The Chettinad region is spread across Sivagangai and Pudukkottai districts of Tamil Nadu. The Chettinad is well known for its unique cuisine and architecture. The residing people of Chettinad are called as “Chettiar”.
Chettiar people were mainly occupied in banking and trading traditionally. During the past few centuries, Chettiars were known to have flourished as extensive traders. They involved in import and export, significantly contributing to the economic development of the community. They traded with spices, salt, gem stones etc and their business spread across Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Myanmar etc.
At present, there are few clusters of villages inhabited by the Chettiar community, as several other families have migrated. Most of the families of Chettiar community record family trees, tracing up their ancestors. This holds true with their worshipping in ancestral temples.
Designing of houses based on profession
As Chettiars were intensive bankers, they engaged in foreign currency exchange, money lending, and postal money. They used to sit on floor, in front of a wooden table and deal with bulk account books. Before the era of computers and calculators, these accountants excelled in brain computing.
a) Office Vs Home
In order to make their working spaces comfortable, a large front area called “thinnai” was designed in front of the house. This further facilitated their meetings with other men related to their profession. Designing this way avoided the necessity of “work related guests” entering inside the house. This “thinnai” enabled them to keep a barrier between business life and personal life.
b) Safety for women
A typical Chettinad house is designed with large spaces for storage rooms. This is mainly because, while men were out of town for trade purposes, women utilize the stock and avoid mingling with outsiders. A single main entrance keeps womenfolk safe inside their homes and they have enough space inside for leisure activities.
Rooms and ventilation
After the main entrance, an open-to-sky rectangular shaped courtyard is designed which provides good sunlight and air. Across the two long sides of this rectangle, rooms are built with a lot of windows for ventilation. So, when a Chettinad villa is viewed from outside, one can see an array of windows belonging to several separate rooms. From this design came the famous Tamil phrase, “Aayiram jannal veedu” which means “A house with thousand windows”.
Gatherings and special occasions
Beyond the private rooms, the house opens to gathering spaces such as “kalyana kottagai” and “bhojana hall”. Until a few decades ago, before the advent of marriage halls, all marriages and other occasions were conducted within the house. When houses were spacious and families were large, they conducted wedding ceremonies within their houses and invited guests within families.
Within the house, the central courtyard itself is open to sky and hence rain water flows from the slanting roofs around it. The residing families can collect and store rainwater in large containers for their personal usage.
Every house is built on a rectangular plot and excess rain water is collected via provisions underground. This rain water harvesting system benefits the whole village as the entire water collected drains into temple ponds. So the temple ponds are also designed to collect water from surrounding houses by underground channels.
Art work and decor
Flooring is mainly finished with Athangudi tiles. Athangudi ia a village within the Chettinad itself and it is famous for tiles manufacturing. Such locally available tiles adorn most of the Chettinad houses. Floors exhibit a silky smooth finish due to the usage of herbal roots and egg white. Depending on the social and financial status of the owner, the house is adorned with imported decor materials such as shields, clocks etc.
At the entrance, an arch is built which typically contains carved out designs, based upon the interest of the owner. Religious idols, flowers or pattern designs are carved out along the front arch.
As Chettiars visited Myanmar (Burma) frequently, they imported Burma wood which is considered as one of the finest in the world. Doors were adorned with wooden carvings and they developed wood carving as an art.
Though the designs have undergone modifications due to modernization, heritage Chettinad villas still exist in the region. A visit to such houses offer visuals of how life had been during the previous centuries. They also show how our ancestors lived in harmony as joint families and their interest towards art and nature.