Cruising through Karaikudi
Updated: Jul 21, 2020
The two days that I spent in Karaikudi were mostly awe inspiring, but there definitely was some languor tinged with a bit of nostalgia, and a touch of melancholia. The mansions were spectacular, and if you haven’t visited, you really should. Clearly the people who built them took great pains, and went to great expense, even for those times, which were about 200 years ago, to include the best and the finest in their symbols of pride and prestige, their homes. The tiles, the chandeliers, the beautiful Burma teak and rosewood that have bravely and sturdily weathered the years, the finishes, the detail, and the care that was taken to plan and envision houses that are so huge, are all truly amazing.
Languor is the word that best describes what I felt while sitting back in one of those easy chairs in The Bangala, an old mansion that has been converted into a hotel, sipping fragrant coffee, and dreamily visualizing those beautiful days when car horns didn’t rudely screech into my thoughts, when the city would have been a lot less crowded with horses clip-clopping along while drawing their carriages or carts, and bells jingling on bullocks as they drew their carts at a much slower pace. And, as these images float through my mind, I am reminded of home because Malaysia and Singapore were not much different those days. The houses, though much smaller, particularly the Peranakan or Straits style houses, are somewhat reminiscent of these mansions. Although more Oriental in style and design, they have the same detail, craftsmanship and courtyards. The early connection between the traders that moved back and forth from the Straits Settlements is quite evident even in the little things. For example, there were a lot enamel covered utensils like bowls, mugs and storage bins for display in the homes, and purchase in the antique stores. I remember using and seeing so many of those while growing up in Malaysia and Singapore. I think they are made of tin, or aluminum, and then covered with pink, blue or green enamel, which will chip off with rough handling.
Sadly, the beauty that is evident in the mansions seems to wear a cloak of melancholia. Those buildings and courtyards would have once been bustling with business, comings and goings, little scions of the family running around in play, women cooking, managing the household while engaged in happy chatter or petty squabbles, and just people filling the numerous rooms. Now the parlors, the hallways, and the numerous, large, chandelier filled halls lie desolate and empty, maintained well enough in many cases, but still empty. In the couple of houses that I saw, the lone owner or caretaker stayed in one room while all the other rooms were locked up with huge padlocks. Apparently, each inheritor, however many there are, has a room in the house for his family, and they would lock this up, and leave for wherever they lived, returning only when there is an event like a wedding. This is the case with the lucky mansions. The unfortunate ones that have been abandoned, lie dilapidated and overgrown, and as I have mentioned before, probably wishing someone would give them the time to listen to the thousand forgotten tales that they have to share.
Even in the case of the well maintained ones, the owner is sometimes reluctant to stay in his or her mansion for fear that it may be “haunted”. This was the exact word used by one owner with whom I was speaking. He and his wife preferred to stay at The Bangala, or some other hotel in Karaikudi. The other inconvenience that makes it difficult to actually stay in the mansions is the absence of bathrooms inside the house. In the old days, bathrooms were considered unclean, and so were built outside the house. People like Achie, the owner of The Bangla have had bathrooms constructed inside for their convenience.
Speaking of Achie, I have to give you a little nugget of information. Interestingly, Achie who now rules the roost in her mansion was not allowed to enter it through the main entrance and hall as a young bride, and then wife and mother because it was strictly reserved for men. The Bangla which she ably manages now was once a men only club. Despite this, she insists that Chettiar women held their own in their households, and held the fort very well because the men were traders who traveled for extended periods on business. But I digress…
My two days in Karaukuddi were in short filled with beautiful homes, great food, a lovely hotel, a quick cooking lesson in a Chettinaad chutney, interesting conversations, and most of all lots of nourishment for the imagination.