The year was 1997. Amrish Puri, the village jamindar, is sitting in an opulent verandah surrounded by eager villagers. While the scene from an iconic Bollywood film remains hazy, the aesthetics of the room in which Puri sat — ornate Burma teak doors, gilded windows, tiered chandeliers and plush interiors — has, ever since, stayed etched in
one’s mind.

Cut to 2019. “…and this mansion has also featured in the movies Thevar Magan and Virasat, although we don’t let out this mansion for film shoots anymore…” trails-off the voice of Senthil Kumar, resort manager, as we stand at the grand foyer of Chidambara Vilas, a 115-year-old Chettiar mansion that’s now been converted into a heritage hotel. It is at that moment when memories come rushing back. Life had come full circle. I am standing in the very room that featured in the blockbuster Virasat and in the very room that the memorable scene had been filmed in. 23 years later, the mansion still evokes the same emotion one felt back then… of awe
and admiration.

The beginning of Chidambara Vilas dates back to 1884, the construction of which was commissioned on a one-acre plot gifted by the Maharaja of Pudukkottai. Also known as the TSK House after the original owner TS Krishnappa Chettiar, it took seven years (1900-1907) and a handsome sum of seven lakh rupees to build this palatial mansion. A powerful and wealthy community that was known to even finance the kings of that era, the Chettiars took pride in building homes that were a clear reflection of their privileged position in society, reason why they were all constructed with wood that was imported from Burma, fitted with mirrors and lights from Belgium and laid with tiles from Italy and Japan.

Chidambara Vilas is no different. Stretching across two streets, the mansion which originally had 105 rooms, was also one of the first in the region to be electrified (in 1924) with TSK enlisting a dynamo from Germany to supply power to the mansion. The decades that followed saw the mansion flourish and thrive with wealth and power but with the end of the British Raj, many members of the family moved abroad and the rest migrated to other cities within the country and pursued various trades. Like thousands of other mansions in Karaikudi, Chidambara Vilas, too lay in stark neglect after the last occupants moved out in 1965. That was when the Sangam group took over and restored it to its
former glory.

The Sangam group spent three years cleaning, renovating and restoring the mansion to its original vision and ensured that it kept alive its rich history, especially for eager patrons who are looking to experience a slice of life from a bygone era. As we enter the Mugappu or the large reception area that forms a part of the long verandah, we are greeted by the genial staff with cool panagam (a sweet local drink) and traditional shawls for the men and glass bangles for the ladies. The 110-year-old mansion has an immediate jaw-dropping effect with its exquisite craftsmanship and architecture. If the grand exterior with its South Indian and art-deco style leaves you swooning, wait until you witness Chidambara Vilas’ enchanting interiors. The long corridors, airy halls, mega kitchens, serpentine dining halls, the elaborate staircases, endless bedrooms, high-ceilings with multi layered inlay work in varied hues, the 100-foot teak beam that supports the roof, the multi-level terraces and its umpteen watch towers with sweeping views of Kadiapatti… Chidambara Vilas is a treasure trove of the past just waiting to be discovered.

The 25 heritage rooms and suites at Chidambara Vilas have been thoughtfully restored to retain the authenticity of Chettiar lifestyle. What strikes you upon entry is the huge hand-operated visiri (fan) that perches above your plush bed. The attention to detail is visible at every nook and corner of the property and in the rooms, it reflects in the platter of savouries that feature local delights. The kaimurukku needs a special mention! The brass switches, the eco-friendly bath rooms with thoughtful messages to conserve water, the flooring made of the famous Athangudi tiles, wood-panelled roof, latticed windows, the giant rosewood cots, intricately-carved chest of drawers, sepia-toned photographs of the erstwhile families that lived here, lithographs of popular artists… the rooms at Chidambara Vilas are a judicious blend of modern luxury and old-world charm. Guests can choose from a pick of heritage double rooms with their four-poster beds or the heritage twin rooms that offer balconies that overlook the rustic landscape around the mansion. All rooms though jointly look out into a long, running corridor that offer cosy seating along with the lush foliage that surrounds the area. One can sit here the whole night listening to the sound of crickets and watching the moon light up this sleepy village. Below, the shimmering blue waters of the swimming pool beckon families to enjoy a languorous swim or simply read a book on the deck chair.

