“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.
What Marwari businessmen are to the north and Parsis to the west, the Nagarathars are to the south! A conservative community of traders and financiers with traditions centuries old, their risk-taking aptitude, knowledge of numbers and integrity made them leading personalities in the global business world.
Meyammai Aachi speaks with such clarity and pride; the initial connection between us is more on spirituality, temples, sarees and jewellery, in that order! And it’s a joy to listen to her stories.
Legend is that the Chettiar clan originally migrated from Kancheepuram to the famous Chola port city in the South – “Kaviri Poom Pattinam” or “Poompuhar”. This famous city was the capital of the most famous early Chola king – Karikal Cholan; who built the Grand Anicut for the river Kaveri. He is the legendary king in all our “Sangam” literature – From Pattinapalai to Purananutrupadai;
One of the 5 great epics of Tamil literature, Silapathigaram starts off describing this city, its two distinct districts called “Pattinapakkam” and “Maruvurpakkam” – Kaveri after sacrificing its natural resources to the South of India, joins the sea in Kaviri Poom Pattinam. The literature describes thousands of warships stalled at this port, how its affluent traders called Chettiars manned the Chola fleets which sailed across kingdoms in the east.
The great ruler Rajendra Chola I, who was referred to as “Kadram Kondan” the ruler who conquered Kedah (west coast of Malaya) known as Kadaram in Tamil – And the latter of the five epics “Manimegalai” describes how Kaviri Poompattinam had submerged in the sea due to Tsunami!
The Nagarathars were traders of salt, rice initially – and crossed overseas to establish local finance trading and lending, and specialized in gem trading. We get to know that they traded pearls from the Gulf of Mannar, diamonds from Golconda and Corals. They were the financial experts to the Chola Monarchs; they were the ones who had the honour of crowing the Chola Kings. Later on, their services were required by Pandya Kings too, and so they migrated to Pandiya Nadu in the 13th Century.
Chettinadu is the cluster of these 75 villages and towns – And their forefathers established 9 temples, and each Chettiar is a born member of this nine temple clans, and so every Chettiar is automatically related:) – The nine temples of the Nagarathar are Ilayathangudi, Mathur, Vairavanpatti, Iranyanur, Pillayarpatti, Nemam, Ilupakudi, Soorakudi and Velangudi.
Their financial acumen made them Zamindars and Paalayakarars, and British expansionism led them into Ceylon in 1796 and Burma in 1824. Calcutta was the base for anyone landing from Burma, so you can still find Nagarathar Choultries there.
The men travelled overseas, like bachelors, leaving their families behind – No wonder the Aachis were the strong women who single-handedly brought up their children, had the same financial acumen as their men, and made the Chettiars build rich mansions back in Chettinadu! And when Meyammai Aachi described the reason behind these family traditions – of how the homes were embellished and enriched with Italian marbles, Burma teak, Czech Crystals, and in these homes were stored the gold and diamonds, Burma rubies, which was unstintingly given to each girl child as much as for adornment as for her family security!
The clan members or “Pangalis” are close-knit and the wedding will happen only if the uncles are there; the Nagarathar’s unity was their greatest strength, which established the huge joint family get-togethers – and that became the basis for the reputation of their hospitality, connoisseurs of exceptional cuisine. And finally contribute back to religious activities, education and a lot more!
In Chennai still, you can see a street named “Coral Merchant street’ locally known as “Pavazhakara Street”, which is one of the oldest and historical in Geroge town and the Nagarathar Choulatries are still there). The Nagarathars gave the country Indian Overseas Bank, Indian Bank, Bank of Madura, as also United India Insurance.
Chettinadu is MORE than just tasty cuisines, and bright coloured sarees.. So more in my next post..