Exhibition : Palatial Houses in the South of India

The Chettiars, commonly called "town people" and whose origin goes back to the ninth century after Christ, were, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries a caste of great tradesmen.

From their exchanges, they were able to establish trade counters well beyond the boundaries of the Indian territory, throughout the whole of south-eastern Asia.

Photos exhibited within the building These merchant builders are responsible for about 70 villages built on model grid plans in the south-eastern parts of Tamil Nadu. As can still be witnessed today, these villages present great architectural interest and diversity. The residences, built on elongated plots of land, became real architectural laboratories and each palatial house was dramatically staged under the impulse of its owner.

Towards the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, these noblemen’s houses are distinguished on the exterior façade by the appearance of a monumental floor comprising of a loggia with twin columns and a large promenade space for observation.

The interior space is constantly enriched and diversified. Subject to lavish ornamentation, it is also characterised by multiple interior courts and reception rooms reserved for the community’s celebration of social and religious rites.

Towards the mid twentieth-century, the Chettiars manifest a desire for greater intimacy in their residences. In context with the Anglo-Indian tradition for comfort, there is a visible evolution in the building types. The main entrance is preceded by a comfortable and appropriately furnished veranda for close relatives. Room sizes are reduced. We are close to the notion of ’bungalow".

The Chettiar builders chose architectural forms revealing the influence of existing Anglo-Indian styles, already impregnated with historicism and eclecticism. But the distinct characteristic of these houses resides beyond the use of reference models, in the creative use of architectural ornaments, used to new scales and expressed in their own culture.

A number of these palatial houses are today menaced of disappearance and their state of conservation is continuously worsening. This exhibition wishes simply to honour the architectural inventiveness and talent of these builders as well as encourage greater consciousness of this architectural heritage, considered today as one of the most exceptional on the Indian subcontinent.

This work culminated in 2002 with a publication by the French Institute of Pondicherry entitled "Palatial Houses in the South of India"; a bilingual (French-English) publication which aims at identifying the subtle evolution of this habitat, bringing out influences and to put forth practices. The aspects linked to the recreation of a model and to its diverse quotations till the complete disappearance of this style of vernacular habitat have been analysed.

The inevitable degradation of these "palatial houses" and their heralded disappearance registers this step in the protection of a memory and the preservation of an important heritage.

List of the 13 Panels

  • 1. Pillaiyur Patti - The Temple dedicated to Pillaiyar-Vindiyagar (2 panels)
  • 2. Kottaiyur - Krishna House
  • 3. Attantuki - The Mutupattinam House
  • 4. Kanatukattan - The Muttaiya House (2 panels)
  • 5. Pallatur - The Murukappa House (3 panels)
  • 6. Devakottai - The Alagapan Arunacavam House
  • 7. Kotamankalam (2 panels)
  • 8. Devakottai - The Cita House

Organised by

French Institute of Pondicherry (IFP)

Exhibition Curators

Arno Gisinger, artist & photographer
Robert Dulau, head curator for Heritage


French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, France
Ministry for Culture & Communication, France


Chettiar families
Mr. V. Subbiah (for photographic contributions)


French Institute of Pondicherry (IFP)
Exhibition Gallery
11, Saint Louis Street
Pondicherry - 605 001

This Exhibition is on permanent display at the French Institute of Pondicherry.