All of us have heard about the grandeur of the Taj Mahal, the magnificence of the Chittorgarh Fort, and the intricate carvings at the Ellora caves. These monuments make our country vivid, spectacular, and a global destination. But have you heard about the grandiose architecture that covers the length and breadth of southern India? If you are thinking about Tirupati Temple in Andhra Pradesh or the Mysore Palace in Karnataka – yes, you are thinking in the right direction. Did you know that there are hidden palaces in Tamil Nadu that are not simply interesting but splendidly gorgeous?
The Chettinad region of Tami Nadu is known for its rich and vivid history. Famous for its delectable cuisine and ornate architecture, the Chettinad region has significantly contributed to the fame and glory of the region.
When we talk about architecture, the crowning glory of the Chettinad region is easily the Athangudi Palace.
Words often fall short when one describes the magnificence of this palace. Over 600 ornate windows are donning the impressive 64 grand rooms! When the palace was constructed, tiles were imported from Italy and the coloured glasses came from Belgium. However, the highlight of the Athangudi Palace is the colourful Chettinad tiles that are just brilliant examples of local artwork.
What is the Chettinad Region?
Situated in Tamil Nadu, the Chettinad region is a cluster of 80 odd villages. Today, they fall under two districts of the state – Pudukottai, and Shivaganga. Athangudi Palace is situated on the outskirts of Karaikudi – one of the main towns in the area.
The original settlers in the region were the Chettiars and it’s from them that the place got its name. The Chettiars were originally wealthy merchants who were primarily a close-knit community. Not only did they amass huge fortunes but significantly contributed to the development of the region by building massive mansions that richly depicted their exposure to the world.
History of the Athangudi Palace
The Athangudi Palace is over 100 years old and was built in 1912 by Dr. Annamalai Chettiyar, the founder of the Indian Bank and the Annamalai University. The palace is just one of the many examples of how exposed the Chettiars were to the world as not only the tiles and glasses come from European countries but even the decorative items and furnishing were directly sourced from East Asia and parts of Europe.
Where is the Athangudi Palace Located?
The Athangudi Palace is located 14 kilometres away from Karaikudi town. However, for all tourism-related purposes, Athangudi Palace is said to be located in Karaikudi. In the short travel from the town to the palace, you can catch glimpses of many beautiful Chettinad houses. Something common in all Chettinad architecture is the boisterous use of colours. The doors are most prominently colourful, while it’s a common sight to see pictures of deities on the front entrances.
Unfortunately, most of the Chettinad Heritage palaces are in deplorable conditions. Luckily that’s not the case with the Athangudi Palace. It is said that though the family members of the original owners of the palace no longer live here, the extended family continues to visit it from time to time, especially during Diwali and other important festivals.
Today the Athangudi Palace is opened to the public on an entry fee basis.
The exterior of the palace doesn’t do justice to the brilliance that lies inside. In all honesty, as a tourist, you could be quite disappointed when you catch the first glimpse of the palace. It looks worn out and just an old mansion in one glance. But once you are inside, you will quite easily forget the first impression you had!
Grandeur That Lies Inside the Athangudi Palace
You will see evidence of the grandeur that awaits you right from the porch of the Athangudi Palace. You will first step into an intricately designed floor replete with colourful tiles. Look up and you will see the ornate pillars with some intricate carvings. The heavy doors will next catch your eyes. But what will really catch your attention at this point in time will be the colourful glass windows! But that’s not all. The roof is also intricately designed, and you can spend quite some time gazing at them in wonder. There are bamboo curtains on the front porch (veranda) which act as a protection from the summer heat.
After crossing the front porch, you reach another veranda – a second porch. This is characteristically typical of all Chettinad homes. However, unlike your ordinary Chettinad house, this porch was designed with thought. Every corner highlights how much attention was given to details. The walls here have glass work as well as stonework while the roof is also intricately designed.
As we mentioned earlier, materials to build this palace were brought from different parts of the world and it is easily evident in every corner. While the colourful glasses came from Belgium and the colourful tiles from Italy, teak wood came from Myanmar. Most significantly the use of the famous Athangudi tiles quite easily uplifts the overall look and feel of the place. The design is heavily influenced by Indo-European architecture, and it is evident in every corner.
At one end of this second porch lies the stairs that take you to the living quarters upstairs. Unfortunately, the living quarters are out-of-bounds for tourists. On the ground floor, on the other side, is a huge kitchen. It is very basic but very big!
One of the main attractions of the Athangudi Palace is the main courtyard that you enter from the second veranda. There are symmetrical pillars all around the courtyard and doors and windows to many rooms open to this area. Unfortunately, the rooms around the courtyard are restricted for public viewing. But from what is understood, these rooms are filled with antique items possibly collected by the Chettiar family over the years while trading with other countries.
Though you cannot look around the rooms on the first floor as well, but the courtyards will give you quite an idea about the grandeur of this place.
Visiting the Athangudi Tile Factory
When you visit Athangudi, you should definitely visit the Athangudi Tile Factory. The Chettinad region is famous for its tiles. Most of the tiles continue to be hand-made and hence they are eco-friendly. Over the years with the rising popularity and easy distribution of machine-made tiles, the popularity of Chettinad tiles has somewhat dwindled. But when you visit the tile factory, you can visit how the tiles are manually processed, dried, and then hand-painted.
How to Best Explore the Chettinad Region
It gets very hot during the summer months in Tamil Nadu. Thus, it is best to avoid visiting the Chettinad region during the summers. The best months to explore the region is during the winter months – between November to March.
It is advisable that you wear only cotton clothes even during the winters. Carrying an umbrella is always a good idea.
Do not singularly rely on Google Maps as they may not give you the most accurate locations of the region.
A great idea is to stay at one of the many heritage hotels in the Chettinad region. This will expose you to the most authentic essence of the Chettiars.
Other Places of Interests in the Chettinad Region
There are many places of interest in the Chettinad region. Spread over the two districts of Shivganga and Pudukottai – the Chettinad region is full of museums, palaces, and eateries. Some of the must-visit places here are –
- Chettinad Palace, located in the Sivaganga district
- Chettinad Museum, located in Kanadukathan, Sivaganga District
- Chettinadu Mansion, located in Kanadukathan, Sivaganga District
- Vairavanpatti Temple, located in Vairavanpatti, Sivaganga District
- Ilayathangudi, located in Karaikudi
- Pillaiyarpatti Karpaga Vinayakar Temple, close to Karaikudi
- Soorakudi temple, located in Karaikudi
- Athmanathaswamy Temple, located in Ilayathagudi North
- Velankudi temple, located in Karaikudi
Parting Words on Athangudi Palace
India is a land of diversity. Here you can visit the sea, hike the mountains, experience snowfall, witness mighty dunes, and everything in between. Not only is the country blessed with nature, but it is equally bestowed with architectural monuments that are steeped in history.
In the southern part of India, most of the monuments are colourful and grandeur. The temples – even in the remotest villages – are architectural wonders. The palaces too are equally grand and colorful. Athangudi Palace in Tamil Nadu is one of the brilliant examples of Chettinad architecture.
If until now you knew only about Chettinad cuisine, it is time to explore the region too. Start by visiting the Athangudi Palace and following the Chettinad trail on the two districts of Shivganga and Pudukottai.
It is time to travel the path less taken – to go to places that are not listed on your common listicles. It is time to visit parts of South India that is quite hidden.