Forbes India – Chennai, South India: India’s Chettinad mansions are a testament to past glory

Thousands of mansions in a remote corner of India once housed some of the country’s wealthiest bankers and merchants.
Image: Arun Sankar/AFP

JThousands of mansions in a remote corner of India once housed some of the country’s wealthiest bankers and merchants, but a century later most of them lie abandoned, their desolation still a mute testament to lost riches.

The magnates of Chettinad, near the southern tip of the country, made their fortunes trading gems and spices in vast trading empires that stretched as far as Malaysia and Singapore during the era of British colonial rule.

Much of their wealth was channeled into building resplendent houses, adorned with stucco figurines, colorful stained glass and cornices.

Historians say they bought chandeliers from Venice, giant mahogany-framed mirrors from Belgium and intricately patterned glazed ceramic tiles from Birmingham.

“At that time, there was a competition between the Chettiars themselves to create the most beautiful building, more beautiful than the brother, the cousin, whatever,” Bernard Dragon, a French architect working in the city, told AFP. the region.

But time has not been kind to the nearly 11,000 lavish homes built in the area and many now look dilapidated and overgrown, their current owners either unable to pay maintenance or mired in property disputes.

“We are concerned about the state of conservation,” said Dragon, who worked to restore a property in the area to its former glory to serve as a boutique hotel.

“In some villages, the owners are more present and more engaged. (But) in some villages, you walk in…and you realize that nobody takes care of the properties.”

The people of Chettinad belonged to a Tamil merchant caste and the location was an ideal staging post for a maritime merchant empire.

Its people were able to leverage their networks in banking and sprawling land holdings, in a business partnership with British traders seeking markets and finance for the tea, coffee and rubber trade. .

But after World War II, their holdings fell into disarray, as independence movements gained ground regionally and socialist-inspired economic policies at home clamped down on money lending and foreign trade. .

Many families, forced to tighten their belts or seek other opportunities, have moved to nearby Chennai, leaving their homes under guard or simply abandoning them.

I’m waiting for a revival

Today, the dozens of villages that make up the Chettinad region are far from the beating heart of commercial life in southern India, while Chennai has become a major hub of finance and industry. automobile.

With the nearest airport over two hours away and mansions – some with up to 100 rooms – requiring sky-high amounts of money to maintain, there is little appetite for local property.

But the emotional attachments of the descendants of the former inhabitants and the passionate architects touting the houses’ supreme craftsmanship have helped fuel some efforts to preserve these wonders.

“The new generation is making a lot of money and is interested in these properties,” said A. Chandramouli, the elderly owner of Chettinadu Mansion.

“I expect a revival shortly,” he added, sitting in an antique chair in a tiled courtyard flooded with afternoon sunlight. “They want to preserve this unique heritage for future generations.”

The Chettinadu mansion, spread over 40,000 square feet (3,700 square meters), has been renovated into a heritage complex and has been featured as a backdrop for Bollywood films.

Other properties have largely retained their gleaming marble floors, crystal chandeliers, and carved mirrors while adding modern amenities aimed at wealthy tourists drawn to the area’s faded grandeur.

“These houses need to be restored so that our future generations can see how people used to live here,” tourist Malini Bharathy told AFP, between shots from one of the Chandramouli property’s sunny balconies.

“I want my son (and) my son’s son to come here and enjoy this, and savor this.”

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