Tag Archives: ayyanar shrines

Faith Accompli: 10 Quirky roadside shrines in India

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Bullet Motorcycle temple, Aeroplane Gurudwara, Traffic Ganesha to Visa Hanuman, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY pick out 10 quirky roadside shrines in India

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India is a country that takes religion quite seriously. As if 33 crore gods in the Hindu pantheon were not enough, there are temples dedicated to seers, saints and larger than life figures. Actors are often idolized – there’s an Amitabh Bachchan temple in Kolkata, a Khushboo shrine at Trichy and a Namitha temple in Tirunelveli. Politicians too have ardent followers – a Mahatma Gandhi temple at Bhatra village in Sambalpur to a cardboard temple in Karimnagar dedicated to Sonia Gandhi, an MGR shine at Thirunindravoor, Chennai or a proposed Mayawati temple at Natpura in Uttar Pradesh’s Bundelkhand region. Actor Manoj Tiwari takes hero worship to a new level with a Sachin Tendulkar temple (because he’s the ‘god of cricket’) in his hometown Atarwalia in Bihar’s Kaimur district. Forget humans, there are shrines for animals too. Rats are deified as ancestors at Karni Mata temple at Deshnoke in Rajasthan while dogs turn into gods at a unique canine temple at Ramnagar in Karnataka’s Channapatna district! Here we showcase some truly offbeat roadside shrines in India…

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Bullet Bana temple, Pali (Rajasthan)
Nobody can deny the cult status the Royal Enfield motorbike enjoys in India, but a shrine dedicated to the 350 cc Bullet? Bang on the NH-65 highway via Rohet to Jodhpur stands the roadside temple of Bullet Banna or Motorcycle Baba. It is in memory of Om Singh Rathore of Chotilla village, who died here in a motorcycle accident in 1988. The cops took his bike to the police station, but the next morning it went missing and was strangely found parked at the crash site. Each time the bike was impounded, it returned on its own to the accident-prone spot. Believing it to be divine will, locals built a temple in Om Banna’s memory with his Bullet enshrined alongside his garlanded photo. Travelers stop by to light incense sticks and pray for a safe passage.

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18 bata 2 temple, Naldehra (Himachal Pradesh)
In the hills, it’s not unusual for shrines to crop up at accident prone areas and treacherous spots. However what makes this Naldehra shrine unique is its name – ‘Atharah bata do’ or 18/2. It is believed that in a tragic crash some years ago, a bus went over the precipice resulting in eighteen fatalities and only two survivors. The temple that came up on the dangerous curve thus got its strange appellation.

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Chain Tree, Vythiri (Kerala)
In Kerala’s hilly district of Wayanad, beyond the misty ghats of Lakkidi near Vythiri, just off the NH-212 stands an unusual tree in chains. It recounts the tragic tale of Karinthandan, a young tribal who guided a British engineer to find a safe route through the treacherous Thamrasseri Ghat. He was killed equally treacherously. It is said his troubled spirit began haunting travellers and often led to accidents. So a puja was performed by a priest to pacify his soul which was then chained to a tree. The iron shackles still drape the branches of the famous Chain Tree as tourists drop by for a quick picture. While on trees, the nature temple of Chingan Chira, 10 km from Kollengode in Palakkad district, deserves mention. With a canopy spread over 2 acres, the cluster of banyan trees looks eerie with wooden houses and offerings dangling from it. Adding to its strange mystique are blocks of flat stone with grinders, mortars and pestles placed around it. Devotees drop by on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays to perform pujas, sacrifice fowls and prepare thanksgiving meals to the deity. It is a popular spot for shooting films, videos and the odd wedding album!

