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Chettinad, Village Clusters of the Tamil Merchants

Date of Submission: 15/04/2014
Criteria: (ii)(v)(vi)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Permanent Delegation of India to UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
Sivagangai & Pudukottai Districts, Tamil Nadu State
Ref.: 5920

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Property names are listed in the language in which they have been submitted by the State Party


The property comprises series of 3 clusters of total 11 villages.

Cluster I (4 settlements): Kanadukathan: N10° 10’ 29,17’’; E78° 46’41,64’’; Pallathur :  N10° 8’ 42,61’’; E78° 47’ 58,21’’; Kothamangalam: N10° 11’ 32,58’’; E78° 48’ 24,49’’ ; Kottaiyur: N10° 6’ 42,78’’; E78° 47’ 44,91’’.

Cluster II (4 settlements): Athangudi : N10° 9’ 21,63’’; E78° 43’ 41,73’’; Chokalingampudur: N10° 9’ 0,93’’; E78° 44’ 48,91’’; Karaikkudi : N10° 4’ 2,32’’; E78° 45’ 55,59’’; Kandanur: N10°6’20”E78°49’35”.

Cluster III (3 settlements): Rayavaram : N10° 14’ 56,62’’; E78° 48’ 45,16’; Arimalam : N10° 15’ 28,62’’; E78° 53’ 22,4’’; Kadiapatti- Ramachandrapuram: N10° 14’ 0,95’’; E78° 47’ 20,33’’

Chettinad comprises of a network of 73 villages and 2 towns forming clusters spread over a territory of 1,550 km2 in the Districts of Sivagangai and Pudukottai in the State of Tamil Nadu.

The Natukottai Chettiars belong to a lineage of wealthy traders and financiers who made their fortunes by extending their business to the whole of Southeast Asia, particularly during the second half of 19th and early 20th century when they were at the peak of their economic power. Vital component in the south Indian economy, the Natukottai Chettiars represented the major banking Hindu community of South India. Their vast influence and richness allowed the community to build a dense network of 96 villages among which 73 remain, according to the Maniyadi Sastram[1] texts, the traditional planning and lifecycle precincts.

All the Chettiar settlements possess outstanding physical characteristics of urban and land-use planning with their South-North/East-West grid pattern, including water system, and the development of palatial architecture which depict a unique cultural interchange of cultures with influences from all over the world and the combination of the vibrant Tamil traditions. These settlements and the architecture, built from 1850’s to 1940’s, are directly associated with the rich living heritage specific to the Chettiar community.

The proposed nomination is comprised of 3 series of villages forming clusters which contribute to the OUV as a whole with urban character forming a unique architectural ensemble. This set reflects a significant portion of the Chettinad territory. The first cluster comprises of 4 villages, Kanadukathan, Pallathur, Kottaiyur and Kothamangalam in the District of Sivagangai. These settlements are neighboring the Raja’s Palace which is the starting point for a knowledge-based cultural itinerary in the region. Kottaiyur has been selected as its traditional settlement is exposed to urban development from its neighbor Karaikudi, the economic centre of the region.

The second series of cluster, South of the first series, covers the four Chettiar areas of Karaikudi, and the rural villages of Kandanur, Athangudi and Chokalingampudur, in the District of Sivagangai.

The third series of cluster is situated North of the first series in the District of Pudukottai with the very significant villages of Rayavaram, Kadiapatti and Arimalam.

[1] Thiagarajan, Deborah. The vernacular architecture of Tamil Nadu. Madras Craft Foundation, 1991

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

Chettinad possesses some outstanding physical characteristics of urban and rural planning which create a unique architectural ensemble with thousands of palatial houses. This ensemble reflects the way the Hindu Tamil community of Chettiars lived. As the result of their travels, they have integrated multiple influences into the Tamil traditions. This blend represents the uniqueness of Chettinad.

They had a vision of land-use planning which has connected the different urban to landscape elements, particularly for rainwater harvesting and storage system. The architectural features of the houses comprised of series of courtyards organized along a longitudinal axis as well as the use of material is taking into consideration the semi-arid and hot climate.

Chettinad architecture is also closely linked to the lifecycle rituals of the Chettiar community. The mansions were conceived to perform the different functions, rituals and family celebrations during the course of life from birth to death. In addition to the lifecycle rituals, the temple and village festivals are part of the Chettiar culture forming a large set of rituals all over the Tamil year.

