Tag Archives: Pillaiyarpatti

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.  

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Trunk Call: 10 Unusual Ganesha shrines of India

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In celebration of Ganesh Chaturthi ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY criss-cross the country in search of extraordinary shrines dedicated to Ganesha, the Elephant God 

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Ganpatipule, Konkan Coast (Maharashtra)
According to legend a local cowherd’s cow had stopped giving milk but would spontaneously offer milk only at a particular spot on the reef, leading to the discovery of the swayambhu (self-manifest) stone image of Lord Ganesha. Since it was found by the pula (sandy dune), the place was called Ganpatipule. Once a year the surf comes up to Lord Ganesha’s shore temple as if to touch the feet of the idol in reverence. The unique west-facing temple is built in such a way that in the months of February and November the sunrays fall directly on Lord Ganesha’s idol. Devotees whisper entreaties into the ears of the large brass mouse before offering their prayers inside. The temple is located at the base of a hill believed to be shaped like Lord Ganesha, so pilgrims do a pradakshina (circumambulation) of the entire hill along a paved path.

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Siddhi Vinayak Temple, Mumbai (Maharashtra)
What used to be a small 3.6 m x 3.6 m shrine is today the richest Temple Trust in Mumbai. The filmy rags to riches story of Siddhi Vinayak in Prabhadevi is quite like the meteoric rise of a street kid to superstar. Consecrated in 1801, the original square brick structure with a domed shikhara (spire) was built by contractor Laxman Vithu Patil for Deubai Patil, a rich childless woman who thought it would benefit other barren women. Over the years, news of its siddhi (wish-fulfilling powers) spread like wildfire and patronage from politicians and film stars catapulted it to fame. The temple grosses nearly Rs.50 crore every year. The inner roof of the sanctum is covered in gold while the wooden doors donning a silver carved mantle are carved with intricate images of Ashtavinayak or eight manifestations of Ganesha across Maharashtra – Moreshwar (Morgaon), Siddhivinayak (Siddhatek), Ballaleshwar (Pali), Varadavinayak (Mahad), Chintamani (Theur), Girijatmaj (Lenyadri), Vighnahar (Ozar) and Mahaganapati (Ranjangaon).

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Ranthambhore Ganesh ji (Rajasthan)
Atop Ranthambhore’s historic 1000-year-old fort is a unique temple of Trinetra Ganesha, the three-eyed god in a slab of bright orange. Every day, the Lord receives 10kg of mail from across India and the globe. Traditionally people send the first wedding invitation card here for the Lord’s blessings. As per folklore, the first wedding invite sent here was Lord Krishna and Rukmini’s marriage, roughly dating the temple to 6500 years! So what happens to all the wedding cards? The envelopes are recycled for giving prasad and the cards are cleared periodically! The annual Ganesh Mela wreaks havoc on the ecology of the tiger park when over 1 million pilgrims visit the Ganesh Temple over 3-4 days. Located in the heart of the park, it makes a mockery of the recent ruling on making core areas no-tourism zones. According to tiger expert and wildlife photographer Aditya Singh of Ranthambhore Bagh ‘This number far exceeds the total number of tourists that have visited the park since it was declared a national park in 1980.’

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Karpaga Vinayakar Temple, Pillaiyarpatti (Tamil Nadu)
One of the most popular Ganesha shrines in Tamil Nadu, this rock cut temple is dedicated to Valampuri Vinayakar, a large Ganesha seated in padmasana (lotus position) with a gold-fronted trunk bent to the right. Carved from the rocks against which the temple is set, it is the idol’s black appearance that gives the shrine its popular name Karpaga Vinayakar. Believed to be 1600 years old, the temple’s northern tower was erected by the Pandya kings while the Nagarathar community, who renovated it in 1284, added the eastern tower and an adjoining mandapam. The ceiling of the hall is painted in vegetable dyes and bears old inscriptions while ornate sculptures adorn the pillars. The place itself is called Pillaiyarpatti after Pillaiyar or Lord Ganesha.

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Rockfort Ucchi Pillayar Temple, Tiruchirappalli (Tamil Nadu)
Though Vibhishana and Ravana were on opposite sides of the Ramayana war, their failed quest to take the Lord’s supreme form back to Lanka is almost identical. After killing Ravana, Lord Rama gifted Vibhishana an idol of Lord Ranganatha, cautioning him that it would take root wherever it was placed. Though an ardent devotee of Rama, Vibhishana was Ravana’s brother and an asura (demon), so the gods entreated Lord Vinayaka to stop him. On his return to Lanka Vibhishana passed through Trichy and seeing the beautiful Kaveri River, wished to take a holy dip and perform his daily rituals. Lord Ganesha appeared as a young cowherd and offered to hold the idol while he bathed. The moment Vibhishana stepped into the water Vinayaka put the idol on the sandy banks. A livid Vibhishana chased after him, but the nimble cowherd ran up a hill by the riverside. Vibhishana finally caught up with the boy and hit him on the forehead. When the boy revealed his divine form, Vibhishana apologized and left empty-handed to Lanka. Thus the rock where Lord Ganesh escaped became the Ucchi Pillayar temple or ‘Lord Vinayaga on the hilltop’ and the place where the idol took root became the Sri Ranganatha Swamy temple at Srirangam. Steps tunneled through the rock lead to the Ganesha temple on the hill, accessible by another steep flight of steps carved on the rock face, offering panoramic views of the Kaveri and Kollidam rivers.