Traffic Ganesha Bengaluru

Traffic Ganesha, Bangalore (Karnataka)
The Ganesha temple on Kasturba Road in Bangalore is known by many local names – Vahana (Vehicle) Ganpati, Traffic Ganesha or Accident Ganesha. Though the temple is believed to be 600 years old, for the last 60 years, motorists have been bringing their new vehicles for blessings of an accident-free life. After all, it has royal approval! As per temple priest Subramaniam Deekshit, the Maharaja of Mysore Jayachamarajendra Wodeyar was travelling in his Rolls Royce from Mysore to Bangalore, when his car broke down nearby. Forced to abandon his vehicle, the king started off on foot and saw the roadside temple. On performing a puja here, his Rolls Royce mysteriously sputtered to life. This happened a few times. Even the Diwan of Mysore, T Ananda Rao, after whom the Anand Rao Circle is named, stayed at Cantonment and regularly prayed at the shrine. When TVS opened its showroom in Bangalore, it brought its new chassis and vehicles for puja. With the opening of the Benz and Nissan showrooms on Kasturba Road, the practice caught on. The belief that an accident can be averted if you perform a puja is so strong that people come in the thousands for vahana puja during Ayudha Puja. Two-wheeler owners believe that they would upgrade to a car and small car owners think their aspirations to buy a bigger car would be fulfilled. Whether the vehicle is old or new, a cycle or a Merc, Traffic Ganesha’s fame only increases each year.

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Jaswantgarh Memorial, Near Sela Pass (Arunachal Pradesh)
Maha Vir Chakra Jaswant Singh of 4 Garhwal Rifles laid down his life during the 1962 war, fighting the Chinese Army for 72 hours along with two other soldiers. He was eventually caught and hanged at the same place where the Jaswantgarh Memorial now stands, 14 km from Sela Pass in Arunachal Pradesh. Besides a garlanded bronze bust of ‘Baba’ Jaswant Singh, the war hero’s belongings are also enshrined – his Army uniform, cap, watch and belt. An earthen lamp placed in front of the portrait of Jaswant Singh burns round the clock. While the rifleman may be no more, his six caretakers from 19 Garhwal Corps believe Babaji’s spirit lives on. He is served bed tea at 4:30am, breakfast at 9am and dinner at 7pm. They make his bed, polish his shoes, deliver the mail sent by his admirers and even clear the mails the next morning after ‘he has gone through them’. They change his bed sheets every Tuesday. Besides serving Baba, the soldiers manning the unique shrine also help needy travelers along the hazardous mountain road.

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Betaal Mandir, Mithbav (Maharashtra)
Maharashtra too has its share of strange shrines – be it a Shiva temple at Kunkeshwar built by shipwrecked Arabian sailors as thanksgiving or Pune’s Khunya Murlidhar temple whose foundations are soaked in blood. Even as the idol was being consecrated, a feud took place outside between the Peshwa and Dada Gadre, a local moneylender, leading to its strange name. Across the Konkan region, it is not unusual to find village shrines of gram-rakshaks, like the Shreedev Upralkar Prasann near Sawantwadi. Echoing the tale of Wayanad’s Chain Tree, the shrine is dedicated to a dhangar (shepherd) who revealed the passage through Amboli pass to the British and thereby got killed. He became the custodian of the passes and once when the British attacked the region, his spirit protected the people. Speaking of spirits, the small Betaal Temple by the road near Mithbav beach is much revered. The wandering spirit is invisible to the human eye. It is said, every evening, his palki (palanquin) carried by his ganas roams the area for an hour. People avoid going near his shrine around 7, else they get possessed, pull their hair and go mad. The madness is abated only after the god is appeased.

Ayyanar shrines Tamil Nadu

Keeranur Ayyanar (Tamil Nadu)
Though Tamil Nadu has many celebrated temples of the Cholas, Pandyas and Pallavas, the roadside shrines of village deities called Ayyanars are quite fascinating. Often seated with a sacrificial sword in hand or shown riding horses or elephants with a retinue of lesser gods and attendants, the deities act as guardian of the adjoining village – as rainmaker, protector of the fields and night patroller of the village borders. As votive offerings, people donate terracotta horses lining the pathway leading to the shrine, usually located in the shadow of a sacred tree or grove. Perhaps the best example can be seen off NH-210 at Keeranur, 25km south of Trichy on the road to Pudukottai in Chettinad.

