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A Travel Blog from India: July 2011

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Chettinad - Magnificent Mansions and mouth watering menus!

Chicken Chettinad is famous. Charming Chettinad? Are you kidding?

What is so charming about a place which is arid and hot?

What are you guys - veggies - going to do there?

These were questions asked and eyebrows raised when we said we are going to Karaikkudi in Chettinad.

No doubt it is dry and arid. There are many things – Magnificent mansions, Mouth watering menus, Rural milieu and of course Marvelous temples to explore here! This is our drive - a short break - to the hinterland of Tamil Nadu which we thoroughly enjoyed. Welcome aboard and join us on this exploratory ride. We will assure you won’t be disappointed.


Chettinad always fascinated me ever since my sister-in-law, an architect did her thesis on Chettinad mansions way back in late nineties. Somehow, we never went to these regions though we did many drives in Tamil Nadu. One of the reasons was bad roads – before NH7 came into existence – and distance. As we sat to plan the next drive, same options came up – Coorg, Chikkamagalur, Malnad, Ooty etc. It was then we zeroed in on Chettinad.

The Plan

We took Friday off and had three days and two nights (1st July to 3rd July). As I started planning the drive and googled the directions, it was encouraging to see distances.

Bangalore – Karaikkudi = 472 KMs


Routing done, the next problem was to finalise stay options. There weren’t good stay options in Karaikkudi till few years back. I knew that there was a heritage hotel named THE BANGALA in Karaikkudi and Casino group of Kochi had also started a heritage hotel named VISALAM. Checking out more details and researching on these two hotels, we finalised THE BANGALA which was to be value for money than VISALAM and the food was supposed to die for. This being the lean season in Chettinad – naturally as it is hot and dry – we could get accommodation easily in The BANGALA.

Day 1 – Lovely drive, Delicious lunch and Magnificent mansions!

When we sat in the Scorpio, my watch was ticking at 5.10 AM. Sooner we hit the NICE road – helps staying closer – and NH7 at electronic city.  Thanks to the new flyovers at Hebbagodi and Attibele, we were zipping past Hosur even as the sun was trying to come out of cloudy sky peeping through Shoolagiri hills. NH 7 like other GQ roads – NH 4 and 5 – is a class act.

Salem – Karur – Dindigul must rank amongst the best stretches in the country like the one between Kolhapur – Dharwad etc. We were in Karur town at 8.45 for breakfast! Karur always makes us nostalgic as we had gone there many times when my wife was working in Karur Vysya Bank. This is possibly the cleanest town in Tamil Nadu and may rank among the top ten in India for cleanliness. We wanted to go the same restaurant where we used to hog on Idlis, Pongal, Idiappams etc whenever we were there - our last trip being in 99. Karur has changed for good. But the old world charm around the bus stop is still there and Hotel Arun too. Years have passed but Hotel Arun had not changed - like Namma MTR or Vidyarthi Bhavans. Same banana leaf, same soft idlis served in threes and fours, sambar served directly on the idlis…Life is simple out here! We left after a heavy breakfast and driving through the city reached the highway at 9.45 AM.

Karur – Dindigul was breeze. Maneuvering through Dindigul was not a problem – it is a small town – and soon we were on SH 35 driving towards Natham (pronounced as NATTAM, TT pronounced as in PATTON ). We were little skeptical of this stretch but sooner were relieved to see nice and scenic road. The road goes through canopy of tamarind trees.
The canopy of tamarind trees
It is still summer in Tamil Nadu and the land was dry and brown. We were in Karaikkudi at 12.30. As we entered, we could see huge mansions in not-so-well-kept condition at many places in the city. Searching for BANGALA was not difficult – it is a local land mark – and we were in time for Chettinad lunch! The cuisine of Chettinad is to die for. Though we are veggies, we always loved vettals, Paniyarams, Vendakkai etc. The staff in BANGALA is excellent and within no time we were made comfortable.

