Conversation#1 – Train to Karaikkudi
The ride from Rameshwaram to Trichy is not short. I am tired and in low spirits. Sitting with me in the carriage are all strangers from different parts of the state. Put two strangers alone together on a long journey, they may make light conversation. Put two strangers in the company of other men, they will make a lively debate that beats hands down any reality TV show. It is not enough to debate. What they really crave for is an audience. This is perhaps true in Tamil Nadu more than anywhere else in the country.
So it happens that a lively debate starts between two strangers, one from Chennai and the other from Madurai. It starts off with a simple discussion about this train to Trichy. One says there is another train leaving Rameshwaram later in the day. It may be the faster train to get to Chennai. The other man comments on it. They talk about it for half an hour. It is interesting how such a banal topic can be stretched to fill the hours.
Then they move on to politics. It is enough to get everyone involved. Someone introduces cinema. An active debate erupts. Apparently one is a fan of Rajnikanth and the other of Kamal. The train gets crowded at Ramnad and more than crowded when we leave Paramakkudi. By now the audience around the debating pair is a dozen strong. The speakers make their points with passion. They rope in the listeners to add weight to their views. I nod when prompted and even manage a few Tamil words. I am enjoying this. It has definitely lifted my spirits.
It is already past eight. I think if I stick around I’ll get to Trichy only at half ten. I decide to get off at Karaikkudi. It is a disappointment to some.
‘Rasigargal koranchittu varuthu (your fans are reducing),’ comments one.
When I step out of the station, it is pitch dark. Thick clouds are in the sky. It is raining cats and dogs.
Conversation#2 – At a restaurant
I take an auto-rickshaw from the train station. The driver promises to drop me near a suitable hotel. Fortunately, the rain subsides in a few minutes to a light drizzle. I take a comfortable room, dump my stuff and walk into a nearby restaurant. The place is about to close.
I take my seat at the same table where an old man is seated. I order chappati, one of the few things still left in the kitchen.
‘Do you know what I can see in Karaikkudi?’ I ask him. I tell him I am from Bangalore and interested in Chettinad culture.
‘Lots of things,’ he replies. He goes on to give me a list of places in and around town. His language is pure. The Tamil words he uses are almost classical. He points out, ‘You must not miss the Avadiyar Temple. That is worth seeing.’
‘What about Chettinad mansions?’ I ask.
‘There is a house nearby called the aayiram jennal veedu (1000-windowed house). You can visit the palace at Kanadukathan. Just few days back I visited a house in a town nearby. It was huge and it had such superb details.’
‘How did the people make so much money?’
‘They were traders. They started with salt business and progress steadily to trading even diamonds.’
‘Did you trade in salt as well?’
‘No, no,’ says the man with a laugh. ‘Those days, centuries ago, people traded in salt. These days many are money lenders.’
I finish my chappati with its tasty accompaniment of vegetable kurma. This is perhaps my first taste of Chettinad cuisine but I can’t really tell the difference. I pay for my meal. The cashier counts the change one by one in front of me and hands it to me. I have experienced this level of service outside India but it is unheard of in India. In India, cashiers usually throw the change on the counter for you to pick up. I take a immediate liking to Chettinad. I think I am going to have a great day tomorrow.
Conversation#3 – Man without lies
First thing in the morning, I walk to the Nagar Sivan Temple. The rain from last night has left large puddles in many places. It is still drizzling this morning. The sky is overcast. There is not a spot of sunshine.
The temple is small but it may be considered a big one for Chettinad. Unlike the great temples of Madurai or Tanjavur which enjoyed royal patronage, this temple has been built by contributions by the prospering Chettinad community. These Chettiars, also known as Nattukottai Chettiars or Nagarathars, are the reason many temples of the region are named with the prefix “Nagar.” The outer wall of the sanctum has beautiful stone pilasters, chiselled in the same style and artistic excellence of many great temples of Tamil Nadu.
Outside the temple walls is a small building housing a series of stone idols of Lord Ganesha. The idols are beautifully anointed, garlanded with little flowers and dressed in little dhotis with clean colourful borders. On some idols the trunk curls to the left and on others to the right. Some Ganeshas are standing and others are seated. I notice one Ganesha seated on a lion instead of his usual vehicle. Another is standing on a blooming lotus. Another sits with his consorts.