Aeroplane Gurudwara gateway

Aeroplane Gurudwara, Talhan (Punjab)
Punjab’s Doaba region, the fertile land between the two rivers Beas and Sutlej, has over six million natives settled abroad, with at least one member from each family staying overseas. Many of them owe their overseas stint to Shaheed Baba Nihal Singh Gurdwara at Talhan village near Jalandhar, better known as Hawai Jahaz or Aeroplane Gurudwara. Just off NH-1, a gate capped with a British Airways aircraft model leads to a road lined with shops selling toy planes of Lufthansa, British Airways, Air Canada and other international carriers. These are not souvenirs, but offerings to the gurudwara in the hope of going abroad! The inner sanctum on the first floor of the century-old gurudwara has several plane models in neat rows. Because of the lack of space, the gurudwara committee has started distributing the toys to underprivileged children.

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Visa Hanuman, Ahmedabad (Gujarat) & Hyderabad (Andhra)
Lord Hanuman is often considered by some as the unofficial god of encroachment. One day suddenly someone may find an udbhav murti that’s manifested itself magically or after a dream. Some just have to place a Hanuman statue or idol and within no time a small shop and a cluster of buildings will come up around it. But Hanuman or Balaji is no ordinary god. In the narrow by-lanes of Desai-ni-pol at Khadia in Ahmedabad, a Hanuman shrine guarantees 100% visa approval for any foreign country. Himanshu Mehta, priest and caretaker of the 250-year-old temple elaborates on this amazing feat. Once eight applicants had their visas approved on Diwali eve after seeking Lord Hanuman’s blessings. The temple is packed on Saturdays, with nearly a thousand ardent devotees filing their appeals for his consideration. Similar is the tale of Chilkur Balaji Temple, popularly known as Visa Balaji. Located on the banks of Osman Sagar Lake, 17 km from Mehedipatnam near Hyderabad, the temple of the Visa God is perhaps the only one in India that does not accept money offerings or have the ubiquitous hundi for donations from the devotees.

Anicut Hanuman of the 19th Vent, Trichy (Tamil Nadu)
There are Hanuman shrines on hillocks, at crossroads and by the river, but a temple in a dam, now that’s a first! Situated 15km from Trichy, the Grand Anicut or Kallanai (kal means stone, anai is dam) built by Tamil king Karikala Cholan 2000 years ago with unhewn stone is believed to be one of the world’s oldest man-made dams. At its base lies an unobtrusive Hanuman temple that has been there for 200 years. A stone tablet in one corner has an engraving of Lord Hanuman on one side and an 1804 inscription by British captain JL Calddell. Despite several attempts, engineers of the East India Company could not complete building the 19th vent of the dam. It is said that Lord Hanuman appeared in a British officer’s dream and instructed him to build a temple for him at the spot. Brushing off the bizarre dream, the officer didn’t act upon it but was soon accosted by a troop of monkeys. Strangely, the local mason too reported receiving a similar vision. Fearing further disruption of the dam work, the officer conceded and a temple was eventually built at the 19th vent. Work magically resumed thereafter and jinx was broken. Today, despite the force of River Cauvery’s waters lashing through the temple and perilous water levels in the rains, the tiny shrine still stands in defiance, almost echoing the indomitable qualities of its God.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 30 March 2015 in National Geographic Traveller online. Read the story here: http://www.natgeotraveller.in/web-exclusive/web-exclusive-month/india-shrines/

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Trichy on the Rocks

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While Trichy is synonymous with Rockfort, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY take a weekend break around the city to discover a world of cave shrines, rock edicts and exquisite wall murals IMG_8649 Vijayalayacholeswaran Shiva temple atop Melamalai in Narthamalai-Anurag Mallick_Priya Ganapathy