Criterion (ii): Since the time the community settled in the area, the Chettiars have upheld a vision of planning and development of their territory comprised of outstanding components. Here traditional and overseas influences blend together creating a unique style expressed at the urban, architectural and decorative levels. While the town planning characteristics remain unchanged with the ensemble created by long series of houses, the plan and volumetric configuration and the typologies of the buildings evolved over decades, from 1850’ to 1940’. Pavilions, halls and courtyards were added for business purposes and as areas for receptions and weddings, thus adding palatial features to the traditional houses. Every aspect of the architecture was conceived and made to display the wealth of the owner: from the huge development in plan, to the monumental facade, the height of which was enhanced by adding multiple levels of balustrades and the use of many architectural elements such as doubled colonnades and loggias.

In order to construct and decorate these mansions, materials and expertise were brought from all over the world, which added to the cultural glory of Chettinad. For examples, teak wood was imported from Burma, satin wood from Ceylon, marble from Italy and Belgium, cast iron and steel from UK and India, ceiling in metal plates from Great Britain, tiles from Bombay, Japan, Germany, France and England, chandeliers from Belgium, France and Italy. As they required the best, they also brought skills from different regions of India such as woodcarving, frescoes and egg-plastering.

The layout as well as the large scale and the number of these palatial houses (estimated from 10,000 to 15,000), are very unique in India

The Chettinad region comprises a great number of striking “Art Deco” style houses wlhich were argely built during the 1930’s and 1940’s. Many villages have examples of this international architectural style.

Criterion (v): Due to the fact that they settled in a hot and semi arid region, the Chettiars took the climate into consideration to plan the villages, design the palatial houses and in choosing the materials to use. They had a vision of land-use planning which has shaped a unique landscape.

The villages are organized following north-south axes, along which are created the longitudinal east-west orientated plots. Following this configuration the houses are built around an east/west central courtyard which provides shade, light, coolness and air.

The materials used for construction also respond to the climatic requirements: thick walls of bricks, lime plasters, multiple layer of terracotta tiles roofing, marbles and stones floors are essential components.

The slopes of the roofs are important and allow the collecting of rain water during the monsoon season. The collected water serves for household use and to fill up the wells; the overabundant water flows into the drainage system of the village which feeds the common ponds and tanks.

The Chettiars have undertaken important earth-work in order to manage the rain water harvesting. They have developed and enhanced on a large scale over the territory, the traditional Tamil techniques of water management. They have shaped together with the local agrarian communities a specific landscape which is today a green and attractive area which hosts migrating bird species a part of the year after the monsoon, in the vicinity of the Gulf of Mannar. This landscape is made of an alternation of lakes lined by bunds planted with different species of trees, of agricultural lands, and of forests and ancient sacred groves.

This water system is comprised of two types of inter-connected networks. One is inside the villages comprising drainages and ponds (or ooranis). The other one is made of erys (or Kanmois), traditional surface water storage reservoirs, spread over the countryside around the villages.

Criterion (vi): Chettinad architectural uniqueness such as described in criteria (ii) and (v) is closely linked to the lifecycle rituals and living traditions of the Chettiar community. The mansions were conceived to perform the different functions, rituals and family celebrations during the course of life from birth to death. They have been planned by the master masons who built the temples, the stapathis, and followed the traditional Tamil space organization. Chettiar tangible and intangible heritage are inseparable.

The main courtyard is considered as the centre part of the house where the rituals are taking place. It operates as a temple sanctuary where the Chief priests of one of the 9 clan temples (each Chettiar belongs to one of the 9 clan temples), celebrate the events. Each space in the house was planned both for receiving daily functions and occasionally hosting rituals.

It is to be noted the importance of the cooking area in the Chettiar house where many cooks were hired at the occasion of the celebrations. This way the Chettiars have elaborated a sophisticated cuisine taking recipes from South India and from the countries where they have developed their business shaping a blend and creating an original stylish cuisine.

In addition to the lifecycle traditions, the temple and village festivals are part of the Chettiar culture forming a large set of rituals all over the Tamil year.

