Through The Local Lens: What To Do In Chettinad

Through The Local Lens: What To Do In Chettinad

Pooja Maheshwary

As a sucker for unique travel experiences, I'm always on the lookout for places that are offbeat and unfrequented by tourists. For me, the more unknown a destination, the more fun it is to explore it. So, when I heard about an all-women's trip to the Chettinad region in India, I knew I had to go for it!

Now, here's a little history lesson—Chettinad AKA the land of the Nattukottai Chettiars, comprises of 76 villages in the heart of Tamil Nadu, and is famous for its unique cuisine and architecture. The Chettiar community were traditionally traders and merchants of salt, gems, textiles and jewellery, and controlled a large part of the banking economy in India around the 19th century. Today, glimpses of their affluence are seen in beautiful mansions and homes in the region. A two-hour drive from Madurai, Chettinad is a must-visit destination for cultural and architecture aficionados.

Here's everything I saw, did and experienced, and everything you need to know about Chettinad.

But first, here's who I travelled with:

Delhi-based WeGoBond organises experiential trips for small, women-only groups. Now, I have always travelled solo, so before the trip I was a little iffy about going for an organised group trip. Are they enjoyable? Would my individual needs be met? Would I vibe with my fellow travellers whom I've never met before? Needless to say, WeGoBond didn't disappoint. From food and accommodation to transportation and guides, everything and I mean everything, was arranged for us to make for a no-frazzle, fun experience.

As someone who is very picky about the people I travel with, I couldn't have asked for better travel companions than the WeGoBond ladies. Amazing conversations, exchanging crazy travel stories, and lots of laughter were the highlights of this trip for me!

WeGoBond Ladies
WeGoBond Ladies

Where I stayed in Chettinad:

Chidambara Vilas in Kadiapatti is a 110-year-old Chettiar-mansion-turned-heritage-resort. It's a great place to witness an authentic display of the historically luxurious Chettinad lifestyle.

Valavu Or Courtyard Framed By Pillars On Both Sides At The Chidambara Vilas
Valavu Or Courtyard Framed By Pillars On Both Sides At The Chidambara Vilas

It had one of the best suites I've ever stayed at. My stay here was no less than a royal experience, and I almost felt as though I'd stepped back in time to a grand era. Moreover, I found the staff to be so friendly and helpful!

Chidambara Vilas in Kadiapatti
Chidambara Vilas in Kadiapatti

The food I ate in Chettinad:

There's a saying in South India that one is lucky to eat like a Chettiar, and I found it to be so true! Chettinad cuisine is a gastronomic treat for foodies everywhere. The spice-trading history of the community is reflected in the dishes, each a blend of well-balanced flavours. Personally, I was elated to see the plethora of mouth-watering vegetarian fare on offer.  

Traditional Chettinad meals served on banana leaves have a specific protocol—each dish has a designated space and order in which it's served. Idiyappam, paniyaram, paal payasam, cabbage carrot poriyal were some of the best dishes I tried.  

Traditional Chettinad Meals Served On A Banana Leaf
Traditional Chettinad Meals Served On A Banana Leaf

Shopping in Chettinad:

1. Athangudi Tiles

The Athangudi village in Karaikudi is famous for its handmade terracotta tiles. This cottage industry is run by local artisans and the tiles are made in vibrant and strong colours with distinct designs. The Athangudi tile factory is a great place to watch these tiles being made. What's more, the tiles make for great souvenirs too.

Handmade Terracotta Tiles At Athangudi Tile Factory
Handmade Terracotta Tiles At Athangudi Tile Factory

2. Chettinad Cotton Saris

Handwoven Chettinad cotton saris are signature pieces known for their checked and straight-lined patterns. The Kanadukathan village has a few small sari stores where you can buy cotton and silk saris, bedsheet, lungis, dhotis, towels, etc. at a steal!