The stone fortress of Rockfort rises 273 ft above the flatlands of Tiruchirappalli, dwarfing hills, monuments and church steeples. Dated to be 3,800 million years old, it is one of the oldest rocks in the world. Located 10km from the airport south of the Kaveri River, Rockfort is visible from every corner of the city and is an iconic symbol of Trichy. With Ganesha temples at the base and summit and a Shiva shrine hewn out of rock in the Upper Fort, Rockfort is easily the city’s favourite perch. Yet, the rocky landscape all around hides an older history etched in stone…

We drive 15km northeast of Trichy to the Grand Anicut or Kallanai to see one of the oldest dams in the world still in use. Built by Chola King Karikala in 2nd century AD, the 1,080 ft long, 60 ft wide dam and its ancient network of canals irrigates an astounding one million acres (4,000 sq km) in the fertile delta. The design served as a template for British engineers to build another bridge over the Coleroon one and a half millennia later, proof of its timeless ingenuity. There’s nothing to see at the dam site besides the king’s statue and a pavilion, so we head to Karikala’s glorious capital Uraiyur (Woraiyur), presently a suburb subsumed into the city. IMG_8324 Uraiyur Nammalvar sub-shrine murals-Anurag Mallick_Priya Ganapathy

It has a stunning troika of temples – the Panchavarneshwar Shiva temple and the Vekkali Amman shrine where the Chola rulers prayed for victory before setting out to battle. At the Kamalavalli Nachiyar Kovil, the smell of pigeon droppings hangs in the air as we enter the Nammalvar sub-shrine. Vibrant murals of Narasimha and the avatars of Vishnu line the plain rock walls. Uraiyur went into decline until Vijayalaya Chola revived the dynasty as the Imperial Cholas in 850 AD.

The priest tells us of a temple built by Vijayalaya Chola that served as a prototype for the Brihadisvara temple at Thanjavur, inscribed as a Great Living Chola Temple in UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Before he could say ‘Narthamalai’, we were driving south to the cluster of nine hills that holds some of the longest edicts and oldest rock-cut cave temples in South India.

IMG_8642 Vijayalayacholeswaran Shiva temple atop Melamalai in Narthamalai-Anurag Mallick_Priya Ganapathy

At the hillock of Melamalai, we trudge past a green pool with a rock-cut shrine visible only when the water recedes. From afar, we are magically drawn by the vimana (spire) of the Vijayalayacholeswaran Temple peeping over the hillcrest. Patches of green fields rebel against the starkness of the rocky trail as the 20 min mild hike ends at the stunning Shiva temple. The likeness to the Big Temple at Thanjavur is unmistakable – the pyramidal spire and the stone cupola at its apex, were like genetic traces passed on from parent to child.

On the opposite side snug at the base of the hill is Thirumerkoil, a cave temple on a platform decorated with elephants and mythological creatures like makaras and yalis. Lining the inner chamber’s northern wall are a dozen bas-relief sculptures of Vishnu standing on lotus pedestals. It’s a vision to behold; as if the gods had descended from the skies and were frozen in stone. In the adjacent cave shrine of Pazhiyileeswaram, a nandi and dwarapalas (gatekeepers) guard a massive linga. We return slowly, stopping at an Ayyanar shrine in a little grove, marked by terracotta horses that locals offer to protective village deities.

IMG_8767 Melamalai Ayyanar shrine at Narthamalai-Anurag Mallick_Priya Ganapathy

Kadambarmalai is another noteworthy hillock on the far side of town. Rainwater had collected in natural cavities creating tarns or small ponds. On the southwest base, facing a water-filled trench is a 1400-year-old temple hewn into the hillock. Two sets of inscriptions of Rajaraja I and Rajendra II are etched on the hillside, comparable to Ashokan Rock Edicts. We continue to Sittanavasal, a 2nd century AD rock-cut cave temple and Jain monastery. Protected by a blue grill, a few steps lead to the cave with bas-reliefs of a Jain acharya (teacher) and Parsvanath, the 23rd tirthankara sheltered by a five-hooded serpent.

