Chettiars, also called as Nattukottai Nagarathars, a trading community that hails from Chettinad in deep South Tamil Nadu, today comprises of 72 villages/towns and is in the districts of Sivagangai and Pudukkottai. Chettinad is known for its culture, tradition, food and especially, ‘Architecture’. The huge mansions here apart from the rich architecture, also espouses various life values and elements of Hinduism.
A lot has been said and heard about this community’s philanthropy, hospitality and many other aspects. Of all these incredible features that make this community unique, I would say, the highlight still is in ‘the consensus and in the maintenance of these mansions, which most are close to hundred years. These mansions are ancestral home for over a few generations, with the elders of the house being ingrained in the old school of thoughts and the younger ones being influenced by Social Media. In such a scenario, and where most Nagarathar families are searching their fortunes abroad and in the other cities of India, collective decisions among various age groups to maintain the ancestral houses back in their homeland attests to the community’s solidarity.
Due to financial constraints, though some mansions are being demolished, still there are many houses that is getting renovated. One such house that has regained its originality in Karaikudi is the subject of this article, called ‘V RM House’ or ‘Pudhiyan veedu’ in the colloquial terms. The arch at the entrance of the house says that this house was built during 1817, during the British Colonial period, which makes it more than 200 years old and probably one of the oldest houses of Chettinad region. This house is very long connecting the parallel roads and the arch at the back of the house is still a land mark of the area. This house can accommodate thousands of people at a time easily.
I particularly take pride in writing about this house, as I am a daughter of this house. Though I was born and brought up in a house, that was bought by my paternal grandfather, for his sons (my dad and uncle), which is still a few meters away from this house. My dad, his brother and sister were brought up in this V RM House and I have heard a lot about his childhood memories in this house from my dad. So, I still do resonate with this house. In more recent years, I happen to get a glimpse of this long, ancient house more often, as my brothers have constructed their own respective modern houses in the open backyard space in their shares of this mansion. A few other owners too have their modern houses built in their respective shares, that envisages close knit association among the extended families.
I spoke to the pioneers on the origin of this house and was moved by its heritage, knowing that the ‘Nagara Virundhu’(feast) of the very first consecration of the nearby Sivan Temple of Karaikudi had taken place in this house. Today over 37 couples have ownership to this house. In the ancient times, there were about eight wells in this house that served to the daily needs of the families. The area of this mansion spreads over an acre with two floors. There are 13 rooms in the courtyard, which is the main area called ‘vazhavu’. Each room has two partitions with an attic (machu) to store vessels and the entrance is just 5 to 6 feet height. Hence one should bend well to enter and exit these rooms. These rooms are meant to do poojas, rituals during auspicious functions and to keep as safe lockers and never as a bed room.
The reason for this small doorway entrance is to remind one to be modest all time, irrespective of the rich wealth accumulated and kept in these rooms more as a safe box (pettagam). Such characteristic values that is espoused in each element of the Nagarathar system is laudable, which makes them an exemplary community. The second floor of the house has eight rooms and there are provisions for more extensions.
There are two halls called ‘Rentam kattu’ with rooms, wells, kitchens which are other parts of the house.
The main entrance of the house (Muhappu) with an elaborate and ornate ‘Nilai is an astounding feature of this house. It depicts almost all features and many religious happenings of Hinduism in sculptures. This epitomizes the community’s artistic interest and to reinforce their belief in both sections of Hinduism – ‘Saivism and Vaishnavism’. The chariot sculpted here is a rare feature. There are Lord Ganesha, Lord Shiva with his consort Parvathy in the Rishaba Vahanam (cow) Lord Muruga with his consorts Deivanai and Valli in Mayil vahanam (peacock), Meenakshi Thirumananm, some rituals of the wedding, Lord Vishnu in the sleeping position, Lord Krishna in sleeping position with five head snake.
Different aspects of Krishna like Vennai Thali Krishnan (Krishna with butter), Kalinga Narthanam (dancing Krishna over Kalinganarthanam), Azhizahi Krishnan (Krishna as a baby in sleeping position), some features from the Hindu epic Ramayana like Rama sitting in the head of Lord Anjaneya, Dasavatharam (ten avatar of Lord MahaVishnu) are here. Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu are seen together which conforms to the colloquial saying ‘Hariyum Sivanum onnu, ariyadhavan vayile mannu’ which literally means, Both Siva and Vishnu have equal power and the one who does not understand this is an ignorant.
Apart from these Hindu Religion’s aspects, there are postures of warriors stressing the importance of valour and strength and also many floral designs pointing the importance of one to have soft nature. Also there are representatives of ‘Mupathu mokkodi Devargal’
After two years of renovation work, the housewarming took place in 2011, inviting all members of the family and the celebrations went on for two days.
The lineage of the V RM house springs from three families and now five generations are around. The daily maintenance like cleaning, paying the tax, paying electricity and water bills are done systematically with much understanding and co-operation.
This is what I consider as the highlight of the Nagarathar Community, the five generations, obviously of different age groups, agreeing to the best collective decisions and in maintaining their ancestral houses.