Handwoven Chettinad Cotton Sareers
Handwoven Chettinad Cotton Sareers

3. Thanjavur "Dancing" Dolls

The Thanjavur dolls are traditional Indian bobblehead toys made using terracotta. They make for great gifts, and the best place to buy them is in the market a little ways from the Thanjavur Maratha Palace. The most common "dancing" dolls are those of the Bharat Natyam dancer, chettiar (smiling old man) and chettachi (smiling old woman).

Thanjavur "Dancing" Dolls
Thanjavur "Dancing" Dolls

4. Thanjavur Paintings

Thanjavur paintings are a classical South Indian painting style, made with raised surfaces in rich and vivid colours. Sometimes they are embellished with gold foil, pearls and semi-precious stones. They usually depict Lord Krishna and are collectors' items for art lovers everywhere.

Thanjavur Paintings
Thanjavur Paintings

5. Antiques

One of my favourite experiences in this region was at the Karaikudi antique market. If you want to find treasures that once were a part of the affluent Chettinad mansions, you must visit this place! From brass and bronze statues to tiny curios and trinkets, lamps, furniture, swings rocking chairs, and even Burmese teak wood doors, this museum-esque market will delight you!

Statues And Curios At The Karaikudi Antique Market
Statues And Curios At The Karaikudi Antique Market

The places I explored in Chettinad:

1. Athangudi Palace

The grand Athangudi Palace in Karaikudi village displays some of the best features of Chettiar mansions. Complete with open courtyards, beautiful verandahs and stunning European and Indian architecture, it's a visual delight.  

Mugappu Or Reception Complete With Italian Marble Floors, Belgian Glass Windows, Burmese Teak Wood Pillars At The Athangudi Palace
Mugappu Or Reception Complete With Italian Marble Floors, Belgian Glass Windows, Burmese Teak Wood Pillars At The Athangudi Palace 

2. Chettiar Homes

A Chettiar 'home' is a mansion elsewhere. These homes were representative of the wealth and power of their owners. We visited a few during our trip and I was bowled over by the sheer scale of luxury reflected through the architecture.

Chettiar Homes
Chettiar Homes

Cool Italian marble floors, Belgian glass windows, Burmese teak wood pillars and doors, Japanese and Athangudi handcrafted tiles, tall chandeliers, murals, sculptures, floral paintings—the decor makes these mansions lavish and opulent, to put it mildly.        

3. Thirumayam Fort

This fortress was built in the 17th century and has great historical significance. It's not very crowded and is easy to climb. It's best to visit this in the morning to avoid the afternoon heat.

Thirumayam Fort

4. Namana Samudra Temple

Terracotta horses and trees line the path to Lord Ayanar's temple. The horses are made by local artisans and are offered by the locals to Lord Ayanar to seek protection against natural calamities.

Lord Ayanar Idol At The Namana Samudra Temple
Lord Ayanar Idol At The Namana Samudra Temple

5. Brihadisvara Temple

Also known as the Tanjore temple, the Brihadisvara temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an architectural marvel. Devoted to Lord Shiva, it was built by King Raja Raja Chola I a 1000 years ago. The temple has one of the largest shivalingas in india. The complex includes shrines for Nandi, Parvati, Kartikeya and Ganesha among others.  

Brihadisvara Temple In Thanjavur
Brihadisvara Temple In Thanjavur

6. Thanjavur Maratha Palace

I was surprised to learn that the Marathas ruled Thanjavur a few centuries ago, and the Thanjavur Maratha Palace was their official residence. There are several buildings in the complex including Bell Tower, Arsenal Tower, Durbar hall, museums and galleries.  

Thanjavur Maratha Palace
Thanjavur Maratha Palace

All in all, Chettinad has my heart and I could not be more grateful for this trip. If you're looking to take a 2-3 day culturally-rich experience, then you must visit this region. Do check out the @wegobond page on Instagram for more such trips to some undiscovered gems!

WeGoBond Ladies
WeGoBond Ladies

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