On The Chettinad Trail

On a three-day road trip, we explore Karaikudi that is known for its Chettinad mansions, antique shopping and local cuisine

author_img Ayesha Tabassum, Rashmi Rajagopal Lobo & Anagha M Published :  26th January 2018 06:00 AM   |   Published :   |  26th January 2018 06:00 AM
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The Chettinad Mansion

It’s 5.30 am on a Thursday morning and we are on NH-44 (the longest highway that connects Northern India with the South), staring into the darkness that’s lined with lamp posts. Just a few minutes earlier, we boarded an Ola Outstation cab, heading towards our destination, Karaikudi in Tamil Nadu. 
Giving the usual suspects like hill stations and beaches a miss, we opted for the culturally rich Karaikudi — the town of antiques, Chettinad palaces and exquisite food. But another reason we embarked on this trip was the excitement of going on an eight-and-a-half-hour drive through one of the most picturesque routes — the Namakkal-Trichy Road. Tall coconut trees sway on either sides of the stretch, which is home to some of the most lush green paddy fields — a visual treat indeed. It was these stunning views that accompanied us through the journey, apart from some great music, courtesy the Ola Play tab.
We reach our destination, Kanadukathan, a town panchayat, in Karaikudi, a little after lunchtime. What greets us takes us back in time. Visalam - CGH Earth Hotel, a 70-year-old Chettinad mansion is a heritage home built by a father for his eldest daughter. The home was never lived in, we are told, as the daughter passed much before she could move in. Today, it is restored in true Chettinad fashion, with all the trappings that will transport you to a different era. The CGH Earth Hotels are known for responsible tourism and fit perfectly with the theme #GhoomoResponsibly, that is promoted by Ola. Not a single piece of plastic is used on the property that is run on renewable energy. They also practise rainwater harvesting during the monsoons. The hotel is run by locals who have been groomed to interact with Indian and foreign visitors with courteousness and efficiency. Our room, on the first floor of the property, reminds us of the quintessential grandma’s home with wooden furniture — dressing and study tables and large windows. We unpack and after a quick swim in the pool, head out  for the village walk exploring the world famous Chettinad mansions.



Retracing history
Kanadukathan is the central village of the region. After walking just a few metres away from the hotel it seems like we are transported to a town from an earlier century. The Chettinad Mansion, popularly called the Chettinad Palace, owned by the Chettinad Cement family stands tall, bang in the middle of the town. The 150-year-old palace houses 84 rooms. The interiors are done with stained glass panels from Venice, pillars from Belgium, teak from Burma and floor tiles from Holland. A few steps away from this awe-inspiring structure, are other huge mansions that add to the glory of Kadanu-kathan. The entrance to every house is defined by beautifully carved doorways made of teak. Inside the houses, there are intricately designed wooden pillars and ceilings that are crafted to endure 
the test of time. It is these signature elements of Chettinad architecture that attracts visitors from all over the world.

Vintage discoveries
After the village walk, we head to Karaikudi town, about 13 kms from Kanadukathan, to have a look and possibly buy some antiques on the famed Muneeswaran Temple lane. The rustic and rusty old shops stock articles imported by the rich Chettiar families of the region. The loot on offer includes kitchen ware, lampshades and  vases given as dowries to daughters. 
Day two is spent exploring the Thirumayam Fort that houses a Siva Temple, a Vishnu Temple and Sundareswara Temple. A climb to the top of the fort means you get an aerial view of Kanadukathan. What impresses us further is the fact that the fort is clean with no garbage in sight.



Later in the day, we drive to the Athangudi Palace Tiles factory. Every tile here is handmade by a team of women. The Athangudi tiles are pieces of art in earthy tones. We return to Kanadukathan by early evening and visit Sri Mahalakshmi Handloom Weaving Centre. It’s a visual delight to watch the women weavers meticulously create the famous chequered pattern.



With such beautiful memories created over two days, we wake up to early morning sunshine pouring through the windows. Our discovery of the ancient town that is not usually on the tourist map has come to an end. But even as we wrap  up our expedition, we are ready to hit the road, for the long haul back to Bengaluru, in our Ola Outstation cab, excited to retrace the verdurous country roads, once again!

