On the Rameshwaram road, barely a kilometer from the Devakottai bus terminus, towards Rameshwaram, one can hardly miss this huge majestic mansion that’s standing on the roadside. Officially named RM.M.ST.House, this mansion, as so many other mansions you come across in Devakottai is the testimony of the rich cultural heritage of Chettinad and Nattukottai or Nagarathar Chettiars.
Chettinad and Devakottai
Devakottai, is one of the biggest towns of the Chettiar community. Chettiars originally from Kaveripoompattinam, migrated to Karaikudi and nearby areas of present Sivaganga district. Later this region came to known as Chettinad region and Karaikudi became the capital of Chettinad, the homeland of the Nattukottai Chettiars. The Chettiars were a prosperous banking and business community, having very rich cultural heritage, known for their philanthropy; building temples and schools, and maintaining them throughout India and Asia.
About joint families and mansions
Nattukottai Chettiars had businesses all over the World especially places like Rangoon, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and many other South East nations. Mainly agents used to run the businesses in these countries and Chettiars used to visit once in a while. For the business reasons when the male members of the families used to roam around in different part of the World, people in Chettinad communities used to live as joint families and Chettinad houses are signs of successful joint families. Being a joint family also gave security to all the members and the wealth. Because of this none of the buildings are owned by a single family or a member.
Now as the time and lifestyle changed what used to be an advantage in olden times has become a disadvantage now. 90 percent of the buildings have been either neglected or destroyed as a result of no consensus among the family members, who are now in different part of the World.
Maintaining these mansions, having wide courtyards and spacious rooms have become nearly impossible. Disputes among various family members and not much income to support the renovation work have also fueled the destruction of these wonderful mansions
The mansion was built by Mr.Vairavan Chettairs, along with two of his cousins. He was a banker, like most of the Nattukottai Chettiars. It took around 3 years to build the mansion and he spent around 2 lakhs. The Chettinad houses are built on a rectangular traversal plot that stretches across two streets, with the front door opening into the first street and the back into the second. A typical Chettinad house will have Mugappu(the entrance of the house), The door leads into Valavu, the living area of the house. The first thing you notice is the Naduvasal, huge open air courtyard. The centre courtyard supply ample light and air and leaving the rest of the house in deep and cool shadow.
You see pillared Nadai (corridors) running on each side that lead into Valavu veedu( individual rooms), both ottai and Irattai Vidu. (Single and double rooms) connected by a single door, each meant for a married son. Then the four platforms that are called as Pattalai that are on each at four corners of the Valavu. These Pattalai are the living halls of each family. The RM.M.ST. House has 12 Irattai vidu.
When you walk through the Valavu using the corridor you will reach Irandankatu. Irandankatu is used for dining purpose and have store rooms in them for storing all kitchenware. The huge Irandankettu, now just a huge hall once had 8 rooms for storage purposes and 4 separate kitchens along with dining areas. It was almost a 30 member joint family.
Normally Chettinad mansions don’t have a bath attached bedrooms on the first floor, but this mansion has several bed rooms on the first floor with attached bathrooms, an ultra modern facility in those days, thanks to ideas from some English friends of Mr. Vairavan Chettiyar. In total there are almost 55 rooms in this mansion, in two floors.
Materials from whole over the World
The materials used for construction of the mansion have all been procured from different parts of the World. The entire walls were made of Lime, sand and polished with Egg yolk to give smooth texture and it is said that the eggs were imported from Rangoon (Burma). Also the wood used for construction i.e. Teak was all imported from Burma. They had a ship called Padma, wich used to ferry rice from south East Asian countries. The entire wood used for constructing the house and locks were tied to the ship and brought to Devakottai. The Tiles used were from Italy. The mirrors and glass chandeliers were brought from Belgium.
Renovation and beyond
Till 5 years back no one realized the damages happening to the mansion. None of the members bothered to have a look at what was happening on the second floor, once found that the decay has already been on full swing all the cousins decided to renovate the mansion. They pooled the money, spent around 60 lakhs for the much needed renovation work. The idea was to use the mansion for generating revenue.
Two ideas came for discussion. To convert the mansion to a Heritage house, which showcased the lifestyle and culture of Chettinad and the second option was to convert it into a Kalyanamandapam (wedding hall). At last it was decided to rent out the mansion for wedding.
In order to make it ready for renting it out, some more work to be completed. As the present members of the house are staying in different part of Tamil Nadu, renovation and maintenance is at slow pace. We spent almost half a day inside the mansion and at the end Bhaskaran becomes philosophical, any property or assets has its own journey, destiny and a lifecycle. But he is hopeful that one day everyone will realizes the greatness of their rich heritage. An age where an immense portion of the chettiar Mansions are being dismantled and sold in pieces, their families belongings are available in the local antique shops and being shipped across the world, the efforts taken by members of RM.M.ST. House is a welcome sign.