The Story behind the Chettinad Wooden Pillars

Gone are the days when the Nattukottai Chettiars of the famous Chettinad region lived like royalty in their huge mansion-like homes with numerous luxurious rooms, opulently carved teak front doors and pillars, and walls that gleamed like silk even in the dim light. The homes boasted of highly embellished multiple central courtyards and décor that was collected from various countries and bespoke the owner’s wealth.This banking and trading community has been in existence for more than two thousand years now. Earlier they lived along the coast, but after being insulted by one of the Chola dynastic kings, they moved inland and settled in the arid Chettinad region. Though the community started off with 96 villages, there are only 75 settlements remaining now with many of the inhabitants have moved away to the cities and abroad.

These early traders travelled to the far-east Asian countries including Sri Lanka, Singapore, Burma, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, China, Vietnam, etc. Being philanthropic, and honest in nature, they built schools, hospitals and temples wherever they went. They were also well-known as a highly-successful business community of wealthy moneylenders. They used this wealth to build opulent mansions with materials brought in from all over the world. Don’t be surprised to find Spanish tiles, Belgian mirrors, Italian marbles, chandeliers from Europe, etc, in these grand old homes.

The elaborately carved pillars are another outstanding feature in these mansions. They are usually made of tough Burmese teak; the solid tree trunks were made into pillars and embellished with beautiful carvings and feature great workmanship. The pillars are usually huge as they had to support the weight of the massive structure of the mansions. It’s even believed that the Chettiars had hidden panels worked into the designs of these pillars for hiding away their wealth.

As a typical Chettinad mansion features numerous inner courtyards, a large number of pillars are found in each home. The first courtyard opens out into numerous rooms that serve as the living quarters of the married sons and was used for entertainment and celebrations. The second one was meant for dining (on the floor) while the third was meant for the women of the house. The last courtyard was part of the kitchen.

Though most of the mansions have fallen into ruin, a few of these mansions still prevail. For a true-life experience of these majestic mansions, visit the 108 year’s old Chidambaram Vilas heritage hotel in Pudukottai and get to stay in one of these majestic mansions! It’s easily accessible by rail, rail and air, with the nearest airport being at Trichy.