It occurs to me at this point that Ganesh Chaturthi was only yesterday. On my way to Rameshwaram yesterday from Madurai I had passed the town of Pillaiyar Patti, a place renowned for its ancient temple dedicated to Ganesha. I regret not having taken the time to visit it but I sort of knew that entire villages would converge on this town for Ganesh Chaturthi. I am certainly not one for crowded places.
I walk around many areas of Karaikkudi. I see many famous Chettinad mansions. They are all grand buildings with a unique architecture. Regrettably, many of these buildings are in bad shape. It probably costs too much in current times to maintain them well. It is likely that most owners don’t have the means to do so. Life has moved out of this once prosperous and busy town. Today Karaikkudi comes across as a sleepy town, laidback and removed from the rush of 21st century India. I like it for what it is.
‘Do you think I can go inside for a look?’ I ask a man sitting at some entrance steps. It is a little disappointing not to be able to see the interior architecture of these buildings. On the outside, they are grand and classical. I wonder how it is on the inside.
‘Difficult. It is owned by many people,’ he replies politely. He adds, ‘Safety is a concern for everyone these days.’
‘Are you one of the owners?’
‘Yes. Part of it. I have three other houses but I come here whenever I think of old times… old memories.’ He goes into a pause and continues, ‘This building is 110 years old. Most buildings here are quite old.’
‘How many people live here?’
‘And how many rooms are there?’
I am little stunned by this number. Sixty rooms! Imagine that! I can see a little bit of the inner open courtyard. I try filling in parts of the canvas covered from my prying eyes. I imagine rooms around the courtyard and pillared corridors running on all four sides. I imagine the tiled roofs sloping down into the courtyard.
‘All this from salt trade?’
‘Yes. We were into salt business, mostly with Ceylon. That is, my father and his forefathers. My sons are overseas. I worked as medical representative before I retired.’
‘In the government?’
‘Yes. I was a PA to a minister. I am a DMK guy,’ he replies. He mulls for a while and adds, ‘Chettiarku poi solla theriyathu (Chettiars don’t know how to lie).’
I leave him to his pursuit of truth and go in search of the 1000-windowed house. My walk takes me into a back alley filled with filth, overflowing sewerage, a half-naked woman scavenger, a pissing cow and a scared hungry dog. This is about the worst bit of walk I have done in entire India. Immediately it occurs to me that I should have come by the main road. But it too late now. I am close to the halfway mark. These old mansions are so long that the back alleys stretch for a couple of hundred meters at times. I hold my breath and walk quickly across. It will take me a while to forget this experience.
In time I find the house I have been searching for. It isn’t impressive. It is a large one no doubt but I doubt if there are actually 1000 windows in it. Tourism isn’t really developed in Karaikkudi. The house is not open for visitors. At least that’s what I assume since no one is around, the place appears closed, quiet and dead.
Conversation#4 – An old woman’s trust
I get a bus to Kanadukathan where there is a palace of some sort. It is close to the main road and I walk to it easily. There is a large tank nearby and a small temple across it.
‘The palace is closed for visitors,’ a security guard tells curtly.
‘Why?’ I demand as if he owed me an explanation.
‘It is under repair. It’s been closed for eight months.’
I look around. I don’t see any scaffolding. I don’t see any sign of repair work. Okay, let’s assume he’s telling the truth. I am sure it would be pointless to ask him when it would reopen. We all know how good Indians are at planning and execution. I hang around the street looking at the colourful facades of the palace and neighbouring buildings of similar grandeur. Long corridors, open courtyards, airy verandahs, open terraces, neat gables, arcaded parapets, balustrades, rafters, pillars, pilasters, lampshades… everything seems to have a local cultural flavour. There is nothing grand or magnificent in these buildings, just a dash of uniqueness, stuff that will be hard to find elsewhere.
A couple of cars pull into the street. The palace guard quickly lets them in. What is India without special favours? A little later another car drives in. The people approach the guard and they are refused entry. I strike a conversation with these visitors and we jointly lament on our sour luck. Somehow one’s disappointment is assuaged with another’s.
