Month: January 2018

The Mansion We Stayed In

The main courtyard of Saratha Vilas (with sunbeams)

The Chettinad mansion in Kothamangalam that we stayed in for three nights was restored by a pair of French architects who had been able to cut a long-term lease deal with the sole owner. The architects had fallen in love with the style and found themselves inspired to bring one of the mansions back to life. The result is Saratha Vilas, a boutique hotel with comfortable rooms and a fantastic kitchen (there being no other places to eat in the village.)

Living like a princess

I look back with pleasure on this stop on our tour for several reasons. This was the first completely relaxing place we arrived at after time in the loud and busy cities of Mumbai and Chennai and a couple of internal flights. Saratha has a green, tranquil garden where I often heard Hindu temple music coming over a loudspeaker. The video below was taken in the garden:

This was the only village we stayed in, so we got to see a bit of village life. The bathroom window of my room looked out on the main street. In the middle of the night a couple of cows would be lying in front of the store across the street: now I know that Indian cows have owners and their own place to stay at night even it if isn’t a barn or stable. Then, around 5 am the road was busy with people coming into town by foot or motorcycle to work.

Path to the Ayyanar shrine at Kothamangalam, Tamil Nadu

When we walked down the main road much later in the morning, we would see a crowd of men at the open-air chai shop next door drinking chai out of tin cups and gossiping like crazy. The town also had its own Ayyanar shrine (see Village Shrine) which we walked to one morning. On the way back through a middle-class neighborhood we met some school girls and their mothers outside of their homes: these girls went to good schools so we spoke with them in English, with both sides expressing delight and curiosity at the meeting.


Our visit also coincided with the weekly market. While some of the village markets around the world that I’ve seen sell livestock, clothing, pots and pans, etc., this one was pretty much a food market. There were all kinds of vegetables, herbs and spices that I didn’t recognize. Markets like this rotate weekly from village to village: this is people’s chance to do the shopping for the week without having to drive or take the bus someplace. I’ve always wondered about the merchants’ lives: they have to show up at the crack of dawn to set up, then in the afternoon pack and put everything away for the next village and the next day. In the meantime at home they’re picking and packing their own harvest or receiving goods from other suppliers. While people now use trucks and vans to bring their produce to market, once upon a time these markets were served by farmers coming in with animal-driven carts.



Chettinad Mansions

Venice of course

I’m intrigued by states and groups in history that are known for being traders. The culture of such groups is rich and heterogenous because of the worldwide travel and extensive interactions with other cultures that enabled their success.  One example of course is the Republic of Venice,  a city-state of maritime traders and canny politicians. The architecture of the Renaissance palaces along the canals, with its uniquely Venetian blend of European and Moorish features, is one of the great treasures of the world.

In southern India, the Nagarathar or Nattukkottai Chettiar was another group of maritime traders, who left their architectural mark in what is now the state of Tamil Nadu. This community was sailing all over Southeast Asia in the 11th and 12th centuries. Later in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when their trade also took them to the West, they filled villages with ornate mansions. (See  and . ) These mansions share a common style of floor plan, but their exterior and interior ornamentation differs according to their owners’ tastes in architecture. During our tour in December, 2017 we drove by or toured mansions that displayed Baroque, Art-Deco, Art Nouveau and Asian influences.

Google Satellite view of mansions in the village of Kothamangalam, where we stayed at the one in the upper left

Most of these mansions are deteriorating. We were in villages that had dozens of mouldering mansions crowded together like an Indian Fifth Avenue of the Gilded Age. From the beginning homes of extended families, their ownership is now divided among multiple children and grandchildren who are dispersed in other Indian cities. Finding consensus on the disposition of the mansions is difficult. Some of the buildings open for tours are tenanted by poorer family members who show visitors around.

A few mansions have been restored as hotels, including the one we stayed in (coming soon in the next post.)

