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Dec 31, 2010 – Jan 2, 2011: India’s amazing diversity fascinates its visitors, although its inhabitants may be less pleased – remember the unhappy northerners I met on the way to Madurai? The people are as varied as the landscape, the food and the languages. In Coorg I had stayed in a B&B run by a proud Kodavu, between Madurai and Trichy I would stay with Chettiars. The Kodavu were warriors, the Chettiars were traders and bankers, whose wealth funded elaborate mansions before their trading routes closed down and their banks were nationalized after World War II.

Entrance of a Chettiar house

The Chettinadu Mansion was full, so I stayed at the Bangala. Still a splurge, and not only because I took a car and driver in and out, and car, driver and guide for an informative tour. But it was New Year’s Eve. My large room, with an excellent bathroom but poor seating, opened onto a fan-cooled terrace facing the open dining room across a grassy courtyard. Part of a French TV crew, filming an historical series, was in residence, and kept to themselves, but I ate my New Year’s Eve dinner with the owner, a charming older woman.

Carving in a Chettiar house

My first afternoon I wandered around Karaikudi on my own, finding several nice buildings in poor shape, some not very antique-looking antiques, and a lively market. But my tour of the Chettinad region the next day was the highlight. My guide told me that the Chettiars had been sent to the region in the early 1900s by the maharajah of Madurai as traders and had done well with trade to Burma. Now some families can’t maintain their houses.

Chettinad palace

Like the Kodavu, the Chettiars built ancestral houses used for special occasions. Well designed for the climate, they featured an elaborate marriage room, and side rooms to hold dowries. I loved the intricately carved teak decorations (from Burma) although the wood was covered by layers of dark polish. We also visited a temple Рthe Chettiars worship Shiva Рwhere  statues of horses are given to celebrate the birth of a boy. The ranks are moved back each year. I had noticed several temples in Karaikudi, each with its own tank (big, rectangular pool of water), and was interested to learn that each tank was designated for a different purpose Рone for drinking, one for bathing, etc.

Horse statues at the Shiva temple

Bathing tank

We finished the tour with a visit to place making tiles, where I was surprised to see how little actual color was used – just a very thin layer. I asked about the fast-drying shower floors I kept seeing, and was told they were granite. I need a new bathroom floor, but it sounds heavy.

Making tiles

After the tour I indulged in a massage which turned out less relaxing than I hoped. The Bangala had just opened a new swimming pool and massage room, and it really wasn’t ready. The room opened right on to the pool, there was nowhere to put anything, no AC (and the fan stopped several times), no hot water and the shower didn’t work… Hopefully things have improved. The pool did look very nice.

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