The late 19th century merchant’s house at DakshinaChitra
is representative of the ancestral homes of the Nattukottai
Chettiar community in Tamil Nadu. Chettiar houses are found
today in seventy six villages located in Pudukottai, Pasumpom
Muthuramalingam and Sivaganga districts. The Nattukottai
Chettiar traders followed the expansion of the British Empire
into Southeast Asia for their business. They brought back
Burmese teak and European tiles for their mansions, as well
as the inspiration from colonial and palace architecture.
They also incorporated the wealth of wood sculpting and
craftsmanship from local craftsmen in their homes.
The exterior façade of the house at DakshinaChitra
is a replication of a common façade of smaller Nattukottai
Chettiar merchant houses from 1850 through the 19th century;
the outside columned verandah of Burmese teak are a reconstruction
from a house in the village of Aryakudi.
The basic floor plan of a Chettinad house consists of an
outside verandah (thinnai) for guests, with a room for conducting
business on one or both ends; an interior courtyard to be
used in ceremonies, with a raised seating area at one or
both ends; a series of small double rooms opening off the
main courtyard, for storage, prayer and sleeping and a small
courtyard behind for cooking and for the women to socialize.
Chettinad houses were originally single-storeyed buildings
made of sundried brick of mud and bamboo and thatch. They
evolved to become tile-roofed with a small two-storeyed
tower at both ends of the front elevation, similar to the
house at DakshinaChitra. They
later expanded vertically into two-storeyed structures,
and horizontally through the addition of numerous halls
and courtyards that could accommodate guests at marriages
and other ceremonies.
It was not unusual for three generations to live together
in one house. The Chettinad houses accommodate up to four
generations before separate houses are built by individual
sons. Each of the small rooms off the main courtyard is
the property of one married son in the patriarchal lineage
of the ancestral builder of the home. It is the only part
of the house, besides a section of the kitchen, to which
a separate ownership can be attributed. Even today, men
and women are segregated in a Chettinad house: the men occupy
the outer verandah and front room; and the women occupy
the kitchen courtyard and work around the main courtyard.