Note the dogs hanging out in the shade.
Photo of type of cooking fire used in the mansions (and apparently still in India):

It’s hard to imagine what life was like in the big houses, but I’m guessing they were crowded, noisy and extremely sociable with all the pros and cons of close family life. The mansions are built around three long, open courtyards. Small rooms along the side supplied storage space for the couples who lived there, but sleeping was separate between men and women (in fact, the women could lock themselves into the back of the house at night.)   The women had the two back courtyards: one for sleeping and socializing, and the other for cooking. The kitchen was communal, with each family having its own stoves, cooking pots, and utensils. The stoves were simply a long line of narrow stone low fireplaces with room for one pot each. (The main resting posture was squatting, so people worked, ate and talked on the floor.)

Imagine a dozen of these little fireplaces lined up along the wall of the kitchen area. Photo from

The men had the first two courtyards for business and more intimate socializing. These rooms have raised platforms where people could sit and talk.

We traveled in our little bus to a few other mansions to see some of the variations in int

erior decoration. Some of these mansions survive because of the quality of their materials: teak from Southeast Asia, marbles from Europe, chandeliers from Murano. Some had people living in them: as we walked to the back of the house there were sectioned-off areas where people were watching TV. In one an old lady walked around with us telling us about her relatives in a language we couldn’t understand.

If your house is made up of courtyards, columns and their capitols are important

Mumbai’s 100-year-old Urban Lunchbox Courier Service

 A popular tourist activity in Mumbai is observing the amazing courier service that picks up and returns home-made lunchboxes (tiffins) for people at work and school. Our tour group’s glimpse of this system appealed to my interest in transport systems: this system, traditionally staffed by a members of a Hindu sect from Pune called the Varkari, has grown organically since 1890. The Indian name for these lunch box couriers is dabbawala. (There’s plenty of information online about this, so I’ll just summarize here.)

Transport vehicles include foot, bicycle and train. The city trains provide an important link for getting food downtown: the trains even have cars dedicated to dabbawala transport. There’s a sophisticated coding system for pallets and lunchboxes to ensure that everything gets to where it’s supposed to go, but personal knowledge of customers and routes is also a key to success. We stopped our little bus outside of the Churchgate station of the Western line around 11:30 to see the dabbawalas in action as they took trays of tiffins off the trains and set them up for local delivery by bike.

A tiffin is a lunchbox designed to keep the elements of the hearty mid-day meal
separated until it’s time to eat: the rice or lentils, the sauces or chutneys, and the breads.

Many people in Mumbai still have someone (Mom, or perhaps a servant) at home who can make home-cooked lunches for commuters and schoolchildren. A  The dabbawalas pick up lunch boxes from homes around 9:30 am and have them delivered to workplaces and schools by 1. Then, they return all the lunchboxes to their homes in the afternoon.

Village Shrine in Tamil Nadu

T.N. = Tamil Nadu

Tamil Nadu is an agricultural state in Southeast India with many villages. Village life—to the inhabitants’ detriment, benefit or both—often appears to me to preserve centuries of tradition in spite of modern amenities like vehicles and electricity. In Tamil Nadu, India, we visited a couple of village shrines to the deity called Ayyanar. These simple shrines are found in uncultivated areas like small woods, whose trees are not especially ancient except perhaps for a few old, revered trees. Often those old trees provide the site for the Ayyanar shrine and other devotions.

This elephant at the shrine’s gateway is well maintained
The village keeps the god well supplied with steeds, servants and guards.
Gateway to the shrine (note the lighting in the upper left.)
The avenue of horses leading to the shrine’s gateway.

These photos were taken at a remote shrine that we got to by following some back roads past fields and woods (with our driver stopping frequently to ask directions.) The terra cotta animals in this shrine looked very old: as if they have been offered, renewed and rearranged for centuries.

As I understand it, Ayyanar is a local village god who rides through the village at night to protect the inhabitants. The shrines are entered via avenues of terra cotta horses and other animals. The avenue is then marked by a gateway that contains larger, freshly-painted statues. The newest terra cotta horses are grouped near the shrine itself. (I didn’t photograph the idol of the deity itself; I remember a small, black, fairly unremarkable statue of a man.)

Perhaps someday I’ll have a conversation with someone who has lived in one of these villages and can tell me more about some of the ways that people relate to these shrines and their very local deities. At this point I can only speculate about the fears and hopes of village inhabitants throughout the centuries, and the comfort and reassurance that might have resulted from occasionally hearing soft, rapid hoofbeats going past the house in the middle of the night.