BANGALA is a 70 year old building initially built as Gentlemen’s club for Chettiar menfolk and now converted into a beautiful heritage hotel.
The Facade of Bangala - Distinctly Chettinad
The Balcony sit out - Notice the pleasing yellow of Attangudi tiles
Beautifully done room with lot of aesthetics and eye for details with antique furniture
Ms Meenakshi Meyyappan, the ever energetic septuagenarian owner of the hotel – fondly called as ACHI – has converted this place into a real gem. You should see her eye for details and aesthetic sense that has gone into making this place what it is today. She has personally trained all the staff – who are with her for a long time – including the cooks who dish out mouth watering menus.

Freshened up, we were ready to gorge on the sumptuous Chettinad meal on the Banana leaf. As expected, the seeven course meal was awesome. If you are non - vegetaran, then you will have a blast here! Heavy lunch after a long drive is an invite for good siesta! A small nap and we were up for exploring Chettinad mansions, Attangudi – the small village which produces colorful ATTANGUDI TILES and of course antiques which Karaikkudi is famous for.

A cuppa of hot filter coffeee - possibly one of the best coffees (i really care for my coffee!) - made out of beans grown in their estate in Chikkamagalur made as active again. Vasanta, our guide for the evening was ready as we embarked on exploration. Our first stop was at A.M.A. House. Built in 19th century, this is a fine example of grandeur of a Chettinad Mansion. Typically Chettinad mansions are so huge that they are fort like and stretch between two streets, the front door opening into one while the back door to the other!
Two huge tusks of Burmese elephants on display
The main hall of AMA House - Notice Italian marble
tiles and colourful grills of Balcony

The colouful cieling of AMA House - made of
copper plates and then hand painted
Woven as a series of open-air courtyards of varying sizes with rooms flanking them on all four sides, the house transcends from a public to a private realm of functions as one move in from the main door. Beginning with a big public veranda and courtyard meant to entertain the male visitors by the men in the house, the house graduates to a slightly smaller courtyard with rooms and storerooms around it. Every member in the family would get a room and his name would be carved on the door. Many houses could accommodate up to 80 members of an extended family at a time. One of the other courtyards was meant for dining, which could seat about 250 people at a time. The women’s quarters and the kitchen with the servants’ rooms were at the very end.

Interestingly, the houses are an amalgamation of various things – Burmese teak columns, Spanish tiles, Italian marble floor and locally available Attangudi tiles. Style wise too one can see woodwork resembling the Kerala style, neoclassical, Victorian and Anglo Indian styles. The walls are of baked bricks, plastered over by a secret recipe of roots, yolk and lime that leaves them silken smooth and washable. On the exteriors, an array of themes from Hindu gods to British soldiers and Victorian women, adorn the surface as carvings, friezes and statues, interspersed with domes and arches. Overall it is predominantly white on the outside, to ward off the heat and at times colourful as their interior counterparts at the detail level. However, all of these put together never reads crude or bizarre and surely conveys a sense of splendour. Our second stop for the day was at the house of “Achi” or Ms Meenakshi Meyyapan. Beautifully maintained by her, this is again another example of how these mansions would have even in their hey days. 

Entrance to Mrs Meyyappan's house
Grandeur of main hall - Notice the granite pillars in
Colourful Ceiling
Unfortunately, these outstanding mansions are vanishing by the day as the present owners are either not interested to maintain them or they are unable to do so due to their financial condition. Those who believe in family pride continue to live in these houses but are unable to maintain them. Just look at this house which is bigger than the ones mentioned above but is badly maintained.
Intricate design on door in Mrs Meyappan's house
The main door made of Burma teak in this house with intricate art work is worth anywhere around 60-70lakhs!!! But the families who live in are poor and unable to maintain the house. Eventually many of these mansions have been sold to antique dealers who after pulling down the houses take away the artefacts from the house and return the plot.