There is an important local craft industry which produces fine architectural and decorative elements such as tiles and wood carvings, ritual items such as bronze figures as well as gifts for weddings such as sarees, basket weavings and jewels.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

Authenticity of Form and Design:

Despite the loss of a certain number of Chettiar houses, there are significant remains of traditional urban fabric as well as mansions to consider and to claim both authenticity and integrity. Chettinad Trail in Tamil Nadu[1], outlines the general mapping and inventory of the region.

The different studies realized by universities from India and Europe, attest the original character of the urban planning as well as the architectural features. The studies produced in the framework of the Revive Chettinad Heritage Project[2] have highlighted the evolution of the Chettiar settlement from 1850’s to 1945. The study of Ms. Silvia Talevi[3], shows the common urban characters of the villages of Kanadukathan, Pallathur and Kothamangalam, such as the urban grid pattern, the orientation according to cardinal points, the main streets with North-South direction and the secondary streets with East-West direction.

The orthogonal plan of the villages is a blend of Western and Tamil organization. The layout of the house is a common feature in all the villages (Evolution[4]). 50 House Inventory forms have been realized in 3 villages which attest the original character.

The spaces and their use have survived over the evolution, from the 1860’s houses to the late Art Deco, (Transition from Tradition: A case of Art-Deco Chettiar Bungalows in Tamil Nadu 1930 - 1940[5]).

In another study, Caroline Horgnies[6], attests clearly the origins and dates of the material as well as the blend of culture with the architectural features of Western influences and of traditional Dravidian references given by the Stapathis.

Authenticity ofMaterials and Substance: An important collection of materials have been inventoried and is reflecting their diversity, their various origins from India and abroad and their dates of making (1860’ to 1940’).

Authenticity of use and Function:One of the major inventory work on Chettiar traditions has been realized by a group of Chettiars who published The Chettiar Heritage[7]. They have inventoried all the different rituals of the lifecycle, which are today followed by the community in the ancestors’ homes, preserving both built and living heritage.

Ms. Rani Vedamuthu[8] has described the traditional functions in the Chettiar house showing the undivided joint family way of living.

Authenticity of Traditions, Techniques and Management Systems:The Chettiar homes have been constructed following the traditional rules of space organization by the master masons who built the Dravidian temples of the region, the stapathis, Traditional and Vernacular Architecture[9].

The Ery Systems of South India, Traditional Water Harwesting[10] is stating how the system of network of lakes is organized in Tamil Nadu and how agrarian communities manage the water system. Recent inventory works show the importance of the traditional rain water harvesting system in the Chettiar villages. Unfortunately this system has not been maintained to ensure properly the collect of rainwater.

Authenticity of Location and Setting:Revenue maps are the official graphic documents inherited from the British rulers and are still used as reference for mapping the villages. By superimposition with satellite views it was stated that the urban fabric remains in its integrity. (Atlas of Chettinad[11])

Authenticity of Language, and other forms of Intangible Heritage:The Origin of Nattukottaiyarss and their Communal Practices[12] is an original Tamil document on palm leaves, dated about 1840’, stating the Chettiar traditions with detailed description of the different rituals of wedding.

Authenticity of Spirit and Feeling:Chettinad is a cultural territory organized in 9 clan temples. These temples are living places where each member of the community is attending for celebrating the different hallmarks of his lifecycle.

Other internal and external factors of Authenticity:The Chettiars have extended their activities and settled their business over South East Asia, in particular in Burma, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Ceylon where they have built temples. They have got the permission of building sanctuaries for their devotions. These temples are still standing today. (The photographs inventory of Mr. C.Y. Ravi).


The recent surveys of some villages of the region show that many of the mansions have already disappeared. However this network of 73 villages and 2 towns still comprised of large number of palatial architecture, more than 10 000. The urban grid pattern still remains authentic, as no main alterations have been undertaken in the settlements, preserving the integrity of the town planning. The traditional water management system remains but important portions need to be restored and modernized. According to the preliminary inventory studies, the state of conservation of the palatial houses varies from one village to another. Most of the houses remains intact with the main architectural features. The houses still showcase the lifestyle of the Chettiar community. Despite the loss of about 19% of the buildings, there is still in an important number them in a surviving traditional urban form to claim integrity.

