Narayani V Manapadam; Sujith Nixon | January 2023
If inanimate objects were capable of emotions, the desolate mansions in Kanadukathan would have cowered in embarrassment under the opulent presence of their palatial counterparts.
It was the first thought that struck me as I walked down the unlit alley with my husband, hand in hand, in a hamlet in Chettinad district in Tamil Nadu.
Chettinad! What comes to mind when one hears the word? Of course, the delectable and classic chicken dish. Not to forget the handloom cotton sarees, created to perfection by the weavers. During the Christmas weekend of 2018, we realised that there was more to the historical town of the Chettiars.
The seven-hour drive from Chennai was smooth. We checked into a comfortable heritage hotel called Chettinad Court in Kanadukathan, a hamlet near Karaikudi. The court had eight rooms in total, each one named after the eight forms of Ashta Lakshmi. Ours was Dhanalakshmi, the Goddess of wealth, courage, and perseverance.
After freshening up, we stepped out of the hotel. It was six in the evening.
Time stood still. The sky was beginning to turn inky. The gentle breeze caressed our faces, as we breathed in the unpolluted air. The deafening silence in the alley was interspersed with songs dedicated to Amman from occasional mansions. The exhilaration of being far from the madding crowd was palpable in the way we gushed about our state of nirvana.
It was then we noticed the juxtaposition on display. A few dilapidated edifices, once reminiscent of the affluence of their owners, now stood forlorn as a testimony to the vagaries of time and fluctuating fortunes. An army of moss ran amok over the ramshackle houses, smothering them in various hues of green. As we continued to walk down, the sheer opulence and grandeur of other mansions struck our eyes. Blessed with an immaculate facade, they were indeed the pride of their owners, and the envy of their lesser fortunate neighbours.
We took a small detour to pay obeisance to Lord Ganesha. One usually associates temples of South India with magnificent architecture and ornate gopurams. However, the Devendra Vinyakam Alayam was constructed around the trunk of a tree, imparting a valuable lesson in preservation of nature. We partook of sundal, a dry dish consisting of boiled chickpeas and grated coconut. Sensing that we were tourists, the priest offered us Puliyodharai (tamarind rice), served in banana leaves.
The stroll back to our hotel was memorable, with the incessant chirping of the crickets giving us company. Weird as it may sound, we didn’t experience the need to illuminate our path with the flashlight of our mobiles. We placed our faith in mother nature and surrendered ourselves to her.
The serene tranquility of the hamlet had a calming influence on us, and we drifted off to a blissful sleep.
The next step in our itinerary was a ride in a bullock cart arranged by Chettinad Court. The eight-seater carriage arrived on time. The bulls Rama and Lakshmana took us on an hour-long cultural journey around the village. In many places, the cart wobbled along the muddy and unpaved roads.
Our first stop was the Chettinad Mansion, which also doubles up as a hotel. The marble floor looked like a massive chess board. Built in the typical Chettiar style, a sprawling room, complete with a monumental swing greeted us. As we stepped inside the courtyard, an array of gigantic pictures caught our attention. They had details of the ancestors of the present owner. A room to our right housed antique items. A set of pallankuzhi and shells brought back delightful memories of my childhood, where I used to play the ancient mancala game with my grandmother. The gramophone and the archaic telephone box were in near-perfect condition and showed us the lengths to which the owner went to maintain them.
A fleet of stairs took us to the private chambers of the residents. Huge chandeliers hung from the ceilings. While exiting the mansion, the patriarch, seated regally on a pristine sofa, beckoned to us. He was Shri Chandramouli Chettiar. He spoke with pride about his house but abstained from being too friendly with us. Awestruck by the grandiosity of the mansion as well as its owner, we exited the place.
In sharp contrast was our next stop – the CMVR mansion. We paid an entrance fee of fifty rupees each. It was clear that the house had seen better days and clung to its illustrious past.
We visited a handloom weaving site where the famous Chettinad sarees were being woven. We sat next to a weaver, observing her spinning the threads. Soon, in a couple of days, it would acquire the form of an exquisite saree.
The largest palace in Kanadukathan was off limits to the public. We were told that we could step inside the forbidden place only if we managed to obtain a special permission from the owner. Since we didn’t possess the necessary connections to pull some strings, we had to satisfy ourselves with selfies outside the palace.
The bullock cart ride came to an end. We drove down to Athangudi in our car to view another well-maintained palace. The area is also famous for its hand-crafted tiles.
Our final destination was the Thirumayan fort, which was an archaeological delight. Climbing steep steps had never been so thrilling. We saw cannons at some places. A cave in the fort houses a shivling, the path to which is paved with steep and treacherous-looking steps. The panoramic view of the land of the Chettiars from the fort held us spellbound.
In a happy frame of mind, we returned to the bustling city of Chennai, armed with fond memories of yet another unique and unforgettable trip.
Words – Narayani V Manapadam; Images – Sujith Nixon
Narayani V Manapadam is an IT professional, trapped in the dreary world of Excel. However, she seeks solace in words (pun intended). She has garnered appreciation for her stories in various literary platforms like Beyond the Box, Penmancy & ArtoonsInn. Her works have found a place in various anthologies. She is a proud cat momma to Uttam, her impish kitten.
Sujith Nixon is a professional freelance cinematographer and filmmaker, based in Chennai. With more than 8 years of experience in Cinematography and Photography, he has built an expansive portfolio, some of which are featured on his Instagram page.
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