Curiosity: Chettinad's connection with The Straits

Posted on April 13, 2016 by Vyshnavi Doss | 1 Comment


No, that isn't a picture of a Chettinad mansion, but it might be a close relative.

I spent a quiet Saturday afternoon looking at Karaikudi architecture on the internet. Snatches of Chettinad heritage found their way into the cache of my consciousness only incidentally: through the Indian mainstream of cinema, grand wedding halls, homes of affluent family-friends and restaurants. I haven't actually visited the heritage towns of Karaikudi. In fact my most intimate interaction with the Chettiar legacy has been in Singapore where I currently live: through the streets named after them, the temples they built, the restaurants they started and the Thaipusam festivals they champion.

{ Perspectives of an enthusiast, not an expert. I'd like to hear from you if you have something to add or clarify. Leave a comment! }

There are fascinating stories on the internet about the Chettiar community if you so wish to read (a few links at the end of this post). The Nattukkottai Chettiars were the venture capitalists of their time. They sailed to Southeast Asia and Africa and established themselves as trusted financiers in trading hubs. They were a wealthy, progressive lot with a fondness for risk taking. Perhaps these qualities inspired the way they built their homes in India? 

Chettiars in Singapore conducted their business on Chulia Street and Market Street, in shop houses which combined European and vernacular architecture. Source

While browsing pictures of the mansions they built in Tamil Nadu, I instantly recognized the tiles on the walls and floors. And you would too, if you’ve ever visited Singapore, Malacca, Penang or KL.

 Periya Veedu in Chettinad with Majolica art nouveau tiles and European style floor tiles Source

They're commonly referred to as Peranakan tiles in parts of Southeast Asia, but they’re actually Majolica art nouveau tiles from Europe (there were varieties imported from Japan too). The Peranakans – another fascinating and affluent community born of immigrant-local marriages and transformative cultural cross-pollination – espoused them in this part of the world.

 Shop house on Petain Road with Majolica art nouveau tiles, Singapore

Their shop houses are a playful composite of European and vernacular styles. Full length windows co-exist with local wood carving; the stucco features local themes; and European floor and wall tiles and pilasters populate the basic vernacular construction. There are several variants of shop house ornamentation, making it nearly impossible to present a single one that typifies the style.

 Straits Eclectic Style with ornate stucco, Lorong Bachok, Singapore Source

Chettinad mansions are embellished along similar lines it seems: with eye-popping colours, stained glass and heavy stucco ornamentation, possibly emulating the Straits Eclectic style of Southeast Asia. 

 Inner hall of Periya Veedu with paintings, ceramic tiles and stucco Source

Art nouveau railings stand alongside local style balustrades. Some bungalows use both European and Athangudi floor tiles. Ostensibly the Chettiars subscribed to this eclectic, well-travelled look inspired by their sojourns in Southeast Asia.

 Eye-popping colours and art nouveau inspired balustrades seen in the courtyard of the Chettinad Mansion Source

 According to some sources, the Chettiars employed local artisans who expertly reproduced European accents to be used in their mansions. Clearly, imported (Colonial?) ornamentation was a status symbol.

 Vivid colours and art nouveau balustrades of the Pinang Peranakan Museum Source

I haven’t yet managed to find information about the origin of Athangudi tiles. Could it be, then, that the tiles that Karaikudi is now famous for, are a cultural import from Europe via Southeast Asia?

Further reading/viewing:

Asia One: Singapore’s First Venture Capitalists

Chettiar’s Temple Society, Singapore: About Nattukkottai Chettiars

Charukesi Ramadurai: Film Trail in Chettinad

WSJ: The End of Punjabi Baroque

Thukral and Tagra: Punjabi Baroque


Posted in Architecture, Decor, Interior design, Singapore, Southeast Asia



1 Response

Priyanka Patel
Priyanka Patel

March 23, 2017

Hey! I just got back from a trip to Chettinad and was trying to investigate the history of Athangudi tiles. Was so happy to come across your article as I arrived at similar conclusions. Hydraulic cement tiles began to appear in France and Spain in the 1850s. When the French colonised Vietnam they brought the craft with them. By the turn of the 20th century cement tiles were widely in use. Craftsmen in Athangudi speak of the craft being practised for the last three generations. So the theory of the craft being introduced from Europe via South east Asia seems plausible. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any accessible documentation on the subject to verify this.

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