Four essential experiences to savour in Chettinad

The dusty streets of Chettinad speak of a fast-fading glory

The dusty streets of Chettinad speak of a fast-fading glory

Unforgivingly hot and arid, Karaikudi is a museum of a town in the plains of interior Tamil Nadu . This is the land of the Nagarathar, the mercantile bankers and traders also known as the Nattukottai Chettiars. The Chettinad region encompasses several villages in Karaikudi and the nearby town of Devakottai. Ornate and opulent mansions, most of which are uninhabited, line their streets. They are relics of another era, an age of prosperity and large joint families, when the Nagarathar reaped enormous profits from salt trading and banking. They were also philanthropists, industrialists and educationists, setting up many institutions of note in Tamil Nadu. The nationalisation of banks in the 1960s hurt their business and Chettiars were forced to emigrate in search of greener pastures. While visiting, avoid the peak summer months and the monsoon, so you are assured of a comfortable holiday. Here are four essential experiences to make your visit fulfilling.

A mansion tour is a must when in Chettinad

A mansion tour is a must when in Chettinad

#1 The quintessential Chettinad Mansion tour

Chettinad mansions are icons of the customs and traditions of the Nagarathar , with collections of art, glassware and keepsakes that this globetrotting community collected on its travels around the world. With architectural and decorative features including solid wooden pillars, ornately carved doors, Chinese ceramics, Belgian chandeliers and Italian stained-glass windows, the mansions are easily mistaken for palaces. They are in fact colossal family homes.
Time was when families comprising several generations lived here and voices rang in the pillared hallways. Today, these colossal family homes, some with 30-odd rooms teeming with curios and bric-à-brac, old framed photographs and heirlooms, play host to lonely caretakers aching for conversation. They are quiet and forlorn, but for the cooing of pigeons and the chitter of sparrows. Come festive occasions, weddings and other large family get-togethers, and they thrum with activity as families commune.
A stay at The Bangala is imperative if you're a connoisseur of fine food

A stay at The Bangala is imperative if you’re a connoisseur of fine food

#2 Experience Chettinad hospitality

In their heyday, during the 1900s to the 1950s, the Nagarathar lived like nobility and were renowned for their philanthropy and hospitality. Arguably the best steward of impeccable Chettiar hospitality is The Bangala in Senjai on Devakottai Road. Originally built as a club and dining room for guests of the family, it was later repurposed into a heritage hotel. From heritage to cuisine and culture tours, The Bangala offers them all. A stay here is highly recommended.
Much demeaned outside of its traditional home, authentic Chettinad Chicken is to be enjoyed straight from a Chettiar kitchen

Much demeaned outside of its traditional home, authentic Chettinad Chicken is to be enjoyed straight from a Chettiar kitchen

#3 Enjoy the legendary cuisine

Cuisine is the soul of Chettinad. With rich notes of pepper (grown in family-owned estates in Karnataka), it is spicy without being fiery. From breakfast to dinner, Chettinad meals are served on plantain leaves with a never-ending train of courses. One of the signature dishes of the region is Chicken Chettinad, which has been maligned beyond reputation in menus all over India . Rediscover it here in all its authenticity, and learn to cook it too. – See more at:
Making world-famous tiles at a village foundry in Athangudi

Making world-famous tiles at a village foundry in Athangudi

#4 Get floored by Athangudi tiles

Among the most striking features of a Chettinad mansion are the floors made of colourful handcrafted tiles in exquisite designs and patterns. These Athangudi tiles, the pride of the region, are named after a small village. They are among Chettinad’s many cultural exports . A visit to Athangudi unveils the magic of their creation, blending European designs and Chinese techniques gleaned by the Nagarathar on their travels. The secret sauce? A square of glass, locally available red sand and the touch of the artisan. Each Athangudi tile is handmade, making it a work of art. Despite its high price tag, it is prized by builders and architects who value its aesthetics and cultural essence.
The all-cotton Chettinad saree is the pride of the handloom enthusiast

The all-cotton Chettinad saree is the pride of the handloom enthusiast

A version of this article appeared first on The Label by Louis Philippe 

Hand to Mouth – Foraging in Australia (Outlook Traveller, September 2015)

Urban foraging is the gourmand's new obsession in Australia

Urban foraging is the gourmand’s new obsession in Australia

Australia’s cornucopia of food and drink is brimming over and, like the temptations that Alice encountered down the rabbit-hole, all of it begs to be eaten and drunk at once. While a brave new creed of quirky restaurants is dropping pins on the map faster than our taste buds can keep pace with, the foodie’s true quest remains to seek out exceptional eating outside of the restaurant menu. Forage is the active verb in the gourmand’s lexicon. To celebrate the source, to hand-pick the ingredients, to experience the making and enjoyment of food with all-consuming synaesthesia—that is the sublime gastronomic adventure.

