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The Resplendent Mansions of India’s Chettinad

With ornate mansions dating back to the early 19th century, Chettinad is an architectural lover’s oasis.

India’s Chettinad is the most surprising part of Tamil Nadu. Deep in the arid interiors of the southern Indian state, it is the land of the Chettiars, who in the early years of the 19th century had sailed the seas with British fleets to Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Burma and established a powerful banking and trading network.

The wealth they generated in these far-flung places found a testament in the opulent palatial mansions they built across Chettinad’s villages and small towns. A spectacular amalgamation of vibrant Tamil traditions and European architecture, the houses are built in a grid-like pattern and often stretch across two streets. They are repositories of a splendid past and are heavily embellished with Burma teak, Belgian glass, and exquisite craftsmanship.

A characteristic design element of a Chettinad house is a beautiful ensemble of finely carved Burmese teak, marble, or granite pillars in the main and inner courtyards of the mansions. The columns come in an array of designs, where the intricacy and splendor of the inlaid artwork was a statement of the affluence of the owner of the house.

The Chettinad region comprises some 78 villages, dominated by the prosperous Nattukotai Chettiar community. It is estimated that nearly 10,000 of those mansions still remain—about half the number that existed a century ago.

The mansions, mostly abandoned by their masters, now remain in varying stages of derelict and decay, often with only a caretaker to look after the premises. A few of them have been converted into boutique hotels that want to delve deep into the architectural wonders of Chettinad.

The palatial houses were mostly built between the early 19th century and 1930s by the mercantile community of Chettiars, who had set up flourishing trading and banking enterprises in Burma (now Myanmar), Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Malaysia, Singapore, and even in Mauritius.

In spite of the dereliction, the flawless craftsmanship has often withstood the test of time. The majestic facades are embellished with stucco figurines, ornate balustrades, carved cornices, stunning murals, and domed towers. Interestingly, the mansions were mostly built by local laborers and supervisors without any involvement of qualified architects.

The mansions are decorated with an exquisite display of art, where Indian mythological episodes and scenes from popular episodes of the prime Hindu gods like Lord Shiva or Krishna are depicted through beautifully engraved panels that adorn the massive teakwood doors.

Much of the wealth generated through trading in timber, ivory, and gemstones and from the banking business was channeled into constructing these opulent homes. However, with the onset of World War II, much of the business of the Chettiar community was folded up, and they relocated to bigger cities in India, leaving behind their ancestral properties.

The expansive courtyards and spacious rooms are embellished with marble and teak. Construction materials, decorative items, and furnishings were mostly imported from East Asian countries and Europe. A unique singularity of these houses is egg yolk plaster, which gave a lustrous feel to the ornate walls that have remained unscathed even through decades of neglect.

A typical Chettinad mansion, locally known as the periya veedu (big house in the Tamil language), is a stunning ensemble of multiple rectangular courtyards, ringed with verandas leading to cavernous rooms. The flooring is another highlight of Chettinad architecture, where locally made Athangudi tiles, cast by hand over glass surfaces, were often preferred to imported Italian marble for their durability and beautiful geometric or floral motifs and designs

The Revive Chettinad Development Project was formed a little over a decade ago to implement a program for protecting and restoring this built heritage. A collaborative venture of local heritage lovers and ArcHe-S—endorsed and funded by UNESCO—identified a selection of Chettinad houses for complete documentation, restoration, and adaptive reuse.