s my home: Meenakshi Meyyappan

I grew up in Ceylon. I would travel from Thalaimannar (Sri Lanka) to Mandapam (TN) by boat. In my mansion, we would sleep in the hall. We would just roll out our beds in the hall and go to sleep there. I didn’t have a private room even after I got married. To outsiders, it’s a thing of grandeur but for me, it’s my home…I take it for granted. I have played in these houses, and visited families here...memories are endless. All our weddings were conducted in these homes. During weddings and other functions, all of the nine clans would get together to celebrate it. The naming ceremony for the baby is called Puthumai – the baby is placed on a big silver tray and his/her uncles would carry him/her around. Then there was the half wedding – Thiruvathirai (girls), and Karthiga Puthumai (boys), where the groom would arrive at the wedding riding a horse. And girls received big dowries, which had to be put on display. All of this required spacious homes, and that’s why our mansions are so huge. Those days, cross ventilation was a must in any home. So, in the afternoon, people would sleep on the nadai (a place between courtyards), where the cool breeze was at its best. I want people to know that such beautiful homes are being destroyed.

India Matters


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