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Architecture (Chettinad palatial buildings)

Most of the Chettinad mansions are treasure troves that mirror the passion for art and craft in this
Nagathar the mercantile community that had the reputation of establishing and running their
business ventures from East India - especially Calcutta to South east countries during 19th and 20th
century.. From birth to burial, the Nagarathars observed numerous ceremonies. All such functions
were held and being held within their own premises as many of their palatial Chettinad buildings have
Marriage Halls (Kalyana Kottagai) and Banquet Hall (Bhojan Hall). Like Personal Computers (PC)
theirs is the only community which own personal Kalyana mandap and Personal Panthi kattu.
The most important aspect of any discussion on Nagarathars Chettinad Architecture must appreciate
that their vernacular architecture is an amalgam of Indigenoust and European style evolved over years
and refined in a phased manner. The source of inspiration derived from out of Nagarathars
connection with Trade, Travel, Temples, Tradition and Taste. (All these aspects will find a place in
subsequent discussions). Such buildings, as presumed to be constructed only with bricks, mortar and
wood, is in fact accomplished with sweat, frugality and piousness. The buildings constructed by them
in a phased manner with the earnings made in FarEast countries on conclusion of one assignment -
Kanakku (say for a period of three or five years as per the contract in writing between the owner
Mothalali and his Agent-kootali). Buildings are divided into portions -Kattu . Most of the buildings
have not less than two to three portions eg: first kattu second kattu and third kattu. The walls of
Chettinad nagarathars buildings are embellished with Chettinad plaster whose other names are
1) White Vellai poochchu,
2) Egg plastering and
3)Muthu Poochchu.
Such walls were coated with several layers comprising mixture of lime base, ground white seashells,
liquid egg white, etc.

The most important characteristic features of Chettinad Buildings are
*1) Cluster Houses,
*2) Mostly East West orientation,
*3) High rise compound wall (front side),
*4) Entrance Arch with stone steps,
*5) Elevated plinth,
*6) Tiled Portico,
*7) Facade with stucco sculptures,
*8) Verandah Thinnai(two Platforms),
*9) Wooden Pillars on it,
*10) High door frame with ornate wood work,
*11) Double main door,
*12) pattalai or pattasalai (smaller version of the thinnai- platforms),
*13) Open Courtyard (Mutram Valavu),
*14) Second /third courtyard/s,
*15) Passage on all the four sides around the Mutram, is called Suththupathi,
*16) Edges of the passages are lined with cut stone slabs known as vellaikkallu,
*17) Stand on them are the stone pillars meant for supporting the roof,
*18) Slanting clay - tiled roofs,
*19) Square flat tiles floor of the mutram will have rectangle stone slabs on all the four corners to
bear the brunt of the falling rain water,
*20) Small single / double rooms on one side or either side of the passage (suththukkattu) length
wise,
*21) Kitchen on the last kattu,
*22) Staircase on one or two or all the four corners,
*23) Banquet Hall Bhojan Hall Panthi kattu on the side of the first kattu,
*24) Floors laid with
i) Italian marble Black and White,
ii) Granite in some places,
iii) Athangudi hand made tiles - Pookkallu,
*25) Japanese and Spanish tiles were both used for side walls and floor in such of those places where
not treaded frequently,
*26) Beams, pillars, brackets, capitals, frames all made of Burma teak,
*27) All the mediums used in making columns viz, wood, stone, brick, and iron,
*28) First floor facade is invariably adorned by colonnade made of stone, wood, and bricks,
*29) Window niches and arches above are decorated with stucco work or paintings.
*30) Designed for collecting / harvesting rain water (especially in courtyard (Mutram)).

An introduction to little known and unknown Chettinad artefacts of every day use produced / used in
Chettinad areas, and a glimpses of palatial buildings and aspects concerning Chettinad heritage in
promoting tourism for employment and economic development.
Shri. S.kannappan my uncle, who has been collecting handicrafts (mostly folk and tribal crafts) and
involved in documenting a few of them ( pamphlets on Cherial Dolls, Clay Crafts of Molela, Bastar iron
Crafts and one more on Chettinad artefacts) is presently involved in undertaking an informal research
work on Chettinad Architecture during his leisure time. During his previous three year tenure in the
district, he had worked with the locl craftsmen and other agencies involved in promoting crafts and
tourism both, in his official as well as personal capacity. He worked for the promotion of Traditional
Crafts , Crafts Cluster, and wellfare of the craft community more specifically the craftspersons of
Ariyakudi, Athankudi, Karaikudi, Sembanur, Kallal, Thirupathur and other villages outside Chettinad.
We present below his writings on introduction to the handicrafts of Chettinad and glimpses of
Chettinad architecture

HISTORY:

