Chettinad Guide – Palatial Bungalows, Traditional Looms, and a Rich History

The first time I heard of Athangudi was only in 2021, when I visited Auroville and took notice of the beautifully crafted, colorful floor tiles. Many of these places had sourced the tiles from Athangudi and Karaikugi. So, a few months later, I found my way to these two places and was spellbound by the beauty of both Athangudi and Karaikudi and realized it’s so much more than a tile destination.

Chettinad region comprises of 72 villages (divided into clusters) in the Sivaganga district of Tamil Nadu. Chettinad region is where Chettiar community resided predominantly. Chettiar community itself is one of the oldest trading communities of Tamil Nadu. The homes are known for their grandeur and adoption of elements from around the world.

The first village I visited to experience this rich history was Kanadukathan, about 13 km from Karaikudi town. I could hop on a city bus and in about half an hour I found myself in a village that was going to leave me spellbound.

Traveling from Karaikudi, one of the first buildings that catches the eye upon arriving in Kanadukathan is a guest house being run by CGH, called Visalam. Visalam is no less a delight to look at, and as one can expect from a CGH property, they have managed to retain its century old charm from furniture to wall paint to tiles to the large copper kitchen utensils. The only thing that seemed like an afterthought was the swimming pool which in fact, is an addition made by CGH. In the summers, I can imagine what a respite that would be.

An inner courtyard with red floor tiles, an open door on the other side and green color planters on each side with plants.
Visalam’s (CGH Earth) Inner Courtyard

How to reach Karaikudi and Athangudi?

I was in Rameshwaram when I decided to go to Karaikudi. From Rameshwaram, I took a bus to Ramanathapura and there I got a direct bus to Karaikudi.

I chose to stay in Karaikudi because all the three listed properties in Kanadukathan were way out of my budget. Karaikudi seemed to have the cheapest stay options (which was also over the average Indian town). Next day, I got a bus to Kanadukathan village from the main bus stand.

Athangudi can also be easily reached via a bus from Karaikudi. One can also take a direct tuktuk.

Where to stay?

If your budget allows, I would highly recommend the below two properties in Kandukathan:

For budget options, one can look at properties in Karaikudi.

Note: The Grand mansions of Chettiar community are scattered around in various villages, one being Kanadukathan which is about 13 km from Karaikudi. Karaikudi itself has other attractions like flea market. 

Chettinad Palatial Bungalows

What’s all the fuss about big bungalows? one may ask. The thing is, these are more than just bungalows, each house is a piece of art and a museum of art, each house is a trade story, and so much more. Stepping foot in this region feels like entering a bygone era that had the charm and grandiose of Royals.

Chettiar community were traders who traded in a variety of things with a multitude of countries from Burma to Belgium. These trade routes have an influence on the mansions and the result of that is stunning.

A white colored palatial building with two cards parked outside. Windows and doors are painted a combination of forest green and red.
That’s a private property, closed for tourists

Let me walk you through these Mansions:

To start with these Bungalows are Art Deco Style, the only other place in India that has such architecture left is Mumbai. Art Deco style architecture has certain signature features like smooth wall surfaces (in Chettinad they are polished with egg white to maintain the texture), geometric decor, linear appearance of windows and walls, and stepped front facade (created using a series of step backs).

Chettinad Mansions have an almost similar style where as you enter the through the main door there is an outer courtyard, enter through the grand wooden door (with huge keys), you find yourself in the inner courtyard that has rooms on both sides, if you keep walking forward, the next area has a cleaning space, followed by cooking and then a smaller exit door on the other side. Some houses also have a second floor and a roof but many are closed for access.

A street lined with houses some modern, many old. A man riding in far distance on a bycycle with pink umbrella.
The village is clean and organized

The village of Kanadukathan is organized into blocks which is unusual in India (Bhubaneswar and Chandigarh are the only organized cities in India). Often these grand mansions make a block i.e. you enter from one street and can exit from the back onto another street.