A collage of clourful Attangudi tiles
Our next stop was the village of Attangudi famous for its beautiful handmade cement tiles. There are more than 20 factories manufacturing these tiles in this village which is a cottage industry. The local sand available suit tile making.

It started raining when we left Attangudi. One of the reasons for us to come to Karaikkudi was antiques. If you are planning a house with a ethnic design using wooden pillars etc, you have to come to Karaikkudi to see and select. The antique lane is full of these stores which stores from wooden pillars to betel nut scissors used by chettiars in 18th century. Of course, you need to have a fat wallet and eye for finding the hidden gems in these stores. We took the two pieces - A traditional and carved Coconut grinding and cutter used in South Indian Kitchen (known as "Turiyuva Mane " in Kannada) and a antique key holder with carved birds!

The rain was a welcome relief from the afternoon heat and we retired to our room. Ramu, the main chef said that there is a special for us in the dinner and would call us at 9. Dinner was a feast. Seven course meal of Vattal Kolumbu, Vendakkai, Chettinad Alu fry etc. As promised, Ramu had topped it all with a special chettinad sweet "Kavuni Arisi" made out of "red rice" which was yummy!

Day 2 – Drive to the Rameshwaram

One of the attractions of Karaikkudi is that it is centrally located to explore the cultural centers of Tamil Nadu. All important places like Madurai, Tanjavur, Trichy and Rameshwaram can be done as day trips. Rameswaram was one of the few places we had not seen – though I had been there as a kid as a pilgrimage tour with parents – in Tamil Nadu. We planned to do this as day trip after having checked the road condition from the staff in BANGALA.

Previous day’s rain had made the weather pleasant. We left after an early breakfast and the road surprisingly was in very good condition except for a small stretch of 500 meters. This drive should be very picturesque in winters when the fields are green unlike now when it was arid. Nevertheless, the road was dotted by palm trees on the road sides. The road from Devipattinam to Rameswaram should again rank as one of the best roads. We were excited as we reached the land’s end and entered the “Pamban Bridge” built on the sea which connects Rameswaram Island with main land.
Pamban bridge
A view of lighthouse from Pamban bridge
Rameshwaram is a small town and basically a pilgrimage town. Being Saturday, there wasn’t much rush in the temple. We entered from the western gate. As we crossed the small shops selling souvenirs and came inside, we were awestruck by this spectacular corridor which is supposed to be the longest in the world. The colorful panels on the roof blend with the chain of stone pillars forming the awesome spectacle. These corridors must be photographer's delight!!
The grand corridor
Dieties on the wall
The temple is huge. But it is not sculpturally exquisite like the ones you see in Tanjavur or Darasuram. There are 12 holy tirthas in the temple and one of the rituals is to take bath in the sea followed by pouring of water from each of these tirthas and then worship the god. Many devotees were doing that. We were not keen and went straight to sanctum santorum, had darshan and left the place. Apart from the temple, the other two places to be seen are Dhansuhkodi for its beautiful beach and Gandha Madhava parvatam, a small hillock from where you can have nice views.

After temple , our next stop was Dhanushkodi which is a 20 Minutes of nice drive. It was mid day and very hot. The beach is excellent.
Unspoiled Dhanushkodi beach
In fact one can go the land’s end and take a look at the Adam’s bridge or Rama Setu – the bridge built by Rama to cross over to Lanka. To do this, one has to go by vans which have capability to drive in sand. The local operators charge Rs 80 per person but have to wait till they get full quota of 20 passengers. Since there werent many we c did not want to wait. We checked how much does it cost to take two of us and pat come reply - Rs 1600! We dropped the idea of going and decided to go back after checking out Gandha Madhava parvatam. This is a small hillock and one can have some nice views of surrounding landscape from here. In fact sun rise from this place should be good.