On entering the dark meditation chamber, we are amazed by its deep, resonating acoustics. Despite the flashlight, we can barely discern the detail of mural art in mineral colours– a lotus tank with fish, geese and elephants swimming, a man in a loincloth plucking flowers on the ceiling and the images of a dancing girl, a king and queen on the pillars. Sittanavasal is a fine representation of the early painting traditions of South India. IMG_8490 Eladipattam stone beds-Anurag Mallick_Priya Ganapathy

On our way out, an ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) board marked Eladipattam catches our eye. A hundred steps cut into the western side, lead to the hilltop. We follow the railing as it descends east to a natural cavern where 17 rock beds are carved into the floor, each smoothened over time. A raised headrest serves as a stone pillow. Centuries ago Jain ascetics performed penance at this rock shelter overlooking the plains below, as mentioned in Tamil Brahmi inscriptions dating back to 2nd century BC. Now, stray couples and friends come to seek a quiet moment in these hills where dragonflies and butterflies flit in the afternoon sun.

It was twilight when we reach the hilltop Murugan temple at Nachandupatti. At its base, we enter the dark Malayakovil to see its beautiful idols by lamplight and the stunning blue and ochre paintings on the ceiling. A sudden shower prompts us to head back to the comfort of our bed at Trichy’s Sangam Hotel. With a twinge of guilt, we think about the austerity of stone beds, before sleep takes us to a land where geese glide on water as fish and elephants splash in a lotus pool… IMG_8190 Malayakovil murals-Anurag Mallick_Priya Ganapathy

FACT FILE

Getting There
Uraiyur is 7km from town to the north. Take NH-210 (Ramanad Road) towards Pudukkottai, cross Keeranur and after Ammachattiram, turn right for Narthamalai, 37km south of Trichy. Continue via Keelakkurichi to Sittanavasal, 10km away. Head to Nachandupatti for Malayakovil and visit Pudukkottai en route to Trichy.

Where to Stay

Sangam Hotel
The 90-room centrally located hotel recently underwent a swank makeover. Good pool, excellent South Indian food and helpful staff who can arrange local tours.
Collectors Office Road, Trichy Ph 0452 4244526 sangamhotels.com

Chidamabara Vilas
Just off Tirumayam Fort, the century-old heritage home is Chettinad’s most opulent hotel. Vintage hand-operated pankhas (fans) above four-posters with carved wooden posts, rich drapes, gleaming pillars and Athangudi tiled floor spell luxury. Relish Chettinad delicacies in an interactive kitchen.
TSK House, Ramachandrapuram, Kadiapatti, Off Thirumayam Fort Ph 04333 267070, 9585556431 chidambaravilas.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the May 2015 issue of Tiger Tales, the in-flight magazine of Tiger Air.

Going beyond Chicken Chettinad

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY drive to the heart of Tamil Nadu to savour Chettinad’s legendary hospitality, signature cuisine and the best heritage homestays

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It was a hot humid afternoon offset by a brilliant cloudless blue sky. In a large inner courtyard of the colossal S.A.R.M. House, heaps of vegetables were being cut and peeled deftly by a group of men and women. Several ladies draped in vibrant heavy silk saris were bustling about issuing intermittent orders to the bevy of servants. Another group was clustered around the doorway, laughing and drawing an elaborate kolam (floor pattern) using rice flour paste.

We could not believe our luck. We had landed in Kanadukathan rather serendipitously and strolled into Chettinadu Mansion, a heritage B&B run by Mr. Chandramouli on the eve of his grand-daughter’s wedding. When the family discovered that we were curious travel writers, they promptly invited us to be part of a full-blown Chettiar wedding. We couldn’t have asked for a better way to experience Chettinad’s distinctive culture and lifestyle. 