There are many other places in India to experience the opulence of the bygone era like the palaces of Rajasthan. However, there is something special about seeing an entire community thrive through their skills in trade and later money lending. In fact, Chettiars were some of the first financiers in Singapore. The community is known to have set foot in Singapore as early as 1820s.

Bungalows that are open to tourists

If I have managed to influence you into visiting their stunning mansions, the next question would be how?

As one would right guess, there are only about 3000 of these mansions left, some in family dispute, some on the verge of falling apart, some get to see their owners once a year or so. There are some bungalows that have caretakers who allow visitors for a fee of Rs. 50 or Rs. 100. One of such bungalows is VVR House.

Inner courtyard of an Indian house with terracota roof, rain soaked floor. corridor is lined with colorful tiles.
VVR House, Inner Courtyard

Then there are some mansions that have been successfully turned into hotels like CGH Earth and Chettinad Mansion.

A room with a wooden study table in the far end, floor tiles are in black and white. A partially open blue window on the left wall. An old light hanging off a high wooden ceiling.
That study has my heart.

The Athangudi Palace has been partially opened to tourists for viewing at a cost. It’s also one Bungalow that appeared to be in best possible shape, every corner was shining like brand new. The Mansion boasts of elements from around the world like Belgian mirrors, Wood from Burma, Japanese tiles, Italian floor tiles and pillars. It is absolutely mesmerizing. As you enter the gate, it feels like one is stepping into the past but I so wish was the future. I’m not for occupying huge spaces like that but it’s evident that the community has an appreciation for art, which is what catches my eye.

Inner courtyard with big orange pillars. hint of green on the fence and ceiling paint.
The Inner courtyard

The first inner courtyard has paintings from thanjavur on the walls, the ceilings are painted too, the tiles themselves are a piece of art.

Athangudi bungalow is about 92 years old (build in 1928/29), and has 64 rooms. Many of these rooms are off bounds for tourists.

Floor with black and white tiles, dark painted pilllars, arched hallways with paintings on. Ceiling is carved of panels of wood with flower designs.
The first Inner Courtyard

My recommendation would be to visit Athangudi and Karaikudi on different days as there are other things to see there as well.

What can you see beyond Mansions?

Walking around kanadukathan and Athangudi in my opinion is a beautiful experience one must not miss out on. But there are things to experience here in the region as well such as –

Antique Street in Karaikudi

An old cast iron chair in the middle with many tid bits in the background like old wooden chests, copper pot, utensils, etc.
Will people find our trinkets beautiful a 100 years later?

The antique street, located in munishwaran covil street, did look a bit like the chor bazar in Mumbai but to be seeing things I had seen in those Bungalows a day earlier was quite nice. The street also has things like old coffee machines, cast iron benches, paper mâché crockery.

Watch the process of making Eco-friendly Athangudi tiles

A white house with terracotta roof, tiles stacked outside.
Ganesh Tiles

Athangudi is known for it’s stunning colorful tiles that makes for a beautiful floor and even walls. I had seen the process of making these tiles in a unit near Auroville before but to be able to see in Athangudi where the art form comes from was special.

Cement tank with tile blocks outside, sand on the left side.
Tile Making

I went to Ganesh tile (walkable distance from Athangudi Palace) to see the process but I did notice there are other places making tiles around too.

Note: Ganesh tiles is closed on Sundays. The palace is open though.

Handloom Weaving in Kanadukathan

A wooden machine with many threads hanging and one ceiling light just over the structure.
The traditional Handloom Weaving tool

There are two weaving units in Kanadukathan, I went to V Venkatraman Weaving Center. The people were very warm and let me walk through the place at leisure. They had a wide range of colorful chettinad saris catering to different budgets.

Village Temple

A temple with thatched roof and blue painted pillars overlooking a pond.

Like many villages in southern part of India, there is a village temple with a front pond. The temple was closed when I was visited but the pond was still serene to sit around. The rain definitely added to the magic.

Chettinad area was an absolute delight. I had no idea such a wonderful and charming place existed so close to where I was put up for a few months in 2021 (Auroville). I hope you get to make a trip to this beautiful and yet another unique place in India.

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