We left Rameswaram around 11.45 AM and headed straight to Visalam in Kanadukathan for lunch. Visalam is again a heritage hotel restored by Casino group of hotels – the same group which run Coconut lagoon in Kumarakkom. An elegant Chettinad mansion, this has beautiful wooden columns and doors. We arrived at 2.30 and the Chettinad vegetarian thali was ready!
Carved wodden pillars in Visalam
The door way in Visalam
Ramu, the manager of Visalam who is a local agreed to come with us for a tour of Kanadukathan. This village - at a distance of 15 KMs from Karaikkudi - is just awesome and has to be called as “Heritage village” for the sheer number of Chettinad mansions it has - more 50 Chettinad mansions. Some in good condition and some not so. The village is built around a central pond and is geometrical in shape.

A road in Kanadukathan flanked by mansions
The broad roads are flanked by huge mansions of Chettiars. The whole village seems to have been lost in time and you will be transported to 19th century as you don’t see any modern houses here!! This is the place where the famous Chettinad Palace is located. What a mansion! Unfortunately, it was being renovated and getting ready for 80th birthday celebration of MAM Ramaswamy and no visitors were allowed. We had to be satisfied by taking pictures from outside.

Chettinad palace
Entrance to palace
A beautiful mansion opposite palace
Entrance facade of palace
At dinner, Achi introduced us to two French architects – Bernard and Michele – who have passionately restored a Chettinad mansion into a beautiful heritage hotel called SARATHA VILAS. www.sarathavilas.com This place looks awesome! Unfortunately, we had not heard of this lest we could have visited the place when we were in Kanadukathan.

Day 3 – Drive back to Bangalore

We got up lazily. Ramu was ready with trademark coffee of BANGALA. Packed up, we were treated to a spread of south Indian breakfast of Idli, Vada and Pongal which was delicious. Bidding good bye, we were back for another nice drive on NH 7.

I am always fascinated by the landscape around our roads. Be it green fields or small hills or rivers or mountains, it is always mesmerizing. NH 7 has its beautiful spots too. We noticed the stretch between Namakkal and Salem when you are flanked by hills on either side. I am not sure of the name of these ranges but looks really beautiful. It is beautiful again between Toppur and Krishna Giri. The landscape looks so beautiful especially on the spots when the road gets elevated.

When we reached, Bangalore at 4.30 in the afternoon, it was break worth remembering for. Karaikkudi is a place worth returning again – if only to stay in SARATHA VILAS and experience the life of Chettiars

Getting There

Road - The roads are excellent and you can comfortably drive to reach Karaikkudi by lunch if you leave bangalore by 6 AM. Alterantely, there are many overnight buses to Madurai or Trichy from where you can catch a bus to Karaikkudi

Train - Catch a train to either Trichy or Madurai and from there go by bus to Karaikkudi. There are direct trains now from Bangalore to these two cities.


Chettinad has now good options to stay.

VISALAM by CGH Group - High end hotel. We visited the hotel but was not impressed. Looked characterless. Food was OK, nothing great

The BANGALA - Our pick. Excellent hotel in a heritage and beautifully restored building. Immaculate eye for details and aesthetically great. Filter coffee and Chettinad cuisine to die for! http://www.thebangala.com/

Chettinad Mansion - We did not go there.

Saratha Vilas - Outstanding restoration by french architects. Just started first season. We could not go there. Must become a land mark in future. http://www.sarathavilas.com/

Chidambara vilas - Another restored mansion in Pudukottai district. Looks fabulous!! http://www.chidambaravilas.com/

Travel Tips

a) Tamil nadu summers are long, hot and dry. The best season is winter from October till January. Rates gets hiked up during this time peaking during Christmas till Pongal.

b) Winter is also best season for enjoying the landsacpe which will be green!!

c) If you love antiques, Karaikkudi is the right place to pick some.

d) Eat Chettinad cuisine when you are in Chettinad. Dont ask for roti and dal!!

e) One can make Karaikkudi as base to visit Madurai, Rameswaram and Trichy.

Some more Information

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