May 05, 2017
 

PRIYAMVADHA BALARAM

Chidambara Vilas, stands regally as the quintessential model of a Chettinad house, bearing testimony to the sophisticated lifestyle led by the Nagarathars or the Naattukottai Chettiars, who were one of the earliest communities in the country to travel overseas for business, at a time when travel to overseas was considered unthinkable and on par with disloyalty to the country and was generally limited to a few elite who went abroad for education.

They set sailing to places like Burma (now known as Myanmar), Malaysia, China, Siam (now Thailand), Java, Sumatra, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Mauritius and mainly ventured in gems, jewellery, salt, ship equipments and dominated trade in the coastal belt near Kaveripoompattinam (also known as Poompuhar, in Nagapattinam in Tamil Nadu) during the Chola dynasty.

The Chidambara Vilas was built in 1906 over a period of six years and the house, its interiors and artifacts sparkle even today just as they did back then. The long-lasting newness is attributed to the attention paid by the Nagarathars to the quality of the wood, paints, tiles and the workmanship, say the staff at the mansion which was converted into a heritage hotel six years ago and is maintained by the Sangam Group of Hotels. The great grandson of the Nagarathar who built it lives in the mansion's annex and is over 90 years old. There are 87 rooms in the property that spreads across one acre and only 25 of them are open to guests which includes the luxury heritage rooms facing the newly built pool-side area and those within the main building. The other rooms are used to store the various possessions of the family members who don't live here. They come down to the house only during weddings and annual festivals.

As soon as one enters the mansion, the staff of the property warmly welcome you with a traditional drink as the smooth and glossy pillars and tiled floors vie for your attention, even before the very exceptionally carved entrance door that I am running out of words to describe. The door and the pillars were carved out of imported Burma teak and rose wood and the interiors were built using lime plasters, granite, baked bricks and terracotta tiles. As huge ships were not available in those days and boats could not carry these logs, the Nagarathars ingeniously engraved their names on teak and rose wood logs and threw them in the sea near Burma and went back home. In six months to a year, drawn by the tides and wind directions as estimated by the Nagarathars, the logs would float down and reach the Kaveripoompattinam coastal belt or the Kerala coast, from where telegrams or messengers would be sent informing them about the arrival of the logs, which would then be hauled back home. What preserved these wooden doors and pillars till date was the salt water that they were marinated in as they glided down!

The houses built by the Nagarathars typically followed the same style of architecture. The Mugappu is the reception area at the entrance of the house, which is where the owners ran their accounting and financial businesses; it may be mentioned here that the lady of the house (referred by the locals as 'Aachi') had to authorize the transaction before her husband lent the money. In the corner, there is a spiral staircase that leads one to the room where the locals met the owner for discussions. Behind the main door, there is a well-ventilated Valavu or the courtyard flanked by rooms on both sides. The Bomma Kottagai or the Doll House, was used to invite guests for lunch for Golu during Navaratri. The women of the household had a separate hall for themselves called the Visiri Hall, which has now been made into a dining hall serving authentic and tasty Chettinad fare!

The Nagarathars also imported Belgian glass and marble from Italy, which, eventually, led them to make their own hand-made tiles in Athangudi. The tiles in many of these households are as old as 200 years, yet they belie their age. One can make a visit to any one of the tile factories located in the nearby Athangudi and even pick up one or two tiles as a souvenir.

The hotel employs local talent for their kitchen, serving delicious Chettinad dishes. The rooms are well-equipped with all amenities and the personnel are an extension of the Chettinad hospitality; a tête-à-tête with them will open little known windows into the lives of the Nagarathars, whose architectural vision looked into minute scientific details for rainwater conservation, prevention of water logging, ventilation, drainage system and beyond.

Located in Ramachandrapuram in Kadiapatti, it can be reached via Thirumayam, Pudukottai and Karaikudi. It takes an hour to reach the place from the Trichy Airport and the Madurai Airport is also located at about 90 km from here.

The Chidambara Vilas is an address that must be visited to re-live the life of a Nagarathar and to experience first-hand a lifestyle distinguished by their prudence and panache!

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