Known for its famed grand mansions and distinct, flavoursome cuisine, Chettinad is home to the once-thriving and wealthy Chettiar community. The Chettiars were traders, entrepreneurs and merchants whose wealth flourished in the 19th and 20th centuries. They used their fortunes to build lavish mansions with the finest quality materials, such as teak and silkwood and marble, adorning their homes with chandeliers and art. It is estimated that over 20,000 were built in the area between 1850 and 1950, although the aftermath of WWII saw many businesses fail, and ultimately the mansions were abandoned and left to decay, sold off or passed down to family members. Some are open to the public, so you can wander through yourself and admire the faded grandeur, imagining the fabulous parties and extravagant lives once lived here, or even stay in a mansion turned heritage hotel.
Chettinad Palace is the largest and most impressive mansion, which is a must-do when visiting the area. Designed and built by Dr Annamalai Chettiar, one of the founders of the Indian Bank and Annamalai University, it is actually the oldest palace and structure still standing in the traditional Chettinad style. Wander along white marble floors, admire the vegetable dye patterns on the ceilings, family portraits and crystal collections. As well, the area is well-known for its village markets or ‘shandys’, silver and goldsmiths, antiques and textiles. The beautiful Chettinad sarees are highly sought after, too.
The Bangala heritage hotel housed in a 100-year-old mansion is filled with charm and character. Located in Karaikudi, the main town of Chettinad, it makes for a wonderful stay during your visit to this area.
One of the oldest cities in India, Tanjore or Thanjavur is quite a hectic yet modern city. It is home to a rich variety of history due to its rule by numerous dynasties from the Cholas to the Pandya, Thanjavur Nayaks and the British. With many architectural sights, the most famed is the Brihadeeswara Temple in the town’s centre. It was built by a monarch, Rajaraja I, between 1003 and 1010 AD and is highly revered by Hindus. As one of the largest temples in India dedicated to Shiva, thousands gather here for worship daily, and it is best visited in the morning or evening to witness prayers and local activity.
The city is also home to the Thanjavur painting style unique to the region, in which vivid colours are combined with gold foil and glass beads or gems. If you’re looking to admire some art, head to the gallery in the Royal Palace where statues from the Chola period, or check out the Saraswathi Mahal Library that has preserved over 30,000 manuscripts and palm leaves.
Quieter than Tanjore, Kumbakonam is still home to 18 colourful, towering gopurams lay throughout the city amongst two world heritage listed Chola temples. Dedicated to either Vishnu or Shiva, the temples are a sign that medieval power once ruled over this area of south India.
The largest Vishnu temple is Sarangapani, with a towering 45m high gopuram at the entrance while Kumbeshwara is the largest Shiva temple dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries with an impressive 9 storey gopuram. Nageshwara is the oldest and one of the most notable in the area, founded by the Cholas in 886.
Kumbakonam is a great place to break the journey across the plains of Tamil Nadu and can be used as a base to explore close by Trichy and Tanjore. The properties we suggest are slightly out of the town in quiet areas so you can use your stay here to relax, explore the fascinating culture and history or immerse yourself in rural Tamil life.