Read more in this month’s Outlook Traveller magazine (still on the stands)

From noshing oysters and wild game to indigenous vegetables and bush tukka, my whirlwind tour of South Australia and Queensland in April was a veritable moveable feast. My story begins with the tour of Adelaide’s Central Markets that I wrote about early this year, and encompasses sipping gin on Kangaroo Island, but it doesn’t stop there. I have yet to shed the pounds accumulated.

The best of the bestiary

Those who have followed Arathi Menon’s wonderful weekly series Nothing Beastly About It would be familiar with my drawings. She’s been writing this blog for more than 18 months and I’ve been illustrating it for about that long, too. Interestingly, we’ve never run out of animals.

Here’s a bunch of them from this fabulous bestiary. You must read the stories first, though. They’re all here at her blog.

Thanks for following, and keep coming back, for this bestiary is getting bigger.

Dr APJ Abdul Kalam’s hits and misses

Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, India's Missile Man, went on to become a most accessible and inspirational figure as President of India from 2002 to 2007

Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, India’s Missile Man, went on to become a most accessible and inspirational figure as President of India from 2002 to 2007

Dr Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam, who died on July 27, 2015, was perhaps the most accessible person at Rashtrapati Bhavan during his tenure from 2002 to 2007. Both during his presidency and after, Kalam grew in stature as a motivational speaker and inspirational teacher. It is fitting, therefore, that he died doing what he most loved.

Having earned his stripes as a key scientist behind India’s nuclear defense, satellite and ballistic missile programmes, Dr Kalam came a long way from modest beginnings as the son of a boat-owner in Rameswaram, Tamil Nadu, one of India’s most-flocked places of pilgrimage for Hindus. He championed the ‘Make In India’ ideal through his stewardship of these key programmes decades before Modi Inc began to market it. As he once described himself to a western newspaper, he was “totally indigenous.”

As Dr APJ Abdul Kalam worked tirelessly as a statesman, his stature exceeded that of president or patriot.  A vegetarian, teetotaller and bachelor, he was not seen as a Muslim but an Indian. His charismatic personality, ready smile and distinctive wavy hairdo attracted people wherever he spoke. He was known to be great with children and students. He reaffirmed his zeal for ‘igniting minds’ with his affable nature and inspiring speeches. To his credit, he did not send anyone to the gallows.

His humility was no pretense. When he was frisked and searched twice by US immigration authorities in September 2011, he did not kick up a fuss and complied patiently. If you remember, a bigger brouhaha was made over actor Shah Rukh Khan’s similar treatment.

Truly, Dr Kalam’s hits as a public figure far outnumber his misses. Yet, it is important, on the passing of a personage of eminence, to reflect upon his shortcomings. The Indian press, we know, is habituated to deifying leaders upon their death, in the process overlooking their errors of commission and omission. Citizens have it far worse when they swim against the tide of popular opinion. Saying a critical word in a Facebook post or tweet only gets you trolled, even if what you say is in good faith.

I have not attended any of Dr Kalam’s lectures or public speeches but I have listened to them keenly on various media. A lot of what he said and did no doubt left people charmed. Yet, I believe he was silent or noncommittal on a number of issues that might have been ‘ignited’ had he been outspoken about them.

Two years after the post-Godhra Gujarat communal riots of 2002, Kalam visited Gujarat but did not make a clear statement on the state government’s accountability. Kalam only revealed later in one of his books that then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had asked him to reconsider making a visit during such a time. In 2011, his endorsement of the Kudankulam nuclear power plant appeared disconcertingly unilateral, grounded in his own convictions and support of nuclear energy as a scientist rather than as an empathetic leader of the people. Dr Kalam’s support of the river-linking project to solve India’s water woes may sound technocratic and visionary, but it is my considered opinion that it is myopic as it conveniently brushes aside the possibility of several disastrous consequences.

All of that said, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam deserved his sobriquet of People’s President. He spoke where he did with passion and heart. He will be mourned genuinely by those whose lives he touched. Real tears will be shed for him. And, in a parliamentary democracy where the office of the president is considered little more than a rubber stamp, that is a heartfelt tribute indeed.