The most important aspect of any discussion on Chettinad handicrafts must appreciate that the need
for procurement, and use of assortment of artifacts is intertwined with Nagarathars connection with
Trade, Travel, Temples, Tradition and Taste. Chettinad perched on southern part of Tamilnad, has
been known as a land of culture. Some of the traditional art and craft; silverwares, gold jewellery; and
cotton saree, are known to a select few. Even though temples and heritage buildings occupy an
important place in the itinerary of the tourists, what is little known and equally important are the
bewildering array of art and craft forms which are seen / used even today in temples, mansions and in
the houses of common men among Nagarathars the mercantile community that had the reputation of
establishing and running their business ventures from Calcutta in India to Saigon in Vietnam during
19th and 20th century. Chettinad areas initially comprised clusters of 96 villages in unified Ramnad -
Sivaganga district and Pudukottai Samasthanam have gradually shrunk to 75 villages, spreading
across two districts, viz. Sivaganga district and partly in Pudukottai district,due to emigration of
Nagarathars to other places within and outside India. The existence of many craft pockets and the
thriving craft tradition within the Chettinad area in Sivaganga District stands testimony to the
patronage extended by the Nagarthars to art and crafts in the past. Some of the craft clusters that
continue to churn out artistic as also utilities, in Chettinad villages, are Ariyakudi (brass , bronze and
white metal), Athangudi (hand - made floor tiles), Karaikudi (wood), Senjai (Chettinad cotton) and
other mediums used are - stone (many villages) silver and gold (Karaikudi, Kandanur, Devakottai and
many other villages). The credit for the burgeoning settlement of sculptors and stone workers in
Eluvankottai near Devakottai, a couple of centuries ago, also goes to Nagarathars.
CATEGORY


The Chettinad, artefact for every day use can be broadly categorized on the basis of mediums like
wood, metal, clay (terracotta), paintings, textiles are classified according to their usage / place of
usage, as presented below - 1.KITCHEN - Aruvalmanai(vegetable cutter), thengai thirugi ( coconut
grater) agappai koodu (spoon / ladle holder), appalakattai (papad maker), uppu jadi (salt container),
anjarai petty(spice box), brass vessels, etc.
2.THAMBOOLAM - vetrilaipetti betel nut leaf Box, -lime holder, Echilpanikkam- Spittoon, and serving
plate and box.
3.SHRINGARAM - Eeruli hair dryer, Combs, Kungum holder and Mai Koodu
4.PUJA Items - Lamps, metal stool with birds or animal figure substituting the legs, Kavadi kattai,
Vibuthybox, to mention a few.
5.WRITING Aids - Ink pot / Pen stand, Book holder, etc.,
6.PLAY Dolls / Toys - Push cart, Marapachi doll, Choppu(miniature kitchen vessels) and Pallankuli
7.FURNITURE - Kanakapillai mesai accountants table, Mukkali three legged Stools, galla petty
cash box , marappetti(chest)
8.UTILITIES - Kottans palm leaf baskets, Kai Visiri(fan-hand held).
9.VIVAHAM (marriage) - Jewelleries, Brass and bronze vessels, Maravai, Mangu, thadukku, slate
lamps,
10.CONSTRUCTION- Urns, decorative tiles
11.OTHERS - Jewellaries, Paarvai chillu, cotton saris, paintings (Tanjore and Ravivarma),
woodenVahanas,etc.


Brass


Brass vessel, lamps and ritual items are made in many places within the chettinad in sivaganga
district and its neighbouring districts. In addition to Pudukottai and local production centers within
Chettinad, brass and bronze vessels were also brought from Kumbakonam, Tanjavur, Madurai and
Trunelveli. Some special and heavy vessel were procured from far and wide.


Value additions to mundane items used in our day- to- day life is imparted by incorporating popular
motifs and embellishments in the form of flora and fauna; geometrical and abstract designs. The bird
and animal figures drawn or embossed on artifacts are presented both as symbol and ornamentation.
The figures of flowers, foliage, birds and animals are lavishly engraved by the craftsmen of Chettinad
as a process of surface embellishment and as a design input for facilitating easy handling. Frequently
used and familiar motifs employed by the craftsmen are parrot, peacock, hamsa(swan), etc., in the
order. Among animal motifs yali, mahara, deer and elephant are the most popular subjects covered in
Chettinad crafts. While the line drawing like effect is obtained by etching out the figures on the
surface, the required figures in two dimensions in the form of bas relief, is secured on the outer wall of
the vessels, by beating down the portion next to the subjects.
KITCHEN


INTRODUCTION:
The Chettinad kitchens at the rear end of the houses with open courtyard supported by plain stone
pillars are least decorated. But, the creative designs of the vessels, utensils and implements offset the
dull ambiances. Chettinad cuisine both, vegetarian and non- vegetarian and snacks are prepared
tastefully for the palate. What many may not know is that the kitchen where these eatables are
prepared houses more artistic and visually appealing artifacts including utensils. The list among others
include coconut graters, vegetable cutters, salt container, agappai koodu (spoon / ladle holder),
anjarai petty (spice box), appala kattai (wooden design/dye board for taking impression of images
onto the sheet of dough for frying junk food). Even the brass water sombu given for hand wash, to
the guest, will spring out some designs like flowers, foliage and birds.


