The region doesn’t get a lot of rainfall and the soil is not suitable for farming hence after the government nationalised all banks, the Chettiars left the country to look for greener pastures leaving behind their huge bungalows in the Chettinad district which are now looked after by a caretaker.
Don’t forget to visit several such bungalows during your visit some of which are in the art deco style where as the rest are based on the typical Chettinad architecture with several courtyards, beautifully decorated ceilings, Burmese teak pillars, intricately carved doors, Italian marble, Belgian stain glass windows and handmade floor tiles.
Antique furniture is one of the main reasons why Karaikudi is famous today. There are 75 villages around Karaikudi and thousands of these gorgeous buildings lie vacant. Those who can afford it have been preserving the wealth that they have inherited by appointing caretakers but there are several families who can’t afford the upkeep of these multi storied bungalows which can have anywhere between 20 to 40 rooms.
Such properties are easy prey to antique merchants and artifacts from such heritage structures find a place in many shops on the Muneesvaran Kovil Street which has 18 such shops. Many of the major cities have antique shops but the ones at Karaikudi are really special because you would find original Ravi Verma paintings, enamel jars from Sweden, Belgian glass, hand painted tiles from Japan and England, Austrian oil lamps, original Tanjore paintings, and Lacre ware from Burma together with priceless Burmese teak furniture from the Chettinad bungalows.
If you are keen to make a purchase you can always get a good deal as there is a lot of competition as is the case in any market these days. On such a visit be prepared to walk the various lanes of the famous Muneesvaran Street with an antiques dealer who will take you to several of his small storage places and show you the wide range of things he has managed to secure from such mansions.
All the dealers on this street have huge warehouses a few kilometers away from their retail outlet. I spoke to the present generation who run these shops and was told that their father started sourcing antiques and selling those around 40 years back to connoisseurs of art.
Though one would enjoy walking through the street and visiting several of these shops, it may indeed make you sad to see these beautiful structures losing the battle. Having said that there are always two sides to a coin and at least this way the priceless pieces are cared for by art lovers and are not lying in these humungous buildings waiting for someone to notice them as hidden gems.
By Marcela Kunova - 20th April 2017
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