My ancestors on my father's side come from a village called A. Thekkur in Chettinad, an arid region of about 70 small villages some 100kms from Madurai in Tamil Nadu. Nattukotai Chettiars were traders, and traveled to South East Asia and beyond, buying and selling precious gems, silk, tea, spices and salt. During the height of their success in the 18th and early 19th century, they built grand mansions in these remote villages; fanciful fortresses, inward facing with imposing exteriors and elaborate stucco work, Chettiar homes were a fusion of Western, South East Asian and Indian architecture.
In the 1900s, Chettiars began abandoning their villages for cities and jobs as doctors and engineers. Today, most of these villages are ghost towns, and once splendid homes have become nesting places for wild peacocks.
As a child, I visited Thekkur only occasionally when there were family weddings. Our ancestral home built by my great grandfather in the mid 1800s, would be painted cotton candy pink and pistachio green, its floors swept clean and its pillared courtyard hung with marigold and jasmine. An outdoor wedding kitchen would be set up with enormous pots big enough to make sambar and vadas for the hundreds of guests who would sit in long rows crosslegged on the floor eating off of banana leaves.
During family weddings, we stayed in the "new" house built by my grandfather in the 1940s and just across the street from the "old house". My memories of Chettinad included hot days spent in freshly ironed silk pavadais, tongue- tied when one of my father's dozens of distant relatives asked me if I knew who they were. I rarely did. When there was a lull in the wedding hullaballoo, my cousins and I would play cricket in the dusty red unpaved streets, after which, with dust coating our sweaty faces we'd retire to the verandah of the new house to chew on sugar cane stalks. The stucco watchman never even glanced up from his peaceful slumber as we sat by him talking about our cravings for cold fizzy orange Gold Spot or sweet kulfi ice cream, treats only available in far-away Madurai.
Today, some of the crumbling mansions in Chettinad have been restored into "heritage hotels", their pillared courtyards now feature aqua swimming pools. Cold Cokes and Fantas are available at little stores in almost every village, and Indian and Western tourists have started making their way to these ghost towns full of history and crumbling stucco statues, both equally amazed by these grand mansions rising from red earth in the middle of no where.
Chettinad and the Chettiar community has seen a lot of change over the last few decades, the burgeoning tourist industry being the least of it. My generation has grown up in cities from Chennai to Cincinnati, we've been educated across the world, and old traditions are slowly being replaced by new traditions.
Wild peacocks, however still nest in towers painted turquoise, and the night watchman still sleeps in Thekkur.
“Ahhh, what I wouldn’t do for a cold Gold Spot, Sepoy.” You know my pearls are melting off my turban.”
"Yes, I’m rather sweaty under this helmet. “
“Hey, Griff, did you get a new coat of paint?”
“Indeed. Don’t my wings look spiffy, Ditty? There’s going to be a wedding! I hear it’s a…”
“A love marriage?!” A LOVE marriage?”
"Yes, and there’s going to be dancing in the courtyard and a pool party!"
"Oh, I do love to dance! I wonder if the ladies will take their saris off to swim?"
“A pool party? “
“Didn’t you know, Raja, there’s a swimming pool in Kadiapatti.”
“How times have changed... I just hope there’s plenty of Vellai Paniyaram.”
“Oh, I’d love to take my boots off and put my gun down.”
“ Let’s go for a swim!”
An essay I wrote about my Chettiar heritage: Half Chettiar, All Proud.
More of my images below.