Vegetable cutter (aruvalmanai):


An item gained prominence almost in all the Chettinad kitchens is arugamanai (vegetable cutter).
The ornate Chettinad vegetable cutters were produced in three different kinds of mediums like Wood,
iron and brass. The brass cutters come with a solid base and the blade is also made of brass. Similarly
the iron vegetable cutter is entirely made of iron sheet metal. Iron or brass what is so fascinating in
Chettinad arugamani, is that all blades are peacock shaped (peacock form is obtained from out of
sheet metal by a process called wrought iron forging technique). The cutest of all cutters is the
folding type vegetable cutters made of brass. The foldable brass cutters come in three models - large,
medium and small. Base of the smaller version is about nine inch long and height is also of same
length. Most of the models seen in Chettinad houses have engraved base made of solid brass and the
blade shaped like peacock. The two sides of the blades are beautified with engraved floral design and
the head portion of the peacock is made of solid brass piece with pointed beak. The moveable blade
and its head are made of single piece. The pointed beak is purely ornamental representing that of
peacock and therefore, cannot be doubled up as coconut grater. While the wooden arugamanai come
with iron blade and wooden seat in the literary sense (some even have seats dovetailed with four
legs). Such benches like arugamanais were produced exclusively for the use of professional cooks to
facilitate easy and painless operation at the time of function / party. The all metal arugamanai made
of cheaper metal-iron, made to look more respectable with engravings and embossments resembling
that of swirling creepers and leaves. The eyes of the metal arugamanais are given special treatment
by a combination of engraving and embossing methods with a view to giving a bulging effect for the
eyeballs.
Picnic set arugamanai is another ingenious piece of kitchen equipment, which is portable and
versatile. The portable Picnic set arugamanai seen in Chettinad homes is nothing but wooden box
with sliding opening on top encasing a set of kitchen equipments. Such three-in-one box would
normally contain one peacock shaped iron blade for cutting vegetables, another piece of grater to
scrap coconut and the third one a spoon for oil, and another optional knife. One screw provided in the
box is to facilitate fixing the blade or the coconut scrapper in the slot provided for on top edge of the
box. Among all the wooden boxes of the potable sets the rose wood boxes are highly prized for their
sheen and texture.


Coconut Grater:


The queen of kitchen among various accessories and equipments in Chettinad homes would be the
thengai thirugi (coconut grater or coconut scrapper). The main reason for assigning this top honour
to them is essentially for their variety, design and ornamentation. The ornate Chettinad coconut
graters were produced in two different kinds of medium like wood and iron. However, the coconut
grater made of iron has its scrapper as well as base is made of iron sheet metal. The top flat portion
of the wooden base is usually ornamented with floral design together with circular and semi circular
engravings. And the main difference between vegetable cutter and coconut scraper is the inbuilt
concave container to collect the coconut scrap. Every aspect of the coconut grater is worth a second
look but a close scrutiny of the sides of the wooden base of the coconut grater, would reveal that how
such mundane pieces were made more respectable and appealing by carving the figures of peacocks,
parrots, and creepers and flowers. The motifs of flora fauna depicted on both side of the base are such
exceptional elegance that would tie any one down. The base containing figure of stylishly elongated
peacock one each on either side may be the star attraction of the beholders, but the most valued for
intricate designs and workmanships are the pieces with yali motifs. They are the real masterpieces.

Hand made tiles


Another Chettinad specific craft - Poo Kallu-floor tiles, produced manually in Athangudi , introduced
about 80 years ago in a couple of companies as it was called in Athangudi, has transformed itself into
architects pet item. Mr kandasamys family,Alexs great grand father Arulanantham pillai and Ravi,s
grand father were the pioneers in starting poo kallu producing companies. The simple tools,
equipments, raw material and infrastructure required for manufacturing the hand made tiles are ace
brass mould, oxides of various colours, fine sand, Portland cement, fine sheet of class for placing the
moulded tile for drying under shade, water tank for curing the shade tried / then sun dried tiles. The
process involved in making the tiles is Alex (37) - the fourth generation craftsman (Diploma in Civil
Engineering and interior Decoration), is confined to designing, colour mixing and marketing of tiles
(ph: 04565-281461) Ravi craftsman owner from such traditional craftsman family has his own tile
factory in Athangudi (Ph: ). Ganapathy is another promising owner of a tile factory with good contacts.
There are about twentysix poo kallu tiles companies operating in and around Athangudi.


Palm leaf Kottans:


The palm leaf Kottans(baskets), purses and bags passionately produced in those parts of the district,
comprising intricate knots and square and diamond patterns with pleasing colour combinations bear
the stamps of elderly local aachis. Some fine specimens resemble that of lace work on silk. The
materials used may be pure palm leaf strips or multi mediums with combination of palm leaf and
colour cotton cloth or beads. In some cases colour foils kept between the weaves to obtain star burst
glittering effect. Skill oriented kottan making in good old days, was a passion, favorite pastime and
expression of creativity for many of the ladies of Chettinad. The production and usage of palm leaf
kottans assumes importance in as much as these eco friendly - locally available recycled raw
material still withstand the onslaught of plastics. Sathagam- a tool, used in making kottans, is made
out of variety of mediums - iron sheet, brass and ivory. The main input- palm leaf kurthu comes from
Ramnad, especially from Uchchipuli. The lowly palm leaf products have a great role in wedding
ceremonies. The thadukku, kottans(basket), fan (visiri) play important role for performing rituals
standing on the palm leaf mat and offering gifts - vevu, with the help of palm leaf basket -
kadagam, to the bride.


Youths Co ordinator


Among non - traditional craftswomen, the prominent young ladies who stand out in Kottan making as
well as preparing natural die are Ms Nirmala and Manimekalai - both groomed by Mrs. Visalakshi
Ramaswamy of Kanadukathan, by arranging for their training with the help of grand old lady
Kannammai Achi. Nirmala is a tailoring teacher turned Kottan maker and now metamorphosed into
coordinator in promoting Palm leaf productions. The latter (Mrs. Manimekalai) a poor woman of
Keelayapatti (near Pillayar Patti), learned Kottan making at 28, in the year 1999 and has mastered the
technique. Her skill and commitment took her to a few places in other States within and outside the
country (visited 3 countries to Demo her craft skill). Now she is quietly teaching fellow women and
other backward class neighbours in one of the centers.


Thamboolam:


No function, celebration or festivity is complete without paan leaf and betel nut. Thamboolam,
especially in chettinad is given both at the time of extending invitation as well as on conclusion of the
function as it symbolizes the auspicious beginning and also serves as a token of hospitality. Betel
leaves and areca nuts, invariably accompany gifts given in Cash or kind, to relatives, friends and
acquaintance. Chewing betel leaves with assortment of spice was both a pass time and addiction for a
few.


Silver conch:


Use of conch shell during all auspicious occasions and ceremonies of Nagarathars is unique in
Tamilnad in adopting such practice. The conch shell embellished with silver sheet metal over its body
either partly or fully, is kept on a artistic metal stand or wooden stool, in the puja(prayer) room.
Handicrafts


A wide range of articles used in Nagarathars homes on various occasions, would make any one believe
that those common objects of everyday use, are not mere household objects but that may be
comparable with any other works of art. As these are aesthetics and utilities moulded into one,
artifacts in their various forms permeated from living hall to kitchen shelf. Such handicrafts, used in
Chettinad, have thus become integral part of daily life of Nagarathars. Most of these objects collected,
owned and passed on to daughters and granddaughters by the elderly Achis(women), for generation
(not less than three to four generations in each family) during marriage and subsequent ceremonies.
Such cultural products - the accumulated assets of Nagarthars, are still available in Chettinad villages
for the purpose of reference, appreciation and use, inspite of what was done by the owners, vandals
and nature in disfiguring and damaging some of the heritage buildings and articles.


Most of the Chettinad mansions are treasure troves that mirror the passion for art and craft in this
Nagathar the mercantile community that had the reputation of establishing and running their
business ventures from East India to South east countries. In good old days Nagarathars as a whole,
delighted in collecting, using and gifting art and crafts among their own family members, relatives and
friends. From birth to burial, the Nagarathars observed numerous ceremonies. These can be
categorized into religious ceremonies and secular functions including miscellaneous domestic events
viz. celebrating pudumai - the heralding of the birth of a child in the family, ear piercing ceremony
for both for boys and girls, Thiruvadirai pudumai and then sadangu for the young girls in connection
with pubertal celebration, karthikai pudumai in case of young boys, sixtieth wedding santhi for the
aged couple, to name a few. The most important, elaborate and grandest of all and mother of all
Nagarathar ceremonies, is the marriage ceremony of their girls. According to Pala.Annamalai, the
Nagarathar marriage ceremonies continued for seven days up to the year 1913, reduced to three days
from 1952 onwards, and eventually condensed to one day affair since the year 1968.


The practices of observing innumerable ceremonies by the Nagarathars equally involve numerous
articles and artifacts. Functions and festivals beside the routine chores demand procurement and
stocking of multifarious articles and implements. From aruvalmanai (vegetable cutter) and agappai
koodu (spoon / ladle holder) to puja vessels, they have a stunning range of articles of everyday use.
In threshold nilai (door frame), pillar brackets, furniture and even on the hearth in kitchen one can
notice manifestation of art and crafts. Some members of the community were instrumental in
commissioning temples which have also become the abode of art and crafts.


Thus one can conclude that the rich collections, display and use of local and foreign artifacts, can be
related to Nagarathars role as Traders, Trustees of Temples, Town Planners and Builders of Mansions.
Collections


The collection of Chettinad houses include mind boggling array of artifacts made to order both from
local craftsmen as well as from other places. In addition, the all and sundry items procured by them
from abroad, for daily use and display, present awe-inspiring spectrum. Some of the reasons that may
perhaps be attributed would be taste and passion besides the habit of collecting regularly dowry
articles for their offspring- the baby girls the future brides. The birth of a girl child to any Nagarathar
family signaled in good old days, the commencement of number of ceremonies and collection of
vessels, wooden items and gold jewellery by the mothers. Articles of utility as well as collectors items
imported from other countries were also collected by the fathers in the places of work / business in
foreign land such as Burma, Ceylon, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam (Saigon).
The list of items presented as dowry in Nagarathar marriages invariably included the maravai from
Moulmein (Burma); enamelwares from Checoslavia, Sweeden and Germany; Chinese porcelain and
stonewares through Burma, Malaysia; the wedding manai (low wooden seat) with Japanese or Dutch
ceramic tiles top. The number of such items given during wedding as seedanam especially brass
utensils and vessels of various size and shapes, numbering not less than 5 each and depending upon
the level of affluence and affection it may vary from 31 to 101 each. Most of the artifacts stored /
used in the mansions of Chettinad, as seethanam (dowry), or family collections, have of late, begun
to see the light. However, it does not auger well, for the community in a sense, that these artifacts
come out of mansions either on demolition of those old buildings or articles from the left out houses
are either sold at the threshold of mansions and in the bylanes of karaikudi, which are then bundled
out and transported to Cochin, Bangalore, Chennai, Pondichery, Kodaikanal and even far off places
like Mumbai, Jaipur and Jodhpur, for resale to foreigners / NRIs and architects.


When collections go out of Chettinad buildings?
At the time of marriage the entire collection goes to daughter or granddaughter (if she is the
only offspring)
Gifting to daughters and granddaughters on their own volition by mother / grandmother by oral
instruction or through will
Divided among daughters at the time of death of mother / grandmother very rarely at the time
of thirthukolvadu (at divorce)
Emergency -to meet urgent or unforeseen expenses
Due to poverty to eke out a living sometime a few of the articles are sold out
Nudging of the traders and their middlemen to part for handsome amount
Stolen from unoccupied houses without the knowledge of the caretakers
Ignorantly given along with membokku(wooden and stone infrastructure) at the time of
demolishing old houses and selling the retrieved infrastructures
Taste and preference of city bred Nagarathar youths for modern gadgets make them to believe
that these artifacts and articles as useless old stuffs

Kaluthiru-Nagarathar thaali- sacred thread


Marriage was a very special event in Nattukottai Nagarathars life and
in some case entire life savings were spent in collecting jewels, silver,
bronze and brass vessels for daughters marriage. Child marriage was
very common until early part of the twentieth century. Another not
much publicized piece of information is that in those early days the
young bridegrooms were not allowed to tie the thaali instead one of
the oldest Chettiyars of their place would be asked to tying on behalf
of the boy grooms. Another lesser known fact is that the Kaluthiru
the sacred thread or gold chain or Chettiyar thaali was worn during
the day of marriage and a substitute gold thaali was given for regular
use.
The Kaluthiru is a double piece gold chains generally contains a set of total 34 items of hand crafted
gold ornaments including two pendants considered to be the most sacred. The pendants carrying the
image of goddess Lakshmi at the front side and the icons of Meenakshi Sundareswarar Rishaba bull
in the second row. What is very important to note is that these two motifs viz. Lakshmi and Shiva -
Parvathi are oft repeated theme in Chettinad, which are highly revered by the Nattukottai Nagarathar
as the former symbolizing protection and prosperity while Shiva Parvathi pair on bull, represents
happy family life. The Kaluthiru in Tamil language has two different meanings Kalutheru means the
chain on neck while Kaluth - Thiru, denotes the Lakshmi as Thiru in Tamil indicates Mahalakshmi.

Alternative Use:
The image of Meenakshi Sundareswararon bull can be placed inside a box type Tanjuavur painting
wooden frame as an art piece in the living room.

Where to see / shop:
Karaikudi near Koppudaiyamman Temple and other villages in Chettinad.

Types of kaluthiru images are :




Stucco Work- Architecture cum Sculpture


Egg Plastering or Chettinad plastering as it is popularly known has its
roots in Madurai Nayakkars temple and palace architecture which
Nagarthars were familiar with thanks to their long association with
renovation and new addition to Madurai Meenakshi and other
Temples. In addition to egg plastering, stucco work especially the
cornice and sculptural works (Sudai Pommai) adopted in Nagarathars
Chettinad Houses, are usually attributed to their aesthetics sense and
involvement in temple renovation work across country and in a few
South Eastern countries.
Egg plastering was applied on walls and in a few cases in floors in
Chettinad houses, while stucco work was used on the interior and
exterior walls, and the stucco sculptural work was employed on the entrance tower, faade, railing
wall and compound wall. Images of God, goddess, angels, flora and fauna are generally portrayed by
using the medium of stucco. In a few cases especially as observed in Devakottai, Kadiyapatti, Kuzibirai
etc. Among the figures the Gods and Goddesses occupied ninety five percent and among Gods /
Goddesses the icons of Gaja Lakshmi was about sixty five percent percent followed by Meenakshi
Sundareswarar viz. Shiva Parvathi on Rishaba bull was oft repeated theme in Chettinad . What is very
important to note is that these two motifs viz. Lakshmi especially Gajalakshmi and Shiva Parvathi
which are highly revered by the Nattukottai Nagarathar as the former with vara dhana mudra pose,
symbolizing protection and prosperity while Shiva Parvathi pair represents happy family life. These
two groups of icons in various mediums can be seen at the main entrance arch at the middle of the
high compound wall in the front portion, faccade and at the cross bar of the main door frame (nilai).

Alternative Use:
Cornish work and decorative stucco work can be adapted in new buildings in niches, pillars and
reception desk in star hotels and resorts.

Where to see / shop:
Best places to see stucco sudai works are Devakottai(Kannadiyar House in kannadiyar street, in
Velloorni area).

Types of Stucco work images are :



Chettinad culture - separate hearths


The sons of Nattukottai Nagarthars in earlier times, were allowed to stay in the same house
where their parents lived but once got married they were separated at a predetermined date,
according to the covenant of the contract as entered into between the sammanthis viz .families
of bride and groom, at the time of marriage. Accordingly a separate hearth allotted to prepare their
own meals would be used by them within the house. As one proceeds to the last courtyard of any
Nagarathars house in Chettinad - leading to kitchen, rows of clay smeared country hearths can be
seen on a high rise platform. The number of hearths in that row denotes, at that time, the number of
married couple in the house, Elderly parents / mothers were also not exempted from such dictate of
the family system of that time. No meal was cooked without cleaning and decorating the earthen
hearth with Kolam wet rice flour drawings.
The practice of separating the married son and making him to live with newly wedded wife under one
roof but in one of the separate rooms (ul veedu), is called veru vaithal a Chettinad culture
adopted since the days of Silapathigaram. Such practices of those days should not be misunderstood
as divide and rule policy as depicted in todays Tamil cinema. In management parlance it can be
termed as stand alone approach enabling the offspring to stand on own feet. (Post Script The
groceries required for a year together with all required Chettinad vessels and utensils were however,
made available in advance at the time of veru vaithal)
Marriage formalities and Artefacts


The marriage in Chettinad in good old days,was more elaborate and complex. The marriage
ceremony was long drawn procedure punctuated with various rituals, customs including gift
giving for the wellbeing of the newly married and thus marriage was six days affair. Procession of
bridegroom (mappillai ) accompanied by musicians together with another contingent of relatives of
the bride especially the ladies with their colourful costumes mostly in Kandangi handloom cotton
sarees, used to be fun filled affair. Nadu Veettu Kolam drawing with the use of wet rice flour drawn
by aachis and the wooden Manai low platform decoration are very interesting watch and enjoy.
Marriage is declared as solemnized only on completion of the formalities of agreement in writing by
the two families concerned. The two contracting parties involved viz brides and grooms families,
among others would indicate the gifts to be given and other matters both in cash and kind with
reference to their number , medium say gold, silver, brass, etc.. The document containing all details of
agreement has a marvelous term in Tamil called Isai kudimanam also pronounced as Isai
Pidimanam. Isai means consent. The murai chittai -another document containing all and sundry -
even the minutest detail upto the least important vessels agreed up on. (The other one indicate
Seervarisai the number of gifts and their periodicity as gift giving in Nagathar families is a continuous
affair). Displaying the gift articles (seer paraputhal) on the day of marriage is another custom
followed till date despite renouncement by scholars and intellectuals.

Alternative Use:
Tiles inlaid wooden Manai low platform can be used for displaying Handicrafts collection which are
to be viewed fromm top angle.

Where to see / shop:
Tiles inlaid wooden Manai are hardly seen in curios shops. Nagarthars have to be approached.
Kidaram big water storage vessel


The Kidaram is the biggest of all vessels used in nagarathars homes. The size of it in a sense,
matches the scale of the architecture of the elephantine Chettinad Houses. Besides the slopping
tiled roof and its open courtyard, the Kidaram storage vessel, hold an important place as a
part of rain water harvesting devices in drought prone Chettinad area. Such enormous kidarams in
one of the corners or all the four corners of the mutram, courtyard, facilitate storage of drinking
water. From old marriage albums of Chettiyars families, one can identify use of these huge kidarams
mounted on bullock cart, to fetch water from the Oorani- temple tank, for cooking meals for the
guests. The height of these Kidarams ranges between 4 to7 and weigh roughly 17 to 50 kilograms
according to the size.
The metal kidarams are made up of either brass are copper. Of the two metals copper is costlier and
keeps water potable for more than six months. The huge vessel comes with a roof shaped lid and two
loop like handles at the middle. The rain water falling from the roof is stored in kidaram is first filtered
using a pure white veshti (dhoti) or white saree -a long garment worn by elderly widow.

Alternative Use:
The mammoth metal kidarams are already brought into use in star hotels for display in reception area.

Where to see / shop:
For brass items visit any of the craftsmen in Ariyakudi, 3 Km from karaikudi. Scrap metal dealers in
karaikudi can be tried for kidarams.
Kottan Bassket


Ancestors of Nagarathars used palmyra leaves for writing (Olai Chuwadi), drawing, crafting
artistic items and making utility produces. The Kottans had a wide and varied uses in their daily
life, most importantly during marriages. The Aachis of Chettinad (ladies form Nagarthar
household) used to make a varieties of baskets out of tender palmyra leaves and leaf stems, which
are called as Kottans and Koodais . The fine variety is usually identified as Kottans. Of all the
Palmyra products, the Kottan baskets however, combined both artistic and utility together. The
colour scheme of the products was of two broad categories viz. 1) original ivory colour and 2) coloured
(by using natural and chemical colours). The ornamentation of Kottan is done by a variety of methods
and techniques. Single and multi patterns obtained by skillfully manipulating the strips while weaving,
are also decorated with birds and animal motifs. Additional colour foils inserted inside the strips add
value and apeal. Further decoration is accomplished by external embellishments using beads (paasi
mani) threads and embroidery.

Alternative Use:
Colourful Kottans can also be used for dry flower arrangements, cut flower display with stem covered
so as not to wet the base of Kottan.

