Asia and Pacific,  India,  Tamil Nadu

Saratha Vilas – Mansion in Chettinad

I have heard so much about Chettinad and Chettiars that when I had the opportunity to experience real Chettinad culture and tradition, I did not want to give it a miss. My hosts Bernard Dragon and Michel Adment, both French Architects and interior designers, who owned Saratha Vilas are the co-founders of the association ArcHe-S (Architectural Heritage Safeguard), which initiated the Revive Chettinad Heritage Campaign in partnership with UNESCO. They are well travelled in India and have a thorough knowledge of South India.

IMG_5844 (2)IMG_5840 (2)

Saratha Vilas, a traditional Chettiar house now converted into a boutique hotel is located in the village of Kothamangalam, in the heart of Chettinad. I took a flight from Singapore to Trichy airport and from there a further two-hour bumpy taxi ride through paddy field, granite quarries, eucalyptus forests, small dusty, almost vacant villages and narrow streets took me to Karaikudi, Chettinad and then kothamangalam – inhabitated by about 110,000 Chettiars, spread over two towns and 73 villages!!


The Chettiars were wealthy traders and financiers who made their fortunes by extending their business to the whole of Southeast Asia, particularly during the 19th century when they were at the peak of their economic power. Because of their extensive travelling and exposure to other parts of the world, they were able to integrate these influences into their own tradition resulting in a unique lifestyle.

The villages are well planned and have good water management systems. Their house are huge, almost like palaces. The ground floor of each of these huge houses has typical Tamilian architecture whilst the higher floors are usually Western.   Materials like lime and brick plaster, terracotta tiles, stone pillars, stone and marble floors and teak columns from Burma were used to build these huge houses once.

Saratha Vilas was originally built by a Tamil, S.A.S. Subramanian Chettiar in the early 1900s. He was a banker based in Malacca and had furnished the house with Belgian glass and mirrors, Japanese tiles, Italian marbles, Burmese Teak and Chinese furniture. The two French architects took over the 34500 square feet place on a lease and created a dozen rooms and integrated traditional materials of the region as part of the décor combining avant garde and tradition to make a stunning eight-bedroom hotel! You get the opportunity to enjoy the traditional Chettinad ambience with modern conveniences within the buildings, courtyard and garden.

As soon as I entered the compound of Saratha Vilas, the first thing that struck me was the immense space. I had to walk past the verandah or “thinnai” which is a raised concrete platform to sit on both sides of the passage way with black stone pillars leading to the entrance. The ‘thinnai’ is for people to gather and chit chat or to play traditional games. The marble floor tiles are from Belgium and Italy.


Next is the grand main hall with exquisite chiseled woodwork ceiling, large European chandeliers and Belgium and Italian marble as flooring. The décor is further enhanced with the use of Burmese teak. Japanese ceramic tiles and Belgian mirrors. The walls are adorned with photographs of the Chettiars’ family members.


The “naduvasal” is the main courtyard in the heart of the house. This is the area where family functions take place. The prayer rooms are also located here. The current owners of Saratha Vilas have provided access to the bedrooms on both sides of the courtyard which is surrounded by carved granite pillars with a Dravidian like temple architecture and covered with pressed metal ceiling imported from England! Beautiful artistic cornices too are used as décor.

IMG_5772 IMG_5773 IMG_5774 IMG_5775 IMG_5776 IMG_5778

The dining hall is next and here is where hundreds of people are seated on mats laid on the floor to have their meals served on banana leaves during wedding or other functions. Today, it is still used as a dining hall for guests of Saratha Vilas. The kitchen courtyard is next and this is where food is prepared and cooked for all the functions, even today. The courtyard retains many traditional stone implements like the spice grinding stone “ammi kal” and the batter grinding stone “attukkal among many others. These are the ‘home appliances’ of traditional Indians.



All the furniture of Saratha Vilas has been designed by my hosts Bernard and Michel. They have a huge collection of very rare and unique objects from all over India and also from abroad. These are displayed in the hotel lobby and the rooms.


All the rooms are simple and almost minimal with generous space. Some of the rooms have Sarkarapati – palm sugar containers from Kerala! I found them to be unique as this is the first time I have come across such receptacles. The beds are either made of teak, rosewood or mahogany woods. All the rooms are furnished with expensive collections of art and antiques and each room has its own identity with a noble finish.


Saratha Vilas has six Heritage rooms created out of the building’s original banquet hall and two Master’s chambers. The rooms are all air-conditioned and I just loved the bathrooms! My room had a beautiful print of Lord Murugan. I had a chance to look at the other rooms too and realized that every room has beautiful art pieces adorning the walls. Before I forget, the skeleton key to my room is about nine inches long! The whole place is quiet and peaceful. There is Wi-Fi in the hotel to keep the guests connected with the rest of the world.


The in-house Chef Karuppiah and his assistants whip out breakfast, lunch and dinner. The menu is simple but you are assured of good quality home-made jams with local fruits, very good coffee and fresh tropical fruits. During my stay, my hosts, Bernard and Michel spoilt me with so many choices of Indian food and French desserts! French food is also served daily and is in the menu. The hosts look after their guests as if they are members of their own family or personal friends! Every day, I looked forward to meal times to interact with the very friendly hosts to share their experiences.

IMG_5837 IMG_5841

The hotel also organizes tours, visits to markets, cooking classes and Ayurvedic massages. It has a wonderful, well trained staff, particularly multi-tasking Nadia who is not only the receptionist cum housekeeper but also a laundrywoman who irons the guests’ clothes.

Karaikudi and its Chettinad tradition may not be highlighted in a big way in the Incredible Indian brochures. This is indeed sad! I think it is time South Indian tradition, particularly the Chetinad tradition, rich and vibrant, is given due recognition by the Indian Tourism Board.

Staying at Saratha Vilas made me feel as if I am reliving the era of the Chettiars. If you are in Tamil Nadu, make it a point to stay at Saratha Vilas in Kothamangalam at least for a day to experience not only the hospitality, but also to understand India and its heritage even better.

The Saratha Vilas

832 Main Road, Kothamangalