“Chettinadu splendour” – what started as just a textile activity session with Meyammai Aachi in 2016, triggered varied interests and been an eye-opener for me. This blog post captures the key points discussed in that session. I was in awe listening to the stories of the “Nattukottai Chettiar’s” or the “Nagarathars” as they are called in our Tamil heartland.
The success of the Nagarathars went far-flung, and later on, wherever the British established a presence, Chettiars became their traders too. Business roots were established in Srilanka, Malacca, Singapore, Penang, Burma, Thailand and Vietnam.
Meyammai Aachi mentioned that since the Chettiar clan used to travel as single men, they always carried the idol of “Dhanduyathapani” of Palani and his “Vel” as protection. They were Saivaites – Shiva was the main deity, but Lord Muruga was their favourite “Chetti Kadavul”. She recounted an incident when one of the Chettiars had to flee from Burma leaving everything during a bombing, he carried just the idol and spear back home!
Whenever they start a business account, the profits are set aside well in advance, as a percentage to the Kuladeivam, or supporting a temple, its choultry, for its festivals and rituals. It was just amazing to hear from her that this support of faith contributed to many pilgrim centres in India – the four top temples recalled were Kasi (Varanasi), Chidambaram, Kunnakudi and Pazhani. She mentioned that the Chettiars established the “Nattukottai Nagar Chatrams” close to the temples – to provide free shelter and food to one and all.
The “Kasi Nagara Chatram” was established in 1863 and intricately linked to the Poojas for Viswanathar at Kasi. From the 1820s they have been performing three poojas – 4 am, 11.30 am and 9 pm – and it’s inspiring to note that these Trikala poojas have been performed without a single break for the past 150 years (even when there was a curfew during the Quit India Movement in 1942, they got special permission) – The milk for abishekam and other pooja articles are taken at 10.40 am and 9.30 pm every day chanting “Sambo Shankara” and they have the first right of pooja for these timings (The other two poojas are owned by Nepal Maharaja and Kasi Maharaja).
They are closely associated with the Chidambaram temple too – Each family has a Dikshitar attached to them, and the camphor, vibuthi, Sambrani and oil to the temple come only from the Chettiar families, to date. Another temple closely associated is the Kundrakudi Shanmughanathar temple in the Sivaganga district. Even today, the participation is most from Chettiar communities for the famous Padayathra to Pazhani Murugan temple, carrying kavadis.
Meyammai also mentioned their association with Thiruvannamalai temples and the antique jewellery donated to this famous temple. And another amazing story about the Kanchi Maha Periyaval transforming the atheist “Kaviarasu” Kannadasan – the greatest Tamil poet, writer, and film lyrist of our times.
Sando Chinnapa Devar and Kannadasan were badly injured in a car accident while travelling for a film shooting; Kannadasan was lying unconscious in hospital, and when Devar went to meet the Periyava, he enquired about Kannadasan and gave him the holy ash to smear on his forehead! Devar was so surprised and told the Maha Periyava that Kannadasan was a staunch atheist, and I believe he mentioned the dark atheistic clouds will give way, and told him Kannadasan’s great grandfather did thirupani for the Varadarajar temple, his grandfather for Ekambareshwara temple and his father for Kanchi Kamakshi Amman temple. When Kannadasan heard this later, he was so moved and went and prayed to him – and went on to pen his legendary book “Arthamulla Indu Madham”..
To finish the spiritual stories, she had also spoken about the two famous Chettiar saints – Pattinathar and Karaikal Ammaiyar.
Pattinathar was a wealthy Chetty merchant at Kaviri Poom Pattinam, and had the knack of ascertaining the value of gemstones; his father sends him with a ship to make a fortune. But the boy, who is said to be an amsam of Lord Shiva did not have any inclination to wealth – and when he comes back after the voyage – he hands over a “varatti” (Cow dung cake) and a box – The father in fury sends him out of the house! When he opens the box he finds a palm-leaf manuscript and a needle without an eyelet. On the script were the words “ Not even an eyeless needle will accompany you in the final journey of life”.. “Kadatra oosiyum varadhukan kadai vazhikye”
Karaikal Ammaiyar, fondly called “Ammai” by the Lord himself, is one of the 3 women nayanmars of Shiva. She willfully prayed to Shiva to take away her beautiful physical form into a demonical one. And walks on her holy HEAD to Thiruvalangadu, which is one of the five cosmic dance halls, the Rathna Sabhai of Lord Shiva (About 60 kms from Chennai)
So coming back to the rest of the story, we also heard about the Chettiars and Aachis as born bankers 🙂 – how when a male child is born, a certain sum is set aside to accumulate interest and funds for his education, the knack of number crunching by the Kanakupillays of Chettairs..
And the Aachis used to wear only silks and their special “Kasi Pattu” would be brought by the Mootaikarans from Varanasi. The women wouldn’t step out to buy, the sarees were chosen their chettiars only! The Benaras influence borders, motifs can be seen in their vintage specials silks, woven for them exclusively by their weavers..
In the 1930s the success of Burma Chettiars came to a shuddering halt with the Great Depression, and the harrowing Japanese invasion in 1942 – many of them died on the long march out of Rangoon to Assam and fled without nothing in their hands, and how they resurrected themselves back home…