The Best of Chettinad
By Dileep Kumar P I
My visit to Kairkudi in the first week of February 2021 was totally an unexpected travel. Due to the prevailing Covid situation, I could get the train tickets from Ernakulam to Trichy just one day prior to my trip. CGH Earth Visalam was the only hotel known to me Karaikudi, so I made my room reservation through their Central Reservation Office. It was a very comfortable overnight journey from Ernakulam to Trichy. Karaikudi is about one and half hours by road from Trichy. Only after after reaching Karaikudi town, I realized that my hotel the CGH Earth Visalam is located in an interior village called Kanadukathan, about 14 KM from the main town. But the travel towards the village was very interesting as the village roads cut across paddy fields and wet lands.
CGH Earth Hotel Visalam is located in the main center of Kanadukathan village. There is a huge cast iron gate at the main entry to Visalam. When the gate opened, the Art Deco style mansion was fully visible in front of me. The Hotel General Manager Febin and his team welcomed me at the porch and my check-in formalities were done strictly adhering to Covid-19 protocols. While sipping the tender coconut water, Febin gave me a brief orientation of the hotel. This Mansion was built by a rich Businessman for his daughter and gifted it on her marriage. The lucky daughters name was Visalakshi. The name Visalam is inspired by her name. While escorting me to my room Chidambaram young and energetic Front Office Associate gave me a quick show round of the property. Chidambaram hails from the local area and was very eager to explain each and every aspect of the hotel. Visalam is a two storied Chettinad Mansion with a central courtyard. Flooring is done with different materials like handmade Athangudi tiles, a specialty of that area, mosaic, terracotta tiles, imported marble and granite. The pillars around the two elevated sitting area are made with imported granite. The iron grills on the windows are imported from Scotland. Along the corridors there are beautiful artifacts from the area are displayed very thoughtfully. Like the lobby there is another huge veranda at the backside of the building overlooking a lawn area. Morning and evening Tea are served in this veranda. On top of this veranda covering the upper portion of the backside porch is the Restaurant. On the other end of the lawn they also have a Coffee Shop which is overlooking the Pool and the lawn area. Breakfast is served at this Coffee Shop. The Swimming Pool was a real surprise to me, as I never expected a pool hidden behind the lawn area of the hotel. The Pool is a recent addition to this heritage building, but completely merges with the characteristic of the building. The Coffee Shop overlooking the Pool gives you the feel of a Pool Side Bar, but you can enjoy mocktails and juices over there. The privacy of the pool area is ensured with green fencing with thick and beautiful flowering plants and creepers growing at reasonable heights.
After this beautiful walk-a-round of the property Chidambaram guided me to the first floor through a staircase, where my room was located. There are three stairways to the first floor, two at the end of the central courtyard and one circular stairway to the restaurant from the rear side of the building. Visalam has a total of18 rooms at ground and first levels. My room was in the middle of the building. Chidambaram opened the huge wooden door with an equally big key like those from the olden days. First you would see the bathroom and dressing area at the main door level. To reach your bedroom you have to climb up few steps and open another big door. The bedroom is very large, might be around 650 to 700 Square Feet size. There is also a small balcony opening with a view of the village. The total area including the bathroom would be around 900 to 1000 Square Feet. All the doors, windows, furniture are made of Burma Teak. The ceiling is also cladded with beautifully carved Teak wood panels. The room is a perfect mix of old-world charm and modern conveniences. The heavenly bed is provided with 9-inch-thick mattress and choice of soft and hard pillows. The wardrobe, dressing table, study table, side tables, chairs etc. are made out of heavy teak wood in the antique style. Bathroom is very spacious and well ventilated. The fittings are modern but designed in the colonial style. The level differences between the bedroom and bathroom may be little inconvenient to elderly couple, but it is quite common in a heritage building. Chettinad is famous for its cuisine. The food at Visalam is