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ashok viswanathan | profile | all galleries >> x_pro_in_chettinad tree view | thumbnails | slideshow


X Pro1 in Chettinad – a lifestyle lost in time.


Chettinad, the name reminds one of tasty spicy south Indian food loaded with chilly and peppers guaranteed to set your mouth on fire. Ask most people and they will be hard pressed to point out Chettinad on a map. It does not exist. Chettinad is the name of a `group of villiages sourrounding the town of Karaikudi in the south Indian State of Tamil Nadu. Villages such as Athangudi, Devakottai, and Kanadukathan located in the heart of Chettinad have a large number of traditional homes.

The Chettiar community who inhabit this region are a wealthy group of businessmen who made their money in banking, trade and business. Starting around the late 1800’s and early 1900’s their prosperity and fame grew and over time they moved out of Chettinad to larger cities such as Chennai and overseas to Singapore and Malyasia with the aim of expanding their business .
Having hear so much about the lifestyle and the homes of the Chettiar community, I decided it was worth a trip to see for myself and make some photographs of a dying lifestyle. Armed with a X Pro1 and a 18~55mm Fuji f2.8 lens I set off.


The Fuji X Pro has been with me a short while but I hadn’t really found my way around the various controls. Most pictures were are ISO 400 and for the dark interiors pushed to ISO 1600. I could not hav dreamed of using such high ISO on my now ancient Nikon D100. The X Pro easily allows one to adjust the shutter speed manually to get the max possible depth of field, much required for building interiors. Handling was smooth and easy and the light weight of the camera was hardly noticeable compared to carrying my Nikon DSLR with a 80-200 mm lens. The few people who noticed me thought I was a tourist with a point and shoot or using some old camera with film. It did not attract any attention. The camera balances well with this lens and yields very sharp results. The Image Stabilisation greatly helped in dim interiors. There were times I wished I had the Fuji 10~24mm lens and intend to add this to my kit in the near future.The incamera jpgs are outstanding.

While in Chettinad they built family homes to accommodate the large families under one roof. Some of the larger homes took as much as 10 years to complete as the materials had to be imported by sea from far away countries. Some of the homes are really mansions or small palaces with over 200 rooms. The front of the house on one street and the rear opening out on a different street. The chettiars loved colour and they pained their homes in multiple shades of blue, green, orange, and yellow. These homes numbering about 11,000 are today mostly closed with a caretaker or gradually falling to pieces due to lack of maintainence. A few have been turned into hotels by the resident owners and restored to their earlier glory. The chettiar families only return to the villiage to celebrate special family occasions such as marriages.


The homes were mostly constructed in the late 1800’s or early 1900’s with tiles from the nearby villiage of Athangudi, steel from Birmingham, black granite columns form Spain and wood from Burma. Most homes comprised of a ground floor with a first floor and balcony overlooking the street below. Entering the house you are greeted by a huge living room, large enough to host a wedding reception and a courtyard open to the sky letting in the sun and rain. Rooms surround the courtyard and this is where the family spent most of the time. Further in are the kitchens and sleeping areas for the servants who are required to run this establishment. The interior wood is beautifully carved, often with gods and goddesses keeping company with elephants and other animals. The granite pilliars are rounded and support the roof with wooden carved joints. The roofs are tiled orange with locally made material. Inside the main hall there hangs a old telephone in one corner, old teak cupboards and mirrors of Belgian glass. The homes that are falling apart are slowly being stripped of anything of value by antique dealers who sell them to customers in far away cities. Particularly, carved door frames and doors are a hot selling item, often for several lakhs of rupees. So also old lamps and chandeliers, mirrors and furniture.


Getting to Chettinad is best done by a flight to the temple town of Madurai and a 80 km car ride. Some of the villiages around Karaikudi gives one the impression of a ghost town with hardly anyone in sight. Limited transportation often as basic as a bullock cart is the only alternative to walking. The villiage of Kanadukathan about 10 km form Karaikudi is now a notified Heritage Villiage where the local Raja has his palace overlooking the villiage temple and tank. The streets are at perfect ninety degrees to each other. Located here is the “Chettinad Mansion”, home to Mr A. Chandramouli and his family who maintain a 220 room mansion just behind the palace. Of these twelve rooms are rented out to visitors. This old home is also used as sets for the South Indianl film industry who rent these homes for movie production. Mr Chandramouli who is now in his mid eighties personally supervises the day to day operation and maintainence of the mansion and enjoys meeting his guests to explain the history and traditions of the Chettiar community. Guests are welcomed with a brightly coloured garland and made to feel at home. Breakfast is traditional multi course south indian fare such as uppuma, pongal, idly, dosa and vada with coconut chutney and washed down with sambar and filter coffee. No instant mixes here. Everything is served fresh and hot straight from the oven. Lunch and dinners are mainly chicken, fish or lamb in spicy pepper curries or stew served with white rice or indian breads such as roti or nan. Much of the cooking is in pure ghee adding taste to the food. Deserts such as a variety of halwas or indian sweets are rich in calories and not for the faint hearted.


For a visitor wanting to experience villiage life in the early 1900’s a visit to Chettinad is highly recommended…




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chettinad mansion
chettinad mansion
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