5 Things To Do In Chettinad

From shopping for heritage tiles to checking out ancient mansions, here's a guide to Chettinad in Tamil Nadu
The grand palace in Kanadukathan, Chettinad
The grand palace in Kanadukathan, Chettinad

Chettinad has emerged as one of Tamil Nadu&rsquos niche travel destinations, with multiple heritage mansions welcoming guests from all over the world. The region&rsquos grand architecture and cuisine have been the two key drivers that have wooed the most evolved of travellers.

Visit The Mansions

Chettinad mansions are privately held properties with deep-rooted traditions the families may have migrated, but descendants still return here to celebrate life-events. Despite their struggles with the upkeep and worries over conservation, the owners haven&rsquot yet succumbed to ticketed tourism. Walk these old streets, flanked by massive mansions, some freshly painted and others statuesque with age &mdash Kadiapatti, Pallathur, Kothamangalam and Kanadukathan are particularly atmospheric, and the Raja of Chettinad&rsquos Palace, although not open to visitors, is still worth seeing from outside. You can also visit Lakshmi House, a well-kept mansion in Athangudi that&rsquos let out for film shootings. There&rsquos also the magnificent Verappa Chettiar mansion in Kottaiyur&rsquos K.V. Street, a delightful effort by the M.Rm.Rm. Foundation to restore old homes on lease and enable visitors to see what makes a Chettinad mansion.

Explore The Countryside

The rural drives are lovely &mdash bumpy village roads intersecting highways, quiet temples fronted by small tanks and brightly painted gopurams (towers), and unmanned railway crossings preceded by signs of puffing engines. Ask your driver to take roads that go past old mansions, their desolate streets hauntingly lovely. Pull over and walk some of them. The villagers are quite accustomed to random visitors. Nemasamudram, Eliangudipatti and Kothadi have ancient ayyanar (guardian deities) shrines, large terracotta horses arrayed in front of them. Ask your hotel about the nearest ayyanar kovil.

Go On A Temple Trail

Spend a morning among the sculptures of Avudiyar Kovil (60km from Karaikkudi). Nemam, one of the nine Chettiar clan temples to Shiva, is noteworthy for its Dravidian architecture, as is the rock-cut shrine to Vishnu next to the Thirumayam Fort the Vairavar temple in Pallathur (observe the musical pillars here) and the 13th-century temple to Ganesha at Pillaiyarupatti, which is vaster and also seems to emerge from the rock around it.

Sample The Famous Cuisine

The region&rsquos cuisine is unique in its use of spices. It was kavunni arisi&nbspor black rice that sparked my romance with this cuisine. That was even beforeI set foot in Chettinad. For centuries this was forbidden rice, reserved only for the noble class in China. It&rsquos an integral element in Chettinad cuisine, where this mildly sweet and glutinous boiled black rice is finished with ghee, crushed cardamom and grated coconut. This is a dish that you can sample not just at Chettiar homes, but also at quite a few heritage hotels in Chettinad.Try the mandi. It&rsquos prepared with the water drained after washing rice, and is cooked with a star vegetable in mind. There&rsquos a keera masiyal (spinach mash), a fine example of the subtle use of spices. And the pepper kuzhambu (gravy) with mutton.The Chettiars love their mutton, and one of the region&rsquos newer dishes that has risen in popularity is the kola urudai (finely minced mutton balls).

Shop For Handlooms And Antiques

Don&rsquot miss a visit to the Sri Mahalakshmi Handloom Weaving Centre on Kanadukathan&rsquos K.M. Street and be prepared to splurge on handlooms, from cottons to  the kandaangis, and silks, unique to the region. 

Pick up the signature Athangudi handmade mosaics and tiles. The startlingly pretty tiles make a charming souvenir.

See artisans shaping chariots, temple doors and vaahanams (giant mythological beasts and birds on which deities are borne during festivals) in wood, silver and gold at the hereditary establishments.

And shop for Thanjavur paintings, with gold leaf and semi-precious stones in new or antique finishes.

Stop at the&nbspantique shops in Karaikkudi where&nbspshelves are lined with stuff discarded when mansions get pulled apart. Consider portable one-inside-another &lsquoRukmini cookers&rsquo savari aruvalmanais &mdash artistically carved cutters and coconut scrapers writing desks glass, brass and enamelware ancient typewriters, radios and pedestal fans in working condition.

The Information

Karaikudi is the most significant commercial hub in the Sivaganga district of the Chettinad region.

Both the Tiruchirappalli and Madurai airports lie about a two-hour drive away from Karaikudi. Chennai, the state capital, is a seven-hour (400km) drive from Karaikudi.

The best time to visit would be between October and March.

Related Stories

No stories found.
Outlook Traveller