a true representation of the Karaikudi region. I relished the lunch thali prepared with local vegetables and spices. The Sambar, Vattal Kulambu, Moru Kulambu, Poriyal, Urulai roast etc. had the typical Chettinadu touch. For Non-Vegetarians they have an array of dishes like Kozhi (Chicken) Kulambu, Chicken Pepper Fry, Aadu (Mutton) Curry, Nandu (Crab) Curry, Vanjiram (King Fish) Fry etc. Evening Tea served at the Veranda is another refreshing experience. The Tea or Filter Coffee that are made by Geetha a very young girl from the village is really amazing. Geetha is so hospitable and her spontaneous and genuine way of serving will make you drink at least a cup of Tea, even if you are not a big fan of Tea or Coffee. She also serves freshly prepared snacks like Kuzhi Paniyaram, Ulli Vadai etc. along with the tea. The dinner I decided to have it from the Restaurant at the First Floor. Malaisami the Food and Beverage Service person in charge of the Restaurant was very helpful in choosing the menu. He has curated a special menu for me starting with hot and spicy Rasam, Kuzhi Paniyaram, Idiyappam, Pachakari Chettinadu, Palkatti Chettinadu, Sweet Seeyam, Semiya Payasam etc. Though the dinner was very elaborate but it was not heavy as expected. The village walk is the one activity you should never miss at this place. The hotel also provides bicycles to explore the area. I preferred to walk especially when Febin joined me in the evening. Kanadukathan is spread around 4 to 5 square kilometers. There would be around 50 Chettinad Mansions in that area in different conditions. Only very few Mansions are maintained well, but majority of them are without proper care and some are on the verge of collapsing. These Mansions are more than 100 years old and the original owners have left the village many decades back and settled in metro cities in India and abroad. All these Palatial houses were built during pre-independence era by Nattukottai Chettiars. Nagarathars (Nattukottai Chettiyars) are a mercantile community who were engaged in commerce also involved in banking and money lending. These Huge Mansions were built, when they were engaged in flourishing business activities mainly in Burma and other British provinces. Karaikudi being their ancestral village, where the temple of their family deity is situated, they spent lot of money to build such houses in these remote villages as a symbol of their prosperity.
The Chettinad Villages are well like urban areas, there are good roads, drainage system , village ponds and open areas. There are around 12 temples in Kanadukathan alone. Houses are built about 5 to 6 feet above the road level, a traditional precaution of Chettiars to protect their houses from flood waters, even though Karaikudi is not flood affecting area. But Nattukottai Chettiars were relocated to Karaikudi many centuries back when their villages were washed away near the ancient port city of Poompuhar. Febin shared such interesting stories during our course of walk. The material used for construction are mainly granite stones, laterite stones and bricks. Wood especially Burma Teak is lavishly used for carving and paneling. Most of the buildings are double storied with large central courtyard. Due to the huge maintenance cost, disputes in ownerships etc. many joint owners of these houses are selling it for demolition, which is an unfortunate development for this region. The Wood carvings, Pillars, cast iron grills, gates, floor tiles, antique furniture, paintings, copper and brass utensils etc. from this region are in great demand at the antique markets in India. Karaikudi is a big sourcing destination for architects from India and abroad. We culminated the one and half hours of the village walk in front of Chettinad Palace, the ancestral house of a big industrial family of Chennai. The Palace is well maintained and kept beautifully, but visitors are not allowed inside. Checked out next day early morning. Had jasmine flower like idlies, sambar, gunpowder chutney and filter coffee. Left Visalam for my onward journey.
About the Author
Dileep Kumar P I is a veteran hospitality professional and a Member of Kerala State Tourism Advisory Board. Dileep is an alumnus of Institute of Tourism and Hotel Management, Salzburg, Austria and had worked with leading brands like ITDC, Le Meridien, Starwood, The Oberoi Group and IHG. His recent assignment was with The Leela Group as the General Manager of their iconic beach resort The Leela Raviz Kovalam. Dileep is an voracious reader and his areas of interest are Social History of South India and Advaita Vedanta. He lives in Kochi.