Chettinad cuisine has been bandied about on the menus of many restaurants outside of the region. But it’s only on heading to Chidambara Vilas that we discovered ‘authentic’ Chettinad food. Given the Chettiars’ wide exposure to the varied countries and cuisines around the world, it was but obvious that some of these flavours would wind their way back into their cooking back home. Chidambara Vilas takes much pride in designing their menu that represents both vegetarian and non-vegetarian Chettinad food. Rooted in fresh ingredients, hand-pound spices and locally-grown produce, patrons can choose from three unique dining experiences — interactive kitchen, experiential dining and fine dining. So whether you choose to cook your own meal with expert guidance from the local aachis (cooks or chefs) at an interactive session under the stars, or sit down for an elaborate meal on a plantain leaf with an array of local dishes making their way to you which are best savoured by hand (a chilled beer can also be ordered to accompany your meal) or perhaps immerse in a fine-dining experiences replete with vintage cutlery, gentle music and a hand-crafted menu by the chef, each of these is an exclusive experience. The spread is exotic and we enjoyed feasting on paniyarams, chicken chikka, vendakkai mandi, quail fry and the mutton gravy. Add to this a mélange of dosais, biriyanis, payasams, veg and non-veg gravies. Of course, there’s a bar, too. It sits pretty just by the sports room and makes for a cosy retreat especially in the evenings. As we dine at the Kalyana Kottagai, which in the days of yore was the marriage hall, one can only imagine how the kitchens must have bustled with activity and the ornate dining halls that were filled with revelry at most hours
during the day!

A trip to the neighbouring villages and some historic homes has been thoughtfully arranged for us by Senthil. Chidambara Vilas truly indulges its guests and a personal guide has been enlisted to take us around town. Our first stop is at a sari weaving centre in Kanadukathan. Chettinad saris are extremely popular and are hand-woven at age-old looms owned by families who’ve been engaged in the trade for decades. Priced upwards of `600 for cottons and `3,500 onwards for silks, they make for excellent gifts too. It’s the legendary Chettinad palace up the road we head to next. Owned by MAM Ramaswamy and family, the site which was until a few years ago open to public, is no more so. Yet, with its stunning architecture and minarets — it’s a sight to behold. The Athangudi tiles that have adorned palaces and mansions of the Chettiars are now being used to grace the interiors of mega hotels, we learn on visiting one such tile factory. Hand-made with organic colours, the tiles draw you with their medley of colours and smooth as silk texture. The pillars, furniture and home décor items from dilapidated Chettiar homes have made their way into the antique markets of Karaikudi, which is where we stop by after.

Chandeliers, porcelain curios, imported cutlery, brass cooking pots, cradles, paintings, sofas… name it and it’s all up for sale. Truly a collector’s haven! The day ended with a walk around Ramachandrapura village at the centre of which stands Chidambara Vilas. On the walk, we notice umpteen other houses in a state of disrepair or in total shambles but still enticing you with their enormity and beauty even in their broken state. Gandhiji had also visited this town during his Dandi march and stayed at a neighbouring school,
our guide informs us.

It’s time leave. For one last time, we go up the watch tower to take in the view. Amidst the greenery, you see the balconies and towers of abandoned mansions. Fading blues and yellows — looks like it’s a favourite shade among the community — glisten in the morning sun. The homes that once came alive with scores of occupants and every day was like a festival of sorts is now in ruins. I’m told there are over 15,000 such homes that are abandoned in Chettinad. Yet, when one goes to places like Chidambara Vilas, you realise that all is not lost. The Chettiar hospitality and way of life is still being carried forth and hopefully, so it shall remain…

Chidambara Vilas is at TSK House, Ramachandrapuram, Kadiapatti Village, Thirumayam Fort, Pudukkottai – 622505, Tamil Nadu, India

For reservations call +91 4333 267070 or +91 95855 56431 or email