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Kanadukathan, India

The Mansions of Kanadukathan

A collection of crumbling mansions stand as a reminder of a more prosperous time in this Indian village.  

The streets of the sleepy village of Kanadukathan in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu are bright orange. Goats, sheep, and cows move slowly along the middle of the road, ignoring the traffic, which is little more than an occasional bicycle, and set back from the dusty main avenue, behind a sagging banana tree or a rusting gate, ornate and brightly colored mansions — yellow, white, and turquoise — transform the surroundings into an architectural treasure trove.

Kanadukathan is home to the historic Chettiar mansions, which were built in the early 1900s by a group of wealthy merchant families native to this part of Tamil Nadu. The Chettiars’ successful business ventures as merchants funded these impressive structures. A number of these families became very influential in Burma and the mansions pay homage to the close linked forged between the two nations. Inside one beautiful turquoise residency, there is a hanging bed made of dark Burmese teak. You’ll also find furniture made with cedar from Sri Lanka and marble from Italy. Many of the homes feature a large central courtyard. One is painted in shades of terracotta and tangerine, with an almost classical look. With entryways built to resemble grand temple portals, these mansion were once a beacon of opulence, but those days are gone, and today the tiny hamlet feels like a living museum.

One of the grandest of the leftover homes is the Chettinadu Mansion, originally built in 1902. Now a hotel, it was restored by its owner to something close to its former glory. Guests dine underneath the stars in a cavernous courtyard enclosed by four marble pillars. Green and yellow tiles cover the bedroom walls.

The whitewashed walls of the Chettinadu Mansion hotel are well maintained. But not every building is in such good repair. At one end of the main thoroughfare, big-padlocked gates block the path of any curious tourist. The yellow paint has peeled away to reveal a gray, concrete wall. The bold red lines that gave this abode art deco flair, have faded.

Visitors to Kanadukathan are encouraged to rent a bicycle, and simply explore the old mansions. No planning required: knock on the intricately carved wooden doors and you may be welcomed inside.