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 https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/17/t-magazine/india-chettinad-mansions-travel.html http://www.srmuniv.ac.in/downloads/chetinad.pdf . ) 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): ourworld.unu.edu

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 minmit.com

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

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