I leave this street and walk around others. Every building at Kanadukathan is a mansion. I stop at a particular one which has an entrance portico crowned with a stucco image of Goddess Gajalakshmi in faded colours. The portico leads through a corridor, across the front courtyard and into the verandah. Above is an open terrace. Two octogonal projected towers frame the building on both sides. Pointed arches frame windows in the manner of English Gothic cathedrals. Cornices run along with regular key patterns. Floral motifs decorate pilasters. Here there is a combination of Indian inspiration and European influence.
I ring the bell. An old lady comes to the gate.
‘I am from Bangalore. I’ve come to see a Chettinad mansion. The palace is closed for repair work. Will you show me your place?’ I ask her.
The old woman is a widow. She is dressed in a plain white saree. She wears no colour. She is the traditional Indian woman whose husband is gone forever. Such widows are no longer common in big cities where even re-marriages are becoming a norm.
‘My son is not in town,’ she replies.
‘Can I see the courtyard then?’ I ask as a last resort.
She agrees, disappears for a while and reappears with a key. She opens the gate and I walk into the courtyard. Who would have heard of such a thing in the cities?
She takes her seat on the verandah as I take a few pictures. The pillars of the verandah are in polished stone. The door jambs are superbly woodcrafted. The lintel above is a wonderful piece of wood art. It is a masterpiece fit for any reputable museum of the world. Old fans and lampshades hang from the beams of the rafters.
‘How old is the house?’ I ask her.
‘More than 100 years old. My father-in-law built it,’ she tells. I look into her eyes. I try to picture her younger days. I try to imagine mid-twentieth century India in which she grew up. I try to guess what stories she might be able to tell. Her entire life seems to flash before me in shades of grey. It is a quiet moment between us. It doesn’t feel like I have just met her.
I thank her for her hospitality. As I step out into the sun – yes, it has stopped raining and the sun is finally out – I am reminded of my visit to the painted towns of Shekavati in Rajasthan. The mansions of Chettinad, like in Shekavati, encapsulate a period of cultural history that is hard to come by or preserve in any modern city. They are a window to beautiful old India.
Conversation#5 – A guided tour
I continue walking through the streets of Kanadukathan. The broad streets are laid out in a grid fashion. Broad drains neatly line the streets. In those days this must have been prime area where rich merchants must have lived. I see a house with an open gate. A man is standing at the gate bidding farewell to two women. I accost him and state my purpose.
He considers it for a while and replies, ‘Come in. I will show you around. My great-grandfather built this place.’
He introduces himself as Subbaiah. I remove my shoes as is customary in traditional Indian houses all over South India.
‘This is the thinnai,’ he introduces a raised platform flanking the entrance to the inner courtyard. ‘This is where guests are received. It is a nice cool place to relax even on a hot afternoon.’
I stand with my back to the thinnai and face the entrance courtyard. I can see as many as five bathrooms and toilets across the courtyard. A well stands to the left. A wooden ramp leads to a door on the right. Subbaiah leads me on this ramp and we enter the kitchen.
‘There are three fires here,’ he points out. I see a couple of women busy here but they don’t mind my intrusion at all. Two kids run past us and disappear into the house.
I walk past beautiful door jambs and a carved lintel and enter into the inner courtyard. A line of clothes catches the sun in one corner of this open courtyard.
‘This is the main part of the house,’ says my host. ‘If it’s a little cold outside or raining, guests may come and rest here. This is called the pattarai,’ he says pointing to raised platforms at the rear of the doorway I had just entered. On either side of the courtyard are pillared corridors leading into rooms. I see five rooms on each side. We enter one of them. I see that it is divided into two portions. That makes it 20 rooms in this inner courtyard alone.
‘How many families live here?’ I ask as we step out into the courtyard.
‘Fifteen but most of them don’t live here. Only two or three live here and others come and go,’ elaborates Subbaiah. He is a cheerful man and answers my questions in good spirit. Personally I am elated at this rare opportunity of a guided tour of a traditional Chettinad house. Going by the house I have seen elsewhere today, this is not as large as many others. My host acknowledges this to be a medium-size house. I have seen much smaller houses in which the thinnai is an open verandah hugging the road and the doorway leading straight into the courtyard.