SPICE ROUTE



THE Nattukottai Chettiars are renowned for their piquant curries and fried delicacies that smack of freshly ground spices, so understandably, we are awaiting our escape to Karaiakudi, fully intending to make the most of our time time there, food-wise. Armed with recommendations and insider tips from friends, acquaintances and family, we head south, towards the heartland of the Chettinad region. 
Just ahead of Salem, we decide to make a stop for breakfast. The unexpectedly chilly morning means a few cups of hot  coffee are definitely on the cards. We disembark after spotting a decent-looking restaurant called, Sai Sangeetha Coffee Shop. The coffee  is just what we are looking for. But a hot tawa, emitting smoke at the adjacent shop, finds us making our way across, after paying for the warming drinks. We chat over a banana leaf meal of fresh and hot idlis, crisp dosas and some of the most delicious coconut and tomato chutneys. Back in the car, we doze off for a while. 

Banana leaf meals are how things are served this side of the country and lunch has us tucking into a vegetarian meal of rice, sambar, rasam and beetroot kootu (or palya) somewhere off the highway in Pudukkottai. While this is what we need (a non-fussy meal), in retrospect, we reckon it would have been better to have gotten a takeaway from the breakfast stop, or Googled to find a place, that was a little bit more on the cleaner side. It’s quite sunny and pleasant when we reach our hotel, Visalam by CGH Earth, located at the unhurried and unassuming Chettinad town Kanadukathan. At the hotel, we are welcomed with a fairly common local drink, nannari sherbet, made with the roots of the Sarasaparilla herb. This is refreshing and perfect after the long drive. 

After a few hours spent exploring the antique stores, we make our way to Bangala, a restaurant and heritage hotel, which has been recommended by many, for dinner. We arrive at 9 pm, but are told by the security guard  that they are closed for orders. We persist and are able to get a table, as the sleepy town seems to be shutting down for the night. The meal, though elaborate, has us rather disappointed. Served by local men, neatly dressed in white shirts and matching veshtis (dhotis), the spread comprises a soup, followed by other dishes such as prawn masala, quail kuzhumbu (curry), mutton kuzhambu and cauliflower kootu, paired with parathas, rice and appam. Aside from the delicate and pillowy appams, this is a dinner that is forgettable, to say the least. 

Holidays and decadent breakfasts make a perfect match, so we don’t go easy on our meal the next morning. At the hotel, we sample a range of local delicacies such a vellai paniyaram, made with rice, urad dal, milk and a dash of sugar, kuli paniyaram or paddu and fluffy idlis served with zesty 
chutneys.  

Priya Mess was a name that kept popping up during our pre-trip research and we decided it had to be visited. So we drive there for lunch, hoping for a meal that would serve as an antidote to the dinner at Bangala. The little hole in the wall eatery, with a board in Tamil is easy to miss, but ask around and you will be directed to the place. The no-fuss  diner is where to head if it’s authentic local food that you intend to experience. Here, we face a continuous onslaught of spicy gravies and other accompaniments. It’s almost like eating at the home of a local. One can choose between three accompaniments, but we ask for all three, fried seer fish, nati kozhi kuzhambu (country chicken curry) and prawn masala. This is definitely an improvement on our dinner the previous night. With the rice, we are served mutton gravy, crab gravy and fish gravy, without the meat. Our request for something as commonplace as sambar is met with confusion and grave disapproval, as we are served more of the non-vegetarian gravies. 
Dinner on the second day is at Sapadu Shala, Visalam’s grill restaurant. Traditional Chettinad food is cooked on slow fire, so the food takes a while to arrive. We enjoy the seer fish curry, which is tangy and fiery. The vegetarian version is made with banana flowers and is equally delicious. 

A trip to Karaikudi is incomplete without bringing back some black rice, so we head to a grocery store to take some back home. The rice is easily available and the store owners are more than happy to give us some cooking instructions as we make our payment. Bengaluru might have its fair share of Chettinad restaurants, but nothing comes close to experiencing the food at the place where it originated, and on a banana leaf.
Team Indulge was invited by Ola as part of the #GhoomoResponsibly campaign on the occasion of National Tourism Day.

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