Chettinad - a magical mystery tour

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February 21st 2015
Published: February 21st 2015
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Armed with a list of places to see and some directions from the hotel, we set off to explore Chettinad. The first stop is a temple with rows of terracotta horses guarding the entrance. It sounds large and likely to be full of tourists. We progress ever further off the beaten track, with Mr Hussain stopping for directions every few minutes. Finally we reach the right village, but there is no sign of a temple. We ask again. Further down the road comes the answer. Once out of the village, we reach a deserted clearing in the scrubland with a temple-like gateway. Can this really be the right place? We get out of the car and find that the road leading beyond the gate is indeed lined with terracotta horses. Not the immaculately carved variety found in Xian next to the warriors, but cruder versions, some painted and some plain, some broken and some whole, about 3 or 4 feet high. Hundreds of them, side by side. The painted ones have lively expressions and every one is different. Some have garlands or twigs tied to their ears and appear almost pagan. The place has a magical, almost spooky charm. We amble slowly down the road, taking far too many pictures. Ahead looms the backside of a lifesize terracotta elephant with a small carved person clinging on to its bum. At this point we meet an old man who is busy brushing the sand floor with a broom who gestures at us to remove our sandals as we are now entering the temple precinct. We obey, and keep walking down the road. Eventually, we reach a large tree, beneath which are a row of small garlanded figures of gods, each one dressed, with a few lit lamps in front of them and what looks like shards of pottery piled up behind. This is very unusual as it is the first time we have seen idols outside – they are always in a shrine of some sort. We are invited to light a lamp and have our faces painted with red and white, but decline. It dawns on us that there is no temple building. We later learn that these Ayyanar temples (Ayyanar being the deity) were built outside villages and the horses are there to scare away the demons. The fierce imagery is part of the cult and devotees offer new terracotta horses, tridents and spears to the temple, though in distant times sacrifice of real animals was involved. Ayyanar is a very powerful God who is worshipped only by lower caste, village people, and it is very much concentrated in southern Tamil Nadu.

The next stop is one of the Chettiar mansions. Once more, we drive through a dry, red dust landscape with a scattering of thorn bushes and coconut trees, seeing fewer people than all holiday. Eventually we reach the right village. The house we are due to visit is easy to spot, being infinitely grander than anywhere else around. It appears to be locked up, but as we approach the gate, a woman approaches and lets us in. She shows us round, pointing out the elaborately carved and painted ceilings made from Burmese teak, the wall tiles from Japan and the mirrors from Belgium. The house follows the same design as our hotel, with a series of grand halls. It is well preserved but eerily empty until we reach the kitchen quarters where the staff seem to live.

As we drive on, we reach yet another village, Kanadukathan, this one full of old mansions. Sadly most of them are gradually decaying through neglect and lack of funds, even though some are still occupied. From one decrepit pile belts out Beethoven's Ode to Joy (why?). It is an extraordinary place, almost a ghost town, evoking a bygone age, with no tourists and few inhabitants to be seen.

Last stop is a slightly more modest mansion bought by two French architects who spent a year restoring it and turning it into a beautiful hotel. They care passionately about preserving the remaining mansions in the area, and have been battling to persuade the Indian government to apply for Unesco World Heritage status for the area. Inevitably their efforts have been thwarted at every turn. Even when they persuade a local official of the merits of their case, central government lacks the interest or the desire to provide any funding. It seems such a shame, when what they have done with their own hotel, Saratha Villas, shows how such renovation can bring both short term construction work and long term employment and tourist dollars to the region. But hey this is India.

We get back to the hotel in time for a light lunch and an afternoon relaxing on our balcony. The peace is temporarily shattered by the arrival of a French tour party, who check in, sit by the pool chatting noisily, smoking and swimming. But fortunately they seem to go off for an afternoon excursion, leaving the hotel to just us and the couple in the room next door. As the sun starts to set, we stroll round the village, finding yet more mansions in various states of repair and disrepair.

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