History and sustainability at Visalam, a heritage house in Tamil Nadu

The Chettiar mansion has been converted into a hotel, but retains many original features

The entrance to Visalam, a Chettiar mansion now a hotel in Kanadugathan, India. Veidehi Gite for The National
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Visalam, a 20th-century Chettiar mansion-turned-hotel in the Indian town of Kanadugathan, is a sight to behold.

It is preserved in its original style, with Art Deco interiors, ornate pillars and doorways, marble platforms, woodwork ceilings and Athangudi-tiled floors. The mansion, with its bright yellow exteriors, is an endearing symbol of paternal love that captures the soul of Chettinad, a region renowned for its palatial homes, fiery cuisine and vibrant culture of the erstwhile mercantile community.

"Visalam is a century-old palatial Chettiar house with art deco architecture, the predominant art style of 1920, characterised by precise and boldly delineated geometric shapes, and strong colours," Sam John, general manager of Visalam, tells The National.

"The house was built by Ramanathan Chettiar for his eldest daughter Visalakshi as a wedding gift. It was built during the Second World War, a period when procuring steel and cement was extremely difficult," John says, adding that, once built, the mansion was primarily used for occasional family gatherings.

Upon being converted to a hotel, the building's interiors remained largely untouched, except for the vast halls that have been turned into guest rooms. At Visalam, visitors are transported back in time to an era that still permeates every nook and cranny; its character has remained steadfast over the years, a testament to its original inspiration – the heartwarming tale of a father's gift to his beloved first daughter.

"[The] Chettiar community in this region were trailblazing merchants who ventured across the vast oceans centuries ago, when many others were unable to do so. This great wealth built grand mansions in the 19th century," John says. "In 2007, CGH Earth [hotels] restored Visalam to its original glory, using local materials and working with local Athangudy tile makers, stone workers, carpenters, and weavers as part of the restoration process."

Notable materials are used throughout. Special handmade and sun dried tiles from Athangudy are used in the lobby and the rooms; the ceramics are durable and eco-friendly, featuring traditional patterns and designs. The walls are egg plastered, using a clay made with limestone and shells mixed with black jaggery, then polished with egg whites. The rooms have high ceilings featuring engraved Burman teak, while the courtyard flooring is Italian marble with pillars of black marble, and the spiral staircase at the back of the building and the iron girders were sourced in Birmingham, England.

"Most of the palatial mansions that you will see [in this region], were built from materials imported from East Asia and Europe about 100 years ago, and are a true testament to the craftsmanship and ingenuity of their time," local guide Shiva Shankar tells The National.

A continued look to the past extends to the details in the home, which include an antique radio, a collection of traditional games, a pile of vintage books and a gallery of timeless paintings. It's the perfect recipe for a journey back in time, where the pace is leisurely and the ambience delights.

Aside from its traditional touches, Visalam has a firm focus on sustainability.

"We focus on the 'three R' philosophy of CGH Earth – reuse, reduce and recycle – along with other eco-friendly practices. We discourage the use of plastic and glass bottles and use handmade newspaper bags and cloth bags," John says.

"We manage waste efficiently, use renewable energy, and practise rainwater harvesting. We have a sewage treatment plant for the treatment of wastewater and a biogas plant for the disposal of kitchen waste, where we generate methane gas for staff mess cooking and slurry for the garden fertiliser.

"The bed runners, cushions, and uniform of the staff, are made from Chettinad handloomed cotton, for which the region is known."

The property also offers the distinctive spicy cuisine for which the area is known. Visalam has four on-site restaurants, along with Tea Kadai (kadai means shop in Tamil), a rustic thatched wheelbarrow from which tea and coffee is served. Not only can guests enjoy being served South Indian cuisine, they can also participate in interactive kitchen sessions.

“Chettinad cuisine is a spice-filled playground. This celebrated cuisine is not only among the spiciest in India but also one of the most aromatic," says executive chef Tennyson Mathew. "The secret to its distinctive flavour lies in the fresh ground masalas such as star anise, that give it an unparalleled depth of taste."

Updated: August 11, 2023, 6:02 PM