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THE BIRTH OF A REGION

How the Nagarathars, an industrious Tamil trading community carved an oasis of immense enviable wealth and prosperity in the barren dust bowl of central Tamil Nadu, is the stuff dreams are made of. As ship chandlers of the Cholas, the Chettiars traded rice from the Kaveri delta and salt from the Coromandel Coast and followed trade routes to far lands. After the destruction of their settlement at Kaveripoompattinam or Poompuhar by a tsunami, the Chettiars migrated inland in the 8th century.

Legend has it that their paranoia about water compelled them to seek refuge in a land-locked region and build their mansions on an elevated patch. They settled in this arid hinterland in four villages around Ilyathangudi, 25 km west of Karaikudi. The Pandya kings granted them nine temples, around which the first clans grew and eventually spread to 96 settlements in a 600 square mile area between Pudukottai and Sivaganga.

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The Chettiars rebuilt their fortunes and became moneylenders to farmers, zamindars, chieftains and kings alike. Their good relations with the Rajas of Pudukottai, Sivaganga and Ramanathapuram brought them to the attention of the East India Company. British expansionism led them to Ceylon in 1796 and Burma in 1824. Their business acumen helped them expand their trade to Mauritius, Africa and the Far East. Wielding tremendous economic power they helped finance and create entire countries! 

They returned in 19th and 20th century and erected grand mansions or Nattu-kottai (fortresses on land) with their acquired fortune. As moneylenders, Chettiars provided every possible service offered by a modern bank. Between 1875 and 1925, they practically controlled the Indian economy and even discounted excess sterling bills for rupee bills.

As masters of town-planning, they built wide streets and ingeniously harvested rainwater through eri (reservoirs) and urani (tanks). However, World War II and political upheavals across the Far East forced many Chettiars to return bankrupt; some had to sell off their homes bit by bit in order to survive. Today, several palatial dwellings have been converted into heritage homestays and boutique hotels.

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A TASTE OF CHETTINAD

Sprawled over 40,000 sq ft, the century-old Chettinadu Mansion was bustling with activity as guests milled about its succession of courtyards. The marriage procession entered with much fanfare. It seemed as if Kanadukathan’s quiet streets had been biding time for far-flung families to come together to celebrate occasions like this. The home rang with voices and laughter as stories of past grandeur and family anecdotes echoed down the halls. After the ceremony, we found ourselves willingly whisked into an inner courtyard for the kalyan sappad or traditional wedding feast, a vegetarian affair.

Meals were being served on banana leaf, the tip pointing left. Every dish had a designated space and was served in a particular sequence. Starting from the top left, salt, pickle and mor milagai (chili dipped in salty yoghurt and fried) were served, followed by varuval (dry dish), kootu (lentil curry), urundai (fried lentil balls), cabbage poriyal (side dish) and masiyal (mash) of potato, which can be replaced by keerai (spinach) or senai kilangu (yam).

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Fries like papad and vadai were placed at the bottom left while chapatti and a barrage of rice dishes occupied the centre. White rice paired with sambar and rasam, was followed by lemon rice, vegetable pulav and kuzhambu (gravy) with the final clincher, curd rice! The bottom right was reserved for sweets – traditional halwa and payasam. The Chettiars also picked up global flavours on their travels; kavuni arisi (black sticky rice pudding) is a Burmese influence while rhubarb cheesecake is a colonial inspiration.