The Chettiar living traditions are still alive which has probably enabled the preservation of many of the Chettinad buildings.

The landscape shaped over centuries was largely preserved. Some agricultural communities are carrying out their activities and maintain the landscape features and botanical species in the region even if the young generations are more and more moving to the metropolis abandoning their native rural places for attractive job opportunities.

Among other living heritage, the unique Ayyanar rituals of the region and their shrines are located in sacred groves which preserve the botanical and fauna species of Tamil Nadu.,

[1] Indian Heritage Passport Programme, Chettinad Trail in Tamil Nadu, Bernard Dragon, Michel Adment, UNESCO 2010

[2] Draft Action Plan on Protection Conservation & Development of the Chettinad Region, prepared by ArcHe-S for UNESCO, 2007

[3] Chettinad Heritage Trail, Silvia Talevi, RLICC /ArcHe-S 2012

[4] The Evolution, Chettinad Heritage Trail, Silvia Talevi, RLICC/ArcHe-S 2012

[5] Transition from Tradition: A case of Art-Deco Chettiar Bungalows in Tamil Nadu 1930 – 1940, by Shivang Shelat, CEPT- AhmanabadArcHe-S

[6] Interiors of Chettiars Houses, Master Thesis, Caroline Horgnies, RLICC in partnership with ArcHe-S

[7] The Chettiar Heritage, Meenakshi Meyyappan, Visalakshi Ramasamy, S. Muthia, 2010,

[8] Ms. Rani Vedamuthu[8], Dean SPA Anna University An Approach- Arch Approach to the Study of the Contemporay Chettiar Dwelling of Tamil Nadu, India

[9] The Traditional and Vernacular Architecture, Deborah Thiagaraj, Madras Craft Foundation 1991

[10] The Ery Systems of South India, Traditional Water Harwestin, T.M. Mukudan, Akash Ganga Trust 2005

[11] The Atlas of Chettinad, ArcHe-s/ UNESCO/ Region Centre/ Tamil Nadu, 2009

[12] The Origin of Nattukottaiyarss and their Communal Practices, M. Gobalakichenane East West Books 2008

Comparison with other similar properties


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Decorated Farmhouses of Hälsingland- Sweden

Seven timber houses reflect the prosperity of independent farmers who used their wealth in the 19th century to build substantial new homes with elaborately decorated ancillary houses or suites of rooms reserved for festivities.

Ancient Villages in Southern Anhui – Xidi and Hongcun - China

The two traditional villages of Xidi and Hongcun preserve to a remarkable extent the appearance of non-urban settlements of a type that largely disappeared or was transformed during the last century. Their street plan, their architecture and decoration, and the integration of houses with comprehensive water systems are unique surviving examples.


The Victorian & Art Deco Ensemble of Mumbai

By 1850's Bombay became a fusion of varied cultures and opened her lands to truly develop as the "Gateway of India" bringing together industrial growth, international architectural styles and nurturing different ideologies to develop in an analogous fashion. The Chettinad region is rich of Victorian and Art Deco ensemble and is participating to development of international architectural styles in India.

Historic city of Ahmadabad

Ahmadabad city, reputed as 'Manchester' of India, is a busy industrial city situated in cotton-growing hinterland north of Gulf of Cambay. The house form, the grouping of houses and the hierarchy of its access ways formed an extremely secure and homogeneous settlement pattern, which even today provides an excellent example of community living and urbanity based on cultural identity and sense of collective agreement in its formation. The main similarity consists in the community living and urbanity based on cultural identity.

Shanxi Businessmen’s Courtyard Houses - China

Shanxi Businessmen's Courtyard Houses located in Jinzhong city, Shanxi province are regarded as outstanding examples of civilian residence building (such as the Chettiar homes), when Chinese merchant capital grew rapidly during the Ching dynasty.


Rural Settlements of Merchant community of Shekhawati in Rajasthan – India

The unique and diverse heritage of Shekhawati is comprised of beautiful havelis (mansions), grand temples, magnificent chattris (cenotaph), palaces, forts, wells, step wells and water tanks strewn all over in several towns and villages located in semi desert terrain bestowed with unique flora and fauna and a vribrant living tradition of folk, dances, music, cuisine, costumes, fairs and festivals. All these elements make Shekhawati a unique cultural landscape.