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Manakula Vinayagar Temple (Pondicherry)
This is the epic tale of a shrine that defied the might of the French in their own backyard. Dedicated to Lord Ganesha venerated as Vellakaran Pillai, the temple was constructed five centuries ago, long before the French arrived at Pondicherry. The name is derived from the old kulam (pond) on the western side of the temple that used to be full of manal (sand) blown in from the shores. On several occasions, French missionaries attempted to raze the shrine, but ardent worshippers saved it from destruction. Each time the idol was hurled into the sea, it would magically return. Today, the temple stands defiantly rooted at the same spot in the heart of the French Quarter. Various manifestations of Lord Ganesha adorn the inside walls. The 18-day Brahmotsavam and Ganesh Chaturthi are grand celebrations. Be sure to give a coin to the temple elephant Lakshmi in exchange for a friendly pat on your head from her trunk as blessing!

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Madhur Maha Ganapathi Temple, Kasaragod (Kerala)
Located on the banks of the Madhuvahini River 8km northeast of Kasaragod, the spectacular Madhur temple was built in 10th century by the Mypadi Rajas of Kumbla. Though Lord Shiva is the presiding deity, it is his son who draws the crowds. Lord Ganesha’s idol is not made of stone or soil but some unknown material; hence all abhishekas (oblations) are done for Ishwara. The temple has an imposing structure with its gables, copper plate roofing and wooden statues. During his invasion of Malabar, after conquering Kumbla, Tipu reached this shrine intent on destroying it. Overcome by fatigue, he quenched his thirst from the temple well and underwent a divine change of heart. He left the shrine unharmed, except a mark left by his dagger on the intricate woodwork. The temple well’s water has no frogs or fish, tastes good and is said to possess medicinal and curative properties. Another highlight is the Moodappa Seva, a special festival where Maha Ganapathi’s large figure is covered with moodappam (sweet rice ghee cakes) but no matter how much you stack up, it’s never enough. A very costly affair, the festival was last held in April 1992, and earlier in 1962 and 1802.

Sasive Kalu & Kadale kalu Ganeshas, Hampi (Karnataka)
Hampi, the glorious capital of the Vijayanagar Empire is home to many shrines and unusual sculptures, including two unique Ganesha idols. The 18-ft monolith Kadale Kalu Ganesha is the largest Ganesha statue in Karnataka. It dates back to 1440AD and a 24-pillared temple was built around the idol later. In 1565, invading troops of the Deccan Sultanate broke the stomach and trunk of the idol, suspecting that it contained hidden jewels. As a result, the split stomach bore a resemblance to the two halves of a gram seed, lending the name by which the statue is known today. Nearby is the Sasive Kalu Ganesha that gets its name from the likeness of the rounded toes to mustard seeds. This 9-ft high, richly carved Ganesha was built in 1516. Behind the image is an outline of a woman as if she is strapped to Ganesha’s back, symbolizing Parvati as the eternal protector of her son.

Idagunji, Honnavar taluka (Karnataka)
At the end of Dwapara yuga, Sage Valakhilya and other rishis were performing a yagna at Badrikashram for the removal of doshas (sins or malefic effects) in Kaliyug, but faced many hindrances. Sage Narada then instructed them to go to Kunjavana on the banks of the Sharavathi where the divine trinity had once prayed to vanquish the asuras. Later the trinity and Lord Ganesha visited the site to bless the sages and the elephant-headed god asked all the divinities to leave behind a portion of their goodness for the benefit of mankind, which were deposited in the sacred tanks Chakratirtha and Brahmatirtha. Since the sacred kunj (garden) was located on the left bank of the river (eda means left), the place was called Idagunji. The panchakhadya or special prasad of this temple is quite famous, as are the Ganesha masks made out of vetiver (khus).

Ganesh Tok, Gangtok (Sikkim)
In a land synonymous with Buddhism, a shrine to the elephant God is rare. Located 7km from town on the Gangtok-Nathula Road and perched at 6,500 ft on a hill near the TV tower, Sikkim’s Ganesh Tok temple is fascinating. Like the Hanuman Tok shrine but much smaller, Ganesh Tok offers a scenic view of Raj Bhavan, Gangtok town and Mount Khangchendzonga. Space inside the temple is so cramped that devotees have to creep in on all fours to have darshan of Lord Ganesha.