A testimony to past glory

KANADUKATHAN, INDIA (AFP) – Thousands of mansions in a remote corner of India once housed some of the country’s wealthiest bankers and merchants, but a century later most of them lie abandoned, their desolation remains a mute testimony to the lost wealth.

The magnates of Chettinad, near the southern tip of the country, made their fortunes trading gems and spices in vast trading empires that stretched as far as Malaysia and Singapore during the era of British colonial rule.

Much of their wealth was channeled into building resplendent homes, adorned with stucco figurines, colorful stained glass and cornices.

Historians say they bought chandeliers from Venice, giant mahogany-framed mirrors from Belgium and intricately patterned glazed ceramic tiles from Birmingham.

“At that time, there was a competition between the Chettiars themselves to create the most beautiful building – more beautiful than the brother, the cousin, whatever,” a French architect Bernard Dragon working in the city told AFP. region. But time has not been kind to the nearly 11,000 lavish homes built in the area and many now look dilapidated and overgrown, their current owners either unable to pay maintenance or mired in property disputes.

ABOVE AND BELOW: An aerial view of mansions in the city of Kanadukathan in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu; and visitors arrive at the Chettinadu Mansion. PHOTOS: AFP

“We are concerned about the state of conservation,” said Dragon, who worked to restore a property in the area to its former glory to serve as a boutique hotel.

“In some villages, the owners are more present and more committed. (But) in some villages, you walk in… and you realize that nobody takes care of the properties.

The people of Chettinad belonged to a Tamil merchant caste and the location was an ideal staging post for a maritime merchant empire.

Its people were able to leverage their networks in banking and sprawling land holdings, in a business partnership with British traders seeking markets and finance for the tea, coffee and rubber trade. .

But after World War II, their holdings fell into disarray, as independence movements gained ground regionally and socialist-inspired economic policies at home clamped down on money lending and foreign trade. .

Many families, forced to tighten their belts or seek other opportunities, have moved to nearby Chennai, leaving their homes under guard or simply abandoning them.

Today, the dozens of villages that make up the Chettinad region are far from the beating heart of commercial life in southern India, while Chennai has become a major hub of finance and industry. automobile.

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