Thursday, July 7, 2011

CHETTINADU

The first thing that comes to your mind when you think of Chettinadu is of course the famous Chettinadu Chicken; a dish that has taken the culinary world by storm. What most people aren’t aware is that the Chettinadu region is one of the most beautiful natural landscapes, with some of the most unique regional architectural styles present. We reached Karaikudi on a wet rainy morning after having started early from Madurai. The way is really picturesque, filled with green fields and trees on either side of the narrow roads.

The first thing that catches one’s eye is that the narrow lanes are lined on either side by residences which all follow a similar language. It’s as though the whole place has been planned carefully with a very strict code of design and construction. What one must keep in mind is that the place was built over 100 years earlier.
The houses are pretty big by modern standards. All of them occupy the whole width between two parallel streets. The amazing thing about these structures is that all are built on plinths of over a meter in height. We soon arrive in front of a beautiful house. An arched entrance steps welcome us. There is a cosy sit out; a colonnaded verandah, decorated with the famous ‘Athangudi’ tiles. The interiors are huge; being organised around a central linear axis. Shafts of brilliant light enter through the glass openings in the mangalore tiled roof. The interiors are dark and mysterious. There are huge wooden cylindrical pillars forming platforms and gathering spaces; spaces which were used in an age gone by. Today, the old lady who presently lives there laments the amount of time, energy and money required to maintain and take care of a house of this enormity.


The room opens up into a large colonnaded courtyard, which would have been the major social gathering space previously. You can almost imagine the ladies of the household sitting in the verandah around the courtyard, exchanging gossip while tying garlands of jasmine flowers. Children would have run around the pillars and enjoyed playing in the rains falling through the open sky above. Today, the courtyard is silent, silent with its memories and sounds of a bygone era.
The house is large – room after room, interspersed with courtyards. It is one of the longest houses that I’ve seen anywhere. The detailing done in the interiors and the facade are truly amazing. The balusters on the facade terrace, the decorations on the facade, all follow a very strict vocabulary across the entire community and town. It made me wonder about the social fabric of their society, about the strength of the architectural vocabulary which made it possible to be used across the board.





We soon boarded a bus to Chettinadu proper, where the palace of the king was located. Wet rice fields surround the road on either side, with the quintessential cow coming in the way in between. Giggly schoolchildren make their way home with their satchels hung over their shoulders.
 The area around the palace is again full of streets following the same unique architectural vocabulary. The palace is a simple white structure, not much different from the other houses. There is an idyllic temple with a temple pond directly across the palace, reflecting the dazzling blue sky. Yet, for all the beauty of the settlement, one feels sorry at the present state of affairs. The once beautiful and proud buildings now stand in various states of disrepair and neglect. The streets too are deserted, devoid of people. The sad thing about Karaikudi and Chettinadu is that the once wealthy families have over the years moved away slowly from this place, leaving it in the care of tenants. There is a small wayside stall selling sweets, indicating that there was life here after all.






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