Pilgrimage cum recreation tour.
By Deepak Bhatia
We boarded the train at Egmore in Chennai. After covering a distance of 490 km via Villupuram, Mayiladuthurai and Trichinopoly, we arrived the next morning at Chettinad at the scheduled time. It was a small rural station where my wife and I were the only two passengers to alight in the pre-dawn darkness. An auto driven by Mariappan had been sent by the Chettinad Court Hotel to pick up and ferry us to the village resort.
The distance was a mere 2 km., but the charge was a whopping `100! We sat huddled inside, feeling the chilly air as the vehicle rolled along the village road – partly asphalted, partly cobbled, partly kuchcha – past the Annamalai Polytechnic College, M. Ct. M. and C. V. C. T. C. School campuses – into Kanadukathan, the old name for Chettinad – in the Sivaganga Estate of Madura district in the Madras Residency of British India. We were welcomed at the gate of Chettinad Court by Gopakumar, manager, dressed in a hoodie jacket as protection from the morning chill. He explained that Chettinad, Karaikaudi and Pillaiyarpatti were situated at three corners of a triangle, as it were.
We had chosen to stay at Chettinad Court as it was close to Chettinad railway station, and also because visitors had written good reviews about the hotel and the service staff. The other hotels in the vicinity were Chettinad Mansion, with nine rooms, and Shri Narayan Vilas Coffee House which had been converted into a restaurant and hotel with seven rooms. All the three establishments were old houses built in the typical Chettinad style, and later converted into Heritage hotels. A typical characteristic of Chettinad houses is that they have carved and decorated pillars with flooring of distinct Athangudi tiles made from glass plates, with exquisite designs, superimposed on concrete blocks.
Chettinad Court consisted of two blocks of four rooms each. The eight rooms were named after the eight forms of Goddess Lakshmi – Adi Lakshmi, Dhana Lakshmi, Vijaya Lakshmi, Ghaja Lakshmi, Santhana Lakshmi, Veera Lakshmi, Dhanya Lakshmi and Vidhya Lakshmi. We were accommodated in room no. 5 in the abode of Santhana Lakshmi.
CC was originally named S.A.R.M. House after Rajah Sir Satappa Ramanathan Muthaiya Annamali Chettiar. The present owner is A. Chandramouli who shifted to CM with his wife, Sivagami, and now the couple runs two establishments – Chettinad Court and Chettinad Mansion – as village resorts in Kanadukathan, close to the NH 210 that connects Trichy, Madurai and Tanjore (Thanjavur).
Diagonally opposite the cross road from CC was the Narayan Vilas Coffee House, now a restaurant and village resort. Nearby on the south side of CC were primary and secondary schools and a small nursing college. There were vast open grounds, some of which were used as playing fields for the educational institutions.
The courtyard of CC had a neat lawn with well-trimmed green grass and a mound in front of the two blocks of rooms. Wrought iron chairs and a glass-topped table, also some benches with marble seats had been provided for the guests to sit and enjoy tea and snacks or to just relax in the peaceful atmosphere, breathing in the pure, clean air, surrounded by bright, colourful flowers blooming in beds and hedges. It was aptly named the Rose Garden with proliferating roses of various hues seen all around it.
The restaurant and kitchen were in a building adjacent to the blocks of rooms, in what apparently was the old house, converted into an unvagam or eating place, and modernised with light fittings and wall-mounted fans.
There were long, highly polished wooden tables with glass tops. Table cloths cut from the Chettinad style saris were spread below the glass sheets, with table mats of straw placed over them. The dining chairs had been crafted partly from cane and partly wood, straight-backed with intricate carvings on the headsteads.
The view of the establishment was very impressive from outside, with carved and painted pillars in the verandah, and thatched slanting roofs over the blocks of rooms. There were stairs leading up to the terrace, giving the appearance of additional rooms on the first floor, but it turned out to be an illusion. Being the month of February, most of the guests at CC were foreigners. Indian tourists and pilgrims would start arriving from March after the annual examinations were over.
Sightseeing in Chettinad and surrounding areas
After breakfast and an early check-in courtesy Gopakumar and his team of service personnel, we were ready for the first tour of temples and other places of interest. Our first stop was the Karpag Vinayak Temple (KVT) in Pillaiyarpatti. The huge deity carved from stone was covered in a golden kavach or shell/casing.
As described in the brochure provided by the CC hotel, it seemed to be “growing” before our very eyes! Circular trays with burning oil lamps hung by chains over and around Vinayak from the ceiling, created on her awesome aura. We could enter the sanctum sanctorum and were allowed to stand close to the deity for some minutes, which was a privilege as most people in the queue were exhorted by marshalls, priests and volunteers to keep moving, and were able to stay there for barely a few seconds!
We made our way to the Kuber-Lakshmi Temple. Like the KVT, this one had also been developed with modern buildings and marble floors. There was a large tank in which we could see fishes of various colours from black to gold swimming back and forth.
The Big House in Athangudi was next on our itinerary for that morning. There were many large rooms, each with flooring of tiles of various designs and styles, and exquisite chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. The walls were decorated with murals showing scenes of activities in the house and outside in the village. The house had been kept very clean, looked after by a caretaker who charged visitors `50 per head. Photography was allowed, unlike in the temples, and I made good use of the opportunity.
The fourth and last stop of the morning’s tour was at a tile-making unit, listed as “Tiles Factory” in the brochure from the hotel. My wife and I witnessed a live demonstration of the process which went into producing tiles of exquisite and distinct designs on glass plates fused on concrete squares. There were piles of tiles all over the place – inside sheds and outside in the yard. The artisans were happy to pose with their creations proudly displayed before them.
Athangudi tiles are used in furniture as well as on the flooring. The headboard of the bed in our room at CC had a tile affixed in the middle. A small table in the bathroom was also inlaid with tiles.
There are a plethora of temples in Karaikudi and Chettinad area. We proceeded on the second tour after lunch and some rest. Our autodriver took us first to the Perumal – Padmavati Temple (PPT), which has its own prominence even though it may not be as famous or frequented by devotees as the Venkateswara shrine in Tirumala in Andhra Pradesh. The next halt was at the Opilly Appan Temple (OAT). The name may be expanded as Uppu Illai (without salt). No items containing salt are proferred to the deity. A visit to the Nayika Amman Temple (NAT) followed. This is a “sister” temple to the ancient and renowned Vadi Vudai Temple (VVT ) in Thiruvottriyur, north Chennai.
The temples are made of strong material and robust construction. Legend has it that they survived the deluge when the entire earth was covered in water. After the flood waters receded, the structures were found intact in their respective locations.
The third temple we visited was the Muthu Mariamman Temple (MMT), where an orchestra with nadaswaram and other instruments was playing and the performance was being broadcast over loud speakers. When we stood before the deity, a garland which had been offered was brought down by a priest and put around my neck, making me feel blessed.
On the final leg of the day’s tour we went exploring in the antique market in Karaikudi, but most of the shops were closed as it was a Sunday. So, we came back to the hotel to have dinner ordered over the phone, followed by an early night.