Where to see / shop:
Fine varieties of kottans can be seen / purchased from TRUPA NGO training centre at Thirupathur,
MRM Foundation - Kanadukathan, and few other villages in Chettinadu.

Types of Kottan images are :



Soththu Palakai


The kitchens located at the rear end of the Nagarthars houses in Chettinad, are least decorated.
But, the beautiful shape, thoughtful designs and assortment of the vessels, and implements used
in those kitchens offset that dull ambiance. The food preparation has all for every ones taste and
custom. Vegetarian non- vegetarian and snacks all the three varieties are prepared and served with
utmost dexterity. These stuffs fondly called as Chettinad cuisine, are prepared tastefully for the
palate.
What many may not know is that the kitchen where these eatables are prepared houses more artistic
and visually appealing artefacts. The list among others include familiar items like vegetable cutters,
salt container, agappai koodu (spoon / ladle holder) and anjarai petty (spice box) all made in wood
with carvings and engravings. The use of one simple device - an autin shaped wooden block is put to
disuse and its Tamil name is also not known to many, is known as Soththu Palakai. The artistic
creations of Chettinad carpenters, was used in cooking rice - especially filtering out the water. The
Soththu Palakai made out of Teak, Stin (Porusu), Karungali and other country wood usually have
carvings on the edges and handlesSuch common objects of everyday use are not mere household
objects in Chettinad but comparable with any other works of art. As these are aesthetics and utilities
moulded into one, life is made more artistic and cuisines made tastier.

Alternative Use:
Wooden Soththu Palakai with carvings on rim and handle are used as key holder after inserting a
couple of brass hooks.

Where to see / shop:
Antique sothu palagaiof different sizes are available in curios shops at Muneeshvaran Koil lane, near
karaikudi old bus stand
Vessel (sombu)


Brass vessel, lamps, ritual items are made in many places within the chettinad in sivaganga
district and its neighbouring districts. In addition to Pudukottai and local production centers
within Chettinad, brass and bronze vessels were also brought from Kumbakonam, Tanjavur,
Madurai and Trunelveli. The bird and animal figures drawn or embossed on artifacts are presented
both as symbol and ornamentation. Even the brass or copper sombu used in puja or kitchen will
sport some designs like flowers, foliage and birds. The one shown in this page has a nicely engraved
bird sitting on foliage. The figures of flowers, foliage, birds and animals are lavishly engraved by the
craftsmen of Chettinad as a process of surface embellishment and as a design input for facilitating
easy handling. Frequently used and familiar motifs employed by the craftsmen are parrot, peacock,
hamsa(swan), etc., in the order. Among animal motifs yali, mahara, deer and elephant are the most
popular subjects covered in Chettinad crafts. Line drawing like effect obtained by etching out the
figures on the surface is locally called as eluthu velai.
K.Sundararajan(38) and his brother Palanivel(32) (Phone: 04565-221020)are different from other
brass lamp makers of Ariyakudi as these younger generation craftsmen design and produce
deepalakshmi (Pavaivilaku) of different models including one on the elephant another with a platform
fixed with wheels and many other Chettinad lamps. Vessels used in Chettinad like Mavilaku satti is
also produced on special orders. Palanivel has a diploma from Mahabaliburam college of sculpture.
Now these brothers have succeeded in reproducing the Vatti responding to the suggestion made by
this author. Madavan 40, (Ph: 04565 231851) and his three brothers are producing large quantity of
Kuth Vilakku, door knobs and handles for the market. This Sakthi Cettinad Crafts Centre also
produces puja items on order. Madavan specializes in production very big bells for temples and
churches. Asokan (38) and Mrs. Asokan are the most dynamic among them in making a large number
of brass items at the shortest time. He is also coordinating Chettinad Craft Cluster promoted by DC
Handicrafts Office, Government of India through their Nodal Agency SIIPPO- NGO.
Woodwork


Chettinad wood work is predominantly comprised of Vahana (vehicle for gods) and Ratham
(temple car) makers at the top rung. The other two different categories of wood workers
operating in Karaaikudi region are
1) Ornamental wood works
2) Carpentry works.

Chettinad wood Craft in olden days was often known for its majestic and ornate Chettinad Nilai
(wooden door frames) which stood tall at the main entrance of heritage buildings. The wealthy
Nagarathars of Chettinad employed Aasaris on mothly wages for executing door Nilai . Some of the
Nilai took a year or two to complete as carvings of miniature birds and floral patterns of less than an
inch size took a lot of time and labour. Vahanas(vehicles to gods) also earned laurels and good price
for their creative workmanship. Frequent visit of Vahana making Aasaries to Malaysia, Singapore, USA
etc, from karaikudi, to make Vahana, Ratham even today are testimony to their popularity and skill.
The export of period furniture is another popular wooden creation from Chettinad. These old finish
furnitures made in karaikudi and exported through Chennai Export Houses are family held business.
Another category of wood workers, woking near Pillayarpatti temple, whose main occupation is
carving Vellerukku Ganesha(root of a medicinal plant) is also grouped under Chettinad Atrefacts.

Alternative Use:
Wooden articles for interior, exterior, art work and utility items for contemporary use can be sourced
from karaikudi.