I stand around for a moment to admire the beautiful woodwork on the pillars. The shafts are made of stone but the capitals are shining wood. They seem to be lathe-turned discs. The stone shafts are colourfully painted in bright blue with highlights in red, yellow and green.
‘These are Burma teak,’ says Subbaiah pointing at the capitals.
He unlocks a door to the right and we walk up to the higher level. Here there are five more rooms and divided into two portions each like those below.
‘Each of these rooms is given to one family. These rooms on top and the spaces around are usually used to store the varisai,’ he explains. I see things lying around the walls. “Varisai” is nothing but what the girl brings from her parents’ house when she gets married. It is part of the dowry system still current in most of India.
We go up one more level. I open a window and peep into the courtyard below. The sun is streaming right into it. One could never guess that it had been raining only a couple of hours ago. A little higher, we climb to the terrace. I see one more well at the back, apparently used by women for their baths and kitchens. There are no tall houses at Kanadukathan. Most of them are two or three levels high. I get a wide view of the town. It is quietly beautiful. We walk down the wooden staircases. I run my hands on the walls as I go down.
‘Walls are quite smooth,’ I comment.
‘Yes. This polish is obtained by a special mix of various stuff that includes egg-whites. Cement was not used in those days.’
We leave the courtyard and go deeper into the house. These houses are quite long, often spanning the land between two streets. The next room has old wooden rafters under a high ceiling. There are rooms on the sides and doorways at the rear lead to four more kitchens. I see that the kitchens are new.
‘These have been recently redone. Before we used woodfires but they have been replaced with gas cylinders,’ explains my friendly host. As we walk back to the anteroom he points to the side rooms, ‘These are usually used to store provisions.’
Back within the main courtyard, I admire once more the pillars. Cane chairs stand in a corner. The design of the house reflects communal living, an extended joint family and a harmony with nature. Natural light fills the courtyard and the rooms. My gaze shifts to the multi-layered tiled roofs. I ask Subbaiah about it.
‘As many as five layers of tiles overlap on these roofs. This is necessary to keep the rooms cool.’
He points to a system of rain water harvesting. He offers me a glass of water, ‘Don’t worry. This is bottled water.’
I quench my thirst, thank him for the wonderful tour and return to wandering the streets.
Conversation#6 – A Chettinad wedding lunch
I am at Pallathur, another town of Chettinad region with spectacular mansions. It is past two in the afternoon and I am starving. There is not a decent restaurant in any of these small towns. I am afraid I have to head back to Karaikkudi for a proper lunch but I don’t want to skip Pallathur.
My long walk takes me past many houses until I arrive at a corner house alive with activity. It seems to me that a wedding is underway. These houses are so huge that people never to need to go anywhere for wedding ceremonies. Most weddings are conducted in the courtyards.
‘Do you think I can go in?’ I ask someone at the entrance. ‘I am tourist.’
‘Sure,’ he answers.
That’s all the invitation I need. I remove my shoes, walk past men lounging on the thinnai, past women talking in corridors, past kids running around with their ice-creams and head straight into the dining area to the left. The last sitting for lunch is just about to begin. I take my seat to savour original Chettinad cuisine. The dining area is so long that easily a hundred people can sit at any one time.
‘Oh, how are you? Strange to see you so soon,’ greets a man sitting across the room. It’s a small world. It’s the same man I had met in front of the palace at Kanadukathan. Clearly he and his family have come down from elsewhere for this wedding.
I cannot begin to describe the wonderful things I taste for lunch today. My taste buds are pampered – sweet pongal, dry fried vegetables, vegetable stew of okra and channa, onion kozhambu and minced fruits in a sweet broth that tastes like custard. The last of these is perhaps what they call paal paniyaram.
I finish lunch, come out and grab a cup of ice-cream. I walk around the house in complete admiration of everything I see. This house is so huge that thinnai is separated from the entrance into a separate room with high ceiling, stunning vaulting and brackets bearing lions with wings. The door jambs are superb. The lintels pay tribute to Gajalakshmi, Ganesha, Murugan, Vishnu on his Garuda and Shiva on Nandi. The pillars and their crafted capitals of Burma teak are wonderful. I walk around looking at everything, but really pretending to be an invited wedding guest who is finishing his ice-cream.