The book on palatial art deco mansions of Chettinad unveils a pompous business culture of Chettiars tradesmen

Mugappu: The Portals of Chettinad by photographer Amar Ramesh documents the stunning 19th century teak and marble embellished homes of well heeled banking and business community Nattukottai Chettiars.  

Marked by opulence the homes of Chettiars and Nagartha in the Chettinad region of Tamil Nadu are symbols of a colonial-era architectural heritage. Of the original 96 villages in Chettinad, only 74 remain and estimates of the mansions still standing vary wildly.

As one scrolls through the book, these striking images bring a dreamy town alive with pictures of imposing facades adorned with majestic murals and carved cornices.

Mogappu signifies the portal, or a grand entrance which is adorned with a variety of figures: God and goddesses, mythical creatures, freedom fighters and even European characters that were used by the owners to signify their position in society. These statues were made of sudhai aka stucco—a technique in vibrant tones of greens, yellows and blues that was widely used in temples of the time as well.

The photographer captures 108 images in his book Mogappu: The Portals of Chettinad, and the result is a visual celebration of the beliefs, motifs and even pomposity of the Chettiar business community.For  many Chettiar families, including that of Lakshmi and her daughter, the ancestral home remains a potent symbol of their identity and wealth.

These homes are distinguished by wide courtyards and spacious rooms are embellished with marble and teak. Construction materials, decorative items, and furnishings were mostly imported from East Asian countries and Europe.

The books compel you to wonder about the art, architects and artisans of the time who created these marvels.

Nineteenth century mansions in marble and teak inspiring awe at every turn; charming courtyards and time-honoured local traditions including terracotta tiles and wooden pillars, among several others.

Architecturally, they are significant, as the artisans and artforms no longer exist. These ornamental and embellished works show the importance of art in the community, where every element of design has been woven into the cultural ethos of the region.

Ranging over 10 feet, these facades were built in symmetry with the first floor of the houses (using the same pattern, texture and colour) so that from a distance the effect is arresting.

Many of these heritage homes are in ill state of repair and are being demolished to build newer structures, but the aew inspiring account created by Ramesh triggers the need to turn them into heritage stays.

However, tourism is entering as a solution in Chettinad, some owners have renovated their homes in heritage stays. People come for mansion stays to immerse in the unique crafts and distinctive cuisine.

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