The welcoming notes of the Nadaswaram greet visitors at the plantain and flower bedecked majestically carved wooden doorway of Lakshmi Vilas, a spectacular Chettiar mansion in Poolankurichi village near Karaikudi. Jasmine flowers are handed out to the resplendently dressed ladies in silk sarees. The men arrayed in dhoti kurtas are given angavastrams or traditional stoles. It looks like a grand wedding in progress. But no, this is the celebration of an ancestral home of an industrialist family turning hundred.
The guest list is an eclectic one - it includes T Mano Thangaraj, TN minister for IT and Digital Services, several state government officials, a 21 member contingent from the US office of Vee Technologies, the IT services firm of the Sona Group, staffers from the company’s Bengaluru office, and friends of the family. Students from the Sona Group of educational institutions perform traditional dances.
It’s a homecoming of sorts for the Bengaluru-and-Salem-based Valliappa clan of the Sona Group, with diverse interests in education, IT services, agriculture, real estate and textiles, as they use the occasion to make some big announcements for the region, from where the business community of Chettiars hail, but have migrated away from.
Describing how the Chettiar community came to the Sivaganga region and highlighting their entrepreneurial skills, Chocko Valliappa, CEO and Managing Director, Vee Technologies, unveiled a ₹200 crore expansion plan in Tamil Nadu as well as a promise to set up a 500 seater development centre in the Chettinad region. Quoting from Tirukural, he said an abiding principle for Chettiars was “Make profit, but give back.”
Although five generations of the Valliappa family have got married at the spectacular looking Lakshmi Vilas, with stunning chequered tiles on the floors, beautiful paintings on the walls and roofs, and luxurious Belgian chandeliers, the home had been empty since 1985, opened up rarely, only for family functions.
Now, the home has been lovingly restored to its original splendour by Bengaluru based architect Vikram Ponappa – though the original paintings have needed no touching up.
Built in 1922, by M Subramanian, the 50-room house is spread over two floors with the main pillars made up of stone and granite and Burma teak used liberally. This was the house where MS Chockalingam, the son-in-law of the renowned textile baron Karumuttu Thiagarajan Chettiar, and grandfather of Chocko Valliappa was born.
The Nattukottai Chettiars originally lived near the sea somewhere near Kanchipuram but the floods destroyed their land. Then they moved to Kaveripoompatinam (Poompuhar) before moving into the Sivanaganga District.
“The reason why we moved to this district from Kaveripoom Pattinam near the shore was because of constant floods and water flowing into their homes. So they chose a dry place - Chettinad is very dry - and not only that, they built their houses on huge platforms,” said Alagu Alagappan, a prominent Chettiar businessman and an authority on the community, who delivered a fascinating talk on Chettiar heritage and homes.
“I want all of you to admire this beautiful house,” said Alagappan describing how most of the mansions in the region were built with materials imported from various countries – teak from Burma, tiles from Italy, chandeliers from Belgium, artefacts from Vietnam, Cambodia etc.
Today, sadly most of the mansions in the region are deserted — perhaps the grand celebrations of the Valliappa home would inspire others to restore and return.