For years, traditional set-samayalkarar (team of cooks) honed their skills under the watchful eyes of aachis (elderly ladies of the house) and became sought after caterers at Chettiar functions. Eventually, they would move out to other cities to set up their own restaurants, leading to culinary mascots like Chicken Chettinad. Today, eateries dot every city in South India and faraway lands like Canada, US and the Far East. The aachi seated beside us pooh-poohed these so-called ‘authentic’ Chettinad restaurants. “Unless masalas are prepared in stone grinders, vegetables cut with an aruamanai (iron blade) and particular firewood used to cook specific dishes, it is not authentic Chettinad!” she exclaimed.

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More than the meal itself, the gracious manner in which it was served and the host’s upachaaram (constant enquiry) was the trademark of Chettinad hospitality. Soon, we were stuffed to our gills and waved frantically for them to stop before we burst. Another guest smiled genially and said ‘And this is just the vegetarian stuff…’

In an inhospitable terrain where little grew, Chettiars had extended their repertoire to wild game like kada (quail), muyal (rabbit), pura (pigeon) and pitta (turkey). Chettinad samayal (cooking) also included a range of sun-dried meats and salted vegetables. Despite its inland location, Chettinad cuisine accommodates a lot of seafood, perhaps hinting at their earlier proximity to the sea. Dishes like nandu (crab) masala, sora puttu (shark curry), eral (prawn) masala, meen kuzhambu (fish curry), vaalai yaley meen (banana wrap fish) and Masala Fish Fry are legendary.

The next morning, in the shade of a creeper-filled verandah we were treated to a lavish breakfast of soft idlis, dosai and vadai with assorted chutneys. Other typical preparations are appamidiappam (string hoppers) and kozha kattai (steamed rice dumplings); one sweet with sesame and jaggery, the other salted with lentil, coriander and grated coconut.

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HERITAGE TOWN OF KANADUKATHAN

Like lobsters being emptied out onto the deck of a trawler, we stepped out into the wide streets of Kanadukathan in the late afternoon sun. Thankfully, the 110-year-old Raja’s Palace was just a lane away. The massive residence belonged to Chettinad’s most famous luminary Dr. S.Rm.M. Annamalai Chettiar, founder of the Indian Bank and Annamalai University. For his philanthropic efforts, he was made Diwan Bahadur, conferred with knighthood and given the hereditary title of Rajah of Chettinad by the King of England in 1929. Mighty 8 ft long ivory tusks shipped from South Africa bracketed his huge portrait in the meeting hall which led to a series of inner courtyards. The Kanadukathan Railway Station even has a covered walkway leading to a royal waiting room specially designed for him, complete with plush duvets and a bidet.

A short detour led us to Saratha Vilas in Kothamangalam, where a Chettiar merchant’s home had been lovingly restored by two French architects. Michel Adment and Bernard Dragon ushered us into the white-washed bungalow where the chandeliers in the hall caught the evening sun in a dazzling burst of light. Old sakarapattis (sugar granaries) adorned the rooms while idli grindstones served as sinks. The inner courtyard led to Ayurvedic massage rooms and a garden at the back. Over an interesting spread of Franco-Tamil cuisine, we consumed pasta, rice, sambar and vegetables and learnt about the restoration process. The French duo even conducted architecture and culture tours.

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By night, we returned to our base at Kanadukathan. Visalam was an Art Deco building converted into a stunning heritage hotel by CGH Earth. The mansion was a father’s gift for his daughter Visalakshi, which gave the property its name. Black and white family photographs adorned the walls offering nostalgic glimpses of the old days. It was a happy coincidence to meet the original owners, who had dropped in for dinner.

There were three different dining areas allocated for each meal. A separate lounge area with antique posters overlooked the pool. The interactive kitchen displayed large brass vessels and neatly labeled containers of dry masalas and exotic spices like marathi mokku (dried flower pods), anasipoo (star aniseed) and kalpasi (black stone flower, a lichen).

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ATHANGUDI, KARAIKUDI AND BEYOND

We visited the small village of Athangudi, known for its famous handcrafted decorative floor tiles. Small-scale factories churned out stacks of vibrant tiles or poo kallu (floral stones) in geometric designs. Black and white motifs and borders were a Chettinad specialty. At Ganapathy Tile Factory we were obliged with a live demo of the fascinating tile-making process that had been perfected over a hundred years. Unlike mass-produced ceramic tiles, Athangudi tiles are cast by hand using local sand, fine gravel and cement. At Athangudi Palace or Letchmi Vilas, we were subjected to what was fast becoming a farcical ritual in Chettinad – the Key Show. House owners or caretakers derived some untold joy in showing off the gigantic keys used to lock the massive teak doors!

At Karaikudi we made a brief stop at Aayiram Jannal or the House with a Thousand Windows. We had just finished counting till 37, when a kind passerby shook his head and said ‘Don’t bother! I think it has 900 and something odd windows. 1000 is just for convenience!’ We thanked him profusely for his timely interruption and continued to The Bangala, an elegant colonial family home built in 1910. Dark polished wood and period furniture perfectly contrasted the spotless white walls.

Mrs. Meyyappan, the grande dame running the show was a walking encyclopedia on all things Chettinad. After all, she had co-authored the wonderful tome ‘The Chettiar Heritage’, which was on sale at The Bangala shop. She regaled us with anecdotes of how The Bangala used to be a fashionable venue for tea parties and tennis tournaments for VIPs. “The Governor of Madras, Sir Arthur Hope, was a houseguest in the 1940s and the furniture, cutlery and crockery graced by him are still in use” she added. Visitors can enjoy Chettinad meals served on banana leaves with cooking demos and kitchen tours.

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LUXURY AT ITS BEST

Yet every house however unique, paled in comparison to the opulence of Chidambara Vilas. The road from Karaikudi headed north to Tirumayam Fort, built by the Sethupati kings of Ramanad in 1687. Originally built in seven concentric rings around a massive rock, the fort had two rock-cut temples of Shiva and Vishnu and a temple tank on the south side. After a brief stop, we soon continued to Kadiapatti to check out Chettinad’s latest and most premium heritage hotel.

The 107-year-old building was formerly the residence of TS Krishnappa Chettiar and had been painstakingly renovated by the Sangam Group. Accessible by a massive, exquisitely carved doorway, its inner courtyards were lined by pillars made of gleaming teak, rosewood and granite while the old Bomma kottai (Hall of Dolls) had been converted into a restaurant. Beyond the maze of halls, was a stunning swimming pool, deck and spa. A staircase led to the terrace, which commanded a fantastic view of neighbouring mansions.

Being affluent and widely travelled, the Chettiars often competed with each other, using their homes as a style statement. The posh interiors were done up in Burma Teak, Ceylon satinwood, Italian Marble, Swedish enamelware, Belgian chandeliers, English crockery and Japanese ceramic tiles. Paintings and murals of Hindu deities, British soldiers, Victorian women and scenes from the Raj adorned the walls and exterior. Chidambara Vilas was the perfect specimen to comprehend the opulence of Chettiar architecture.

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We were lucky to visit most of the nine clan temples of the Chettiars at Surakkudi, Nemam, Iraniyur, Velangudi, Mathur and Vairavanpatti. However, the most important shrine was the Karpaga Vinayakar Temple at Pillaiyarpatti (13 km NW of Karaikudi). The gleaming black idol of Valampuri Vinayakar with a gilded trunk curled to the right is supposed to have manifested itself from the cliffs.

Chettinad held many such surprises – cave paintings at Sittanavasal and Narthamalai, Tamil Nadu’s second largest museum at Pudukkottai and the Ayyanar shrines dedicated to village deities with offerings of terracotta horses. For a relatively small region, it was astonishing to see the widespread impact of Chettinad across cuisine, architecture, philanthropy, education and hospitality. However, what overshadowed everything was the utter humility of its people whose hearts were larger than their homes.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the June, 2012 issue of Rail Bandhu, the Indian Railways’ in-train magazine.