Thousands of ornate mansions in India lie abandoned, owners unable to pay for upkeep

Thousands of mansions in a remote corner of India were once home to some of the country’s wealthiest bankers and merchants – but a century later, most of them lie abandoned, their desolation still a mute testament to lost riches.

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.

Thousands of lavish homes in Chettinad near India’s southern tip – which once housed some of the country’s wealthiest bankers and merchants – now lie abandoned. Some of the mansions are in the city of Kanadukathan, pictured

Many mansions (pictured, one in the city of Kanadukathan) were built for the gem and spice trade magnates

Many mansions (pictured, one in the city of Kanadukathan) were built for the gem and spice trade magnates

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,” Bernard Dragon, a French architect working in the city, told AFP. the 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.

The Chettinad magnates channeled much of their wealth into building resplendent houses, adorned with stucco figurines, colorful stained glass windows and cornices.  Pictured are mansions in the city of Kanadukathan in Chettinad

The Chettinad magnates channeled much of their wealth into building resplendent houses, adorned with stucco figurines, colorful stained glass windows and cornices. Pictured are mansions in the city of Kanadukathan in Chettinad

Much of the region's wealth came from a once thriving maritime merchant empire, with residents able to associate with British traders seeking markets and finance for the tea, coffee and tea trade. rubber.  Pictured is one of the porches of the Saratha Vilas Chettinad mansion, which has been turned into a boutique hotel

Much of the region’s wealth came from a once thriving maritime merchant empire, with residents able to associate with British traders seeking markets and finance for the tea, coffee and tea trade. rubber. Pictured is one of the porches of the Saratha Vilas Chettinad mansion, which has been turned into a boutique hotel

“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 certain villages, you enter… 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. .

The weather has not been kind with the nearly 11,000 lavish houses built in the Chettinad region

The weather has not been kind with the nearly 11,000 lavish houses built in the Chettinad region

The Chettinadu Mansion (pictured here) has been renovated into a heritage resort and featured as a backdrop for Bollywood films

The Chettinadu Mansion (pictured here) has been renovated into a heritage resort and featured as a backdrop for Bollywood films

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 an important hub for finance and the automotive industry.

With the nearest airport over two hours away and the mansions – some with up to 100 rooms – requiring sky-high amounts of money to maintain, there is little appetite for local property.

But the emotional attachments of the descendants of the former inhabitants and the passionate architects touting the houses’ supreme craftsmanship have helped fuel some efforts to preserve these wonders.

The owner of Chettinadu Mansion hopes that the next generation will be interested in restoring these properties.

The owner of Chettinadu Mansion hopes that the next generation will be interested in restoring these properties. “They want to preserve this unique heritage for future generations,” he said. Pictured is a renovated courtyard at the Chettinadu Mansion

“The new generation is making a lot of money and is interested in these properties,” said A. Chandramouli, the elderly owner of Chettinadu Mansion.

“I expect a revival shortly,” he added, sitting in an antique chair in a tiled courtyard flooded with afternoon sunlight. “They want to preserve this unique heritage for future generations.”

The Chettinadu mansion, spread over 40,000 square feet (3,700 square meters), has been renovated into a heritage complex and has been featured as a backdrop for Bollywood films.

Other properties have largely retained their gleaming marble floors, crystal chandeliers, and carved mirrors while adding modern amenities aimed at wealthy tourists drawn to the area’s faded grandeur.

“These houses need to be restored so that our future generations can see how people used to live here,” tourist Malini Bharathy told AFP, between shots from one of the Chandramouli property’s sunny balconies.

“I want my son (and) my son’s son to come here and enjoy this, and savor this.”

A. Chandramouli, the owner of the Chettinadu Mansion

A. Chandramouli, the owner of the Chettinadu Mansion

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