Where to see / shop:
Concentration of Vahanam makers can be seen at Sekkalai Road / College Road Karaikudi and
Maharnonbu Pottal, Karaikudi.Dismantled door frames from old Chettinad houses are available in
bigger godowns of dealers of Antique articles in Karaikudi.
Architecture :


Most of the mansions built by the Nagathar in Chettinad are the finest examples of
combinations of vernacular architecture and amalgam of South East and European architectures.
The community that had the reputation of establishing and running their business ventures from
East India - especially Calcutta to South east countries during 19th and 20th century were involved in
town planning and vernacular Architectur. The Nagarathar communitys passion for architecture
(during Raj period) can found equals only among Marvaris ( havelis). From birth to burial, the
Nagarathars observed numerous ceremonies. All such functions were held and being held within their
own premises as many of their palatial buildings have Marriage Halls (Kalyana Kottagai) and Banquet
Hall (Bhojan Hall). Like Personal Computers (PC) theirs is the only community which owns personal
Kalyana mandap and Personal Panthi kattu. The most important aspect of any discussion on
Chettinad Architecture must appreciate that their vernacular architecture is an amalgam of Indigenous
and European style evolved over years and refined in a phased manner. The source of inspiration
derived from can be attributed to the Nagarathars connection with Trade, Travel, Temples, Tradition
and Taste. (All these aspects will find a place in subsequent discussions). Such buildings as presumed
to be constructed only with bricks, mortar and wood, are in fact accomplished with sweat, frugality
and piousness. The buildings constructed by them in a phased manner with the earnings made in
FarEast countries on conclusion of one assignment - Kankku (say for a period of three or five years
as per the contract in writing between the owner and his Agent-Kootali). Buildings are divided into
portions -Kattu. Most of the buildings have not less than two to three portions eg: first kattu second
kattu and third kattu.
The walls of Chettinad Nagarathars buildings are embellished with Chettinad plaster whose other
names are
1) White Vellai poochchu
2) Egg plastering and
3)Muthu Poochchu.
Such walls were coated with several layers comprising mixture of lime base, ground white seashells,
liquid egg white, etc.
Spittoon (Echilpanickam)


The usage of betel leaves (vetrilai) in daily life and during ceremonies and functions was very
conspicuous, in Chettinad villages as well as their place of work and business in foreign lands. No
function, celebration or festivity is complete without paan leaf and betel nut. Thamboolam,
especially in Chettinad is given at the time of extending invitation as well as on conclusion of the
function as thamboolam symbolizes the auspicious occasion. It is also served as a token of
hospitality.
Betel leaves and areca nuts, invariably accompany gifts given in Cash or kind, to relatives, friends and
acquaintance. Chewing betel leaves with assortment of spice was both a pass time and addiction for
many. The owner Chettiars and Agent Chettiars in Far East especially in Burma, used the betel leaf
accompanied by Echil Panickam as a Psychological and Management tool for taming the young
apprentices come from Chettnad for learning the art of business or money lending as the case maybe.
The young lads were called as Pettiyadi Paiyan the errand boy, whose main job among others, is to
hold spittoon nearer to the boss as and when he gestures.

Alternative Use:
Glossy enamel coated Echil Panickam with red colour rim and floral designs at the middle portion can
be used as paper and Magazine holder. The bigger spittoons made of brass are used as part of interior
decoration in the halls and corridors, to break the monotony.

Where to see / shop:
Antique Echil Panickam of different sizes and mediums are available in curios shops at Muneeshvaran
Koil lane, near karaikudi old bus stand
Vegetable cutter (aruvalmanai)


The ornate Chettinad vegetable cutters were produced in three different kinds of mediums like
Wood, iron and brass. The brass cutters come with a solid base and the blade is also made of
brass. Similarly the iron vegetable cutter is entirely made of iron sheet metal. Iron or brass what
is so fascinating in Chettinad arugamani, is that all blades of arugamanai, are peacock shaped
(peacock form is obtained from out of sheet metal by a process called forging technique). The pretty
among these cutters, is the folding type vegetable cutters made of brass. The foldable brass cutters
come in three models - large, medium and small. Base of the smaller version is about nine inch long
and height is also of same length. Most of the models seen in Chettinad houses have engraved base
made of solid brass and the blade is usually shaped like peacock. The two sides of the blades are
embellished with engraved floral design and the head portion of the peacock is made of solid brass
piece with pointed beak. The moveable blade and its head are made of single piece. The pointed beak
is purely ornamental representing that of peacock and therefore, cannot be doubled up as coconut
grater. While the wooden arugamanai come with iron blade and wooden seat in the literary sense
(some even have seats dovetailed with four legs). Such benches like arugamanais were produced
exclusively for the use of professional cooks to facilitate easy and painless operation in feast. The all
metal arugamanai made of cheaper metal - iron, is made to look more respectable with engravings
resembling that of swirling creepers and leaves. The eyes of the metal arugamanais are given special
treatment by a combination of engraving and embossing methods with a view to giving a bulging
effect for the eyeballs.

Alternative Use:
Show piece / display of jewelry / stand for lac bangles and small icons made of silver & brass

Where to see / shop:
Antique Vegetable cutters (aruvalmanai) are available in curios shops at Muneeshvaran Koil lane,
near Karaikudi old bus stand