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Published: December 19th 2017
Thousands of them appear in 75 or so villages across a dry region northeast of Madurai.
Chettiar mansions. Most in disrepair, but some sporting fresh paint and sparkle.
Chettiar businessmen made it big in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s with their vast trading pursuits in other countries, but their network fell apart with WWII and later. But while times were good, they showed the world how rich they were, building mansions and palaces—shameless displays of wealth, status, and prestige.
I could spend hours walking up and down the broad streets of these small towns in Chettinadu, searching for surprises in these structures. Not only did they build grand houses, they laid their mansions around a regular street grid, aligning each house parallel to the street and enclosing their abodes with a substantial plastered brick and rock wall. Frequently one house filled one block, its sides facing all four bordering streets. I’ve easily lost my bearings, because many streets look similar—flanked by long high walls, dirt streets wide and quiet.
Red—early in the morning, they are awash in red, reflections of the dirt, the colors they splashed their walls, the color of the rocks and plaster that
They made statements with their entrances. Guests climbed several steps, passing under an archway often adorned with sculptures of gods and goddesses, lions and horses, and sometimes mounted solders, sahibs and their ladies, rajas and their princesses. Many have an ornate gate of wrought iron—imported, of course.
The details are endless: repeating plaster relief designs, tiles gleaming with peacocks and intricate patterns, animal sculptures, fancy stepped frames, multiple carved layers on teak columns and door surrounds, faded colors, stained glass.
Lakshmi House is too much to process: color, patterns, marble floors, paintings of a cavorting Krishna pursuing his consort Radha (although complicated, it was an extra-marital affair), floral paintings on pillars, confusing squiggles on tiles. Oh what a project. It is one of the few mansions visitors may enter.
Two years ago I visited the area. Passing by an Art Deco style house, an older woman beckoned and offered access to the interior. Her daughter, who spoke very good English, gave us a short tour of the house. I could tell this family had fallen on hard times. The mother wore no gold, and had been busy doing the laundry and preparing food, rather
than hiring others to do this work. She asked for some money for the tour, which was most likely a good portion of her income.
I think about the families who built and lived here. How grand their lives seemed at the time, how conscious of their social standing they must have been. They demanded the finest imported materials for construction, had grand dinners, traveled, married their daughters off to the wealthiest in their community. And what became of them—so many of the mansions are in ruin. But some families stayed, lowering their standards and practices, still following their community-based life, clinging to their structures as they crumbled around them, selling off bits and pieces of their heritage—the teak and rosewood carvings, marble pieces, gleaming black granite columns, Murano glass, the shiny glazed tiles, French chandeliers, the sculptures, the memories..
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