7 distinctive features of Chettinad Houses and Architecture

Chettinad is a region of the Sivaganga district of southern Tamil Nadu state, India. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, many residents of Chettinad emigrated to South and Southeast Asia, particularly Ceylon and Burma. Chettinad comprises of a network of 73 villages and 2 towns forming clusters spread over a territory of 1,550 km2 in the Districts of Sivagangai and Pudukottai in the State of Tamil Nadu. The people of Chettinad speak Tamil.

Chettinad Houses

Chettinad is the home of the Nattukottai Chettiars (Nagarathar), a prosperous banking and business community. It is also known for its local cuisine, architecture, and religious temples. The Natukottai Chettiars belong to a lineage of wealthy traders and financiers who made their fortunes by extending their business to the whole of Southeast Asia, particularly during the second half of 19th and early 20th century when they were at the peak of their economic power. Vital component in the south Indian economy, the Natukottai Chettiars represented the major banking Hindu community of South India.

The Chettinad region is well known for its 18th century mansions, whose wide 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. The marble was brought from Italy, chandeliers and teak from Burma, crockery from Indonesia, crystals from Europe and wall-to-wall mirrors from Belgium.

Chettinad architecture is also closely linked to the lifecycle rituals of the Chettiar community. The mansions were conceived to perform the different functions, rituals and family celebrations during the course of life from birth to death.

Due to the fact that they settled in a hot and semi arid region, the Chettiars took the climate into consideration to plan the villages, design the palatial houses and in choosing the materials to use. They had a vision of land-use planning which has shaped a unique landscape.

The villages are organized following north-south axes, along which are created the longitudinal east-west orientated plots. Following this configuration the houses are built around an east/west central courtyard which provides shade, light, coolness and air.

The materials used for construction also respond to the climatic requirements: thick walls of bricks, lime plasters, multiple layer of terracotta tiles roofing, marbles and stones floors are essential components.

The slopes of the roofs are important and allow the collecting of rain water during the monsoon season. The collected water serves for household use and to fill up the wells; the overabundant water flows into the drainage system of the village which feeds the common ponds and tanks.

The Chettinad houses were usually tile-roofed with a small two-storeyed tower at both ends of the front elevation. They later expanded vertically into two-storeyed structures, and horizontally through the addition of numerous halls and courtyards that could accommodate guests at marriages and other ceremonies. The Chettinad houses accommodate up to four generations before separate houses are built by individual sons.

Chettinad architechture stands out for its use of large spaces in halls and courtyards, ornate embellishments like Belgian glasswork, intricate woodwork, spectacular ceramic tiles, stone, iron and wooden pillars like nothing else that can be seen in this part of the world.

Intricately carved pillars of teak, granite, marble and iron that add grandeur to these houses stand testimony to the wealth of each family. The Raja Palace, which belongs to Ramasamy Chettiar and was built in 1902, is the most imposing of the houses with pillars made from a single piece of wood standing more than 10 feet tall. Old residents of Chettinad claim that moneyed Chettiars filled the hollow columns of the wood and granite pillars with valuable gems in the last century.

Wall Plastering: Many of these mansions were built using a type of limestone known as karai veedu. Local legend has it that the mansion walls were polished with a paste made out of eggwhites to give them a smooth texture. The walls of Chettinad buildings were embellished with ‘Chettinad Plaster’, whose other names are white-‘vellai poochchu’, egg plastering-‘ muthu poochchu’. Such walls were coated with several layers comprising mixture of lime, base, ground white seashells and liquid egg white.

Athangudi tiles, named after the place of the manufacture in Chettinad, Tamil Nadu, come in a myriad of colours and patterns. These tiles are a testament to the rich cultural heritage of the Chettiar community, who effectively adapted many influences to their own brand of local craftsmanship. The designs and colours used in Athangudi tiles are still those of a bygone era. However, of late, new designs and patterns are being incorporated. The Athangudi tiles are hand-made. Athangudi tiles are prepared by a unique process in which local soil alongwith cement, baby jell and synthetic oxides are used. The tiles are cast from the locally available clay that is first burnt and then glazed. It is the play of base colours with typical conventional flora and line drawings that make them unique. It is used for flooring, wall cladding, both interiors and exteriors.

Most Chettinad mansions comprise of a public reception area abutting the street. First comes an outer‘ thinai ‘– large raised platforms on either side of the central corridor, where the host would entertain male guests. The platforms lead off on one side into store rooms and massive granaries and on the other, into the (Kanakupillai) or Accountant’s room.This area also usually leads off to the men’s well. From here, the huge elaborately Carved Teak Front Door, with image of Lakshmi carved over the head and navaratna or nine precious gems buried under the ( Vasapadi) threshold. These entrance doors, with carved panels and double doors were mostly made of Burma teak and Neem.

Courtyards– The door leads into the first open air courtyard, with pillared corridors running on each side that lead into individual rooms, each meant for a married son, each with a triangular slot cut into the wall for the evening lamp. Then comes the second courtyard with large dining spaces on either side. The third courtyard was for the women folk to rest and gossip, while the fourth, or nalankattai comprised the kitchens, leading out to the backyard with its women’s well and grinding stones. The houses are built on a rectangular, traversal plot that stretches across two streets, with the front door opening into the first street and the back into the second. Looking in from the main threshold, your eye travels in a straight line across a series of inner courtyards, each a diminishing rectangle of light, leading out to the back door . The courtyards supply ample light and air (pickles and papads were dried there) but leave the rest of the house in deep and cool shadow. The courtyards have tiles placed exactly under the storm-water drain pipes so that the stone floor is not damaged. Underground drains run right through the house, with stone stoppers carved exactly for their mouths. Large stone vats for water and wooden bins for firewood line the inner courtyards.

The wealthier the merchants, the larger the house, often spreading out to a second floor. Let alone air conditioning, inside an authentic Chettinad house you will never feel the need to use fans too amidst open courtyards, amazing wall finishes and earthy tiles.

Architecture and Layout: Chettinad houses are signs of successful joint families that existed in older days. Buildings are divided into portions-‘kattu’. ‘Mugappu’-the reception, entrance to the house. ‘Valavu’ – living area of the house. In the valavu, there are 4 platforms, that are called ‘Pattalai’, each at four corners of the valavu. ‘Pattalai’ – living halls of each family. Along with pattalai, valavu consists of numerous‘ Irattu Veedu’(2 rooms connected by a single door)- rooms, used by each family to keep their belongings. ‘Nadai’ – corridor. ‘Irandan Kattu’ – used for dining, with store room for crockery, kitchenware. ‘Moonamkattu’ – kitchen, also known as ‘Adukala’. ‘Thottam’ – garden.

The houses in Chettinad are well sculptured work too. Such Stuco Work can be seen at the entrance tower, compound wall and the facade. The theme is mostly Gods and Goddesses – Shiva Parvati, Gajalakshmi. Gajalakshmi symbolizes protection and prosperity, while Shiva Parvati represents happy family life. These are portrayed by using stuco work as the medium.

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