Homes and gardens

Magnificent, yet abandoned

Photo - Mahesh Chadaga   | Photo Credit: Photo - Mahesh Chadaga

When you walk through the quaint narrow streets of Athangudi village in Tamil Nadu, a common spectacle that greets you: rows of mansions that were once the pride of their inmates but now lying derelict, many serving as fertile grounds for plants sprouting on their walls and terraces.

The sprawling mansions that begin at the street level and encompass the entire site, remain locked, the exterior paints worn, the iron grills rusted, yet revealing a sense of grandeur hidden from sight, prompting the visitor to take a peek, under the mistaken notion of catching a glimpse of a lifestyle that is forgotten, buried.

The Nattukottai Chettiars certainly lived a life of opulence, being a thrifty business community with significant wealth to boast. The mansions that still remain bear silent testimony to this erstwhile past, one not preserved, yet not fully erased. The remnants continue to prevail in these locked-up structures, each serving as a display of fine craftsmanship and rich taste.

“The Chettiars used their abundant wealth to hire skilled craftsmen to carve magnificent pillars and doors common to the Chettinad houses, providing the master wood sculptors with adequate work to sustain their skills while decorating their mansions with an exquisite display of art”, says Rajakashmi, a resident of one of the exotic mansions that currently lies in ruins because of lack of care.

State of neglect

Intricate carvings in wood prevail on the multiple wooden pillars, the massive teak entrance door, on the rafters holding the tiled roof in Rajalakshmi’s family mansion. Yet the ruins of lack of care are excruciatingly evident, the wood falling apart, the walls and floors broken, the courtyards unkempt due to lack of monetary support to sustain a once stunning mansion.

Many have yielded to family pressures and lack of funds, permitting these mansions to be torn down, the exotic stone and wooden pillars, the intricately carved massive doors revealing unparalleled skilled craftsmanship, salvaged to be thence used by a discerning urban clientele.

Fortunately however, a few Chettinad mansions continue to prevail, managing to preserve their grandeur and a heritage that otherwise would have been completely lost. The magnificence of these is truly breath-taking, in detailing, craftsmanship as well as architecture.

Typically in these mansions, a row of stone pillars define the pathway to the majestic lobby that hints at the splendour awaiting within. The lobby with the open verandahs are flanked by intricately carved teak or rose wooden pillars while a massive Burmese teak wooden door with equally exotic carvings leads to a lavish living area.

Superbly carved and painted ceiling, porcelain tiled walls, Italian marble, Belgium mirrors, European crystals and chandeliers coupled with rows of windows mark the expansive formal living area. The sheer luxury of the formal interior can be astounding, giving a peek into the opulent lifestyle of the Nattukottai Chettiars.

Sunlit courtyard

Another set of massive exotically carved wooden doors lead to a stunning sunlit courtyard enclosed by rows of stone columns that border the open verandahs around the space. Carved teak doors at equal intervals lead to multiple small rooms on either side of the courtyard, serving as storage spaces for normal household items, jewellery and silver besides prayer rooms. These rooms which come with a window are interestingly divided into two segments albeit small, a slightly larger space opening thence into a smaller closed area.

As arresting as the carved wooden columns and doors, the flooring in these mansions proves to be equally striking in colour and artistic patterns, the tiles being handmade in the village of Athangudi. The sunlit courtyard leads into an extraordinarily long dining space large enough to house over a hundred diners at a time. Similar storage rooms prevail on one side of the dining area while the other has a row of windows that open on to the streets, letting in sunlight and fresh air.

As the Chettinad mansions pack in multiple courtyards, each with a specific function, not surprisingly yet another expansive courtyard prevails connecting to the large kitchen. The courtyards, with their multiple stone grinders, serve as an open area for cooking during festivities hosted by the Chettiar families.

While the living, dining, cooking and entertaining sections prevail at the ground level, the multiple sleeping quarters to house the individual members of the large joint family, typical in the Chettiar households, feature on the first and second levels of the house. Long closed corridors also prevail on the upper levels to house the grains fetched from the farms.


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Printable version | Sep 27, 2021 7:32:51 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/homes-and-gardens/magnificent-yet-abandoned/article23003605.ece

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