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The Chettiars are an old business community from Chettinad (a region of 72 extant villages around Karaikudi, near Madurai, Tamil Nadu). They began trading in salt, moved on to gems, and became financiers by the early 19th century. When the British took over Myanmar in 1826, the Chettiars settled there as moneylenders. It led them to great prosperity in South-East Asia. However, they were wary of being seen as a threat by the locals in these countries. So, much of their income was invested in the grand houses they built in Chettinad.

Chettiar architecture is known for its scale, colour and variety of local and imported materials. It is known equally for an energetic mix of local plans and sacred motifs with Western stylistic elements. These homes reveal the interesting ways in which Indian communities developed modern identities in response to the pressures and opportunities of colonial times.

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There is an absorbing tug of war between indigenous architectural values and those learnt during the British Raj. The issue of scale is one. Traditional Indian architecture is usually committed to intimacy. Chettiar mansions emulate the scale of European palatial architecture, with grand walls and colonnades.


A typical Chettinad mansion, such as Raja Muthiah Chettiar’s at Kannadukathan, has long walls, courtyards and halls organized around a series of at least two long courtyards, with passages around and sloping, tiled roofs. The outermost courtyard is approached through a grand two-storey veranda lined with columns. Deep platforms flank low but intricately carved entrance doors leading into the first courtyard, which is semi-public. Often, a large, highceilinged hall intervenes between outer and inner courtyards—as at Raja Muthiah’s and the periye veedu (big house) at Athangudi. The hall is usually designed along European lines, with high windows.

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How Athangudi Tiles Are Made (PDF)

Chettiar architecture suffers in photography, often looking excessively colourful and over-decorated. It is true that it embodies a culture of conspicuous consumption. However, often photographs cannot capture the way darker spaces modulate the play of colour, texture and pattern on walls, floors and roofs. What looks crass in the flat light of the flash seems magical as it emerges from the graded darkness of the veranda around a courtyard.

The Chettiars used their outer courtyards to display wealth and influences from distant cultures. The inner courtyards—less ornate, more traditional—afforded privacy to the women, particularly important to a community where many of the men were often overseas.


The Chettiars’ investment in expensive homes nurtured special crafts in the region, especially connected with construction.

Some of these, such as the colourful Athangudi tiles (see ‘BUY’ below) made of a special local clay, survive to this day. Others, such as the Chettinad plaster—known for its special sheen—are close to extinction. It is no wonder that the intricacy and quality of the Chettinad woodwork is much prized today, even in the market for recycled components. It was, after all, the product of a mercantile culture that liked to show how much material and labour it could afford in its homes.

The intricacy of detail the Chettiars espoused also brought into play the very traditional sensibilities of craftsmen, even as they built and decorated elements that were of foreign origin. Having already internalized traditional design values, these craftsmen would often leverage their command over materials to develop strikingly hybrid forms and spaces that were unique. At the same time, as a walk through Kannadukathan quickly shows, they were able to develop a shared language within which the individuality of each house could be expressed loudly. Would not such a liberated accord be hugely welcome in the Panchsheel Parks, Jubilee Hills and Koramangala Parks of our cities today?



The patterned floors in Chettinad houses are often made from tiles produced locally in Athangudi. These tiles (approx. Rs8 per tile for plain colours and about Rs25 per tile for basic patterns) can be in a one or several colours. What makes them special is their sheen—not too shiny, nor dull. They are made manually from local clay by laying it wet along with pigment in a metallic mould with a glass base. The pattern is created by the pigments first laid upon the glass and then swirled for different effects. When dry, the tile is removed and the side touching the glass becomes the upper surface. (Himanshu Burte)



From books to gadgets, BoL presents a mini guide on what’s on in town


‘Colonial Modernities’ (Routledge, 2007), edited by Peter Scriver and Vikramaditya Prakash, offers one way of understanding our peculiarly Indian modernity: by looking at themes and issues underlying architecture produced in the colonial period. A collection of essays by a number of emerging and established scholars from across the world, researching South Asian modernity through architecture, the book reflects upon the work of the public works department, a gubernatorial mansion in Lahore built around a Mughal tomb, the garden houses of the rich in Bengal, and the architecture of an upwardly mobile business community in Sri Lanka. (Himanshu Burte)


Homes are returning to natural values, said trend spotters at the Maison&Objet trade fair in Paris, Europe’s biggest home-design show. The emerging trend features straw, cereal and woody textures—and greens. Bird motifs and bird cages are back, with one British company marketing a chicken coop designed for city balconies! Trends expert Francois Bernard notes the re-emergence of the rocking chair as “today’s new armchair". Plants are being used as room separators, he adds. And a Belgian firm is stripping old Canadian yellow-pine barns, shipping the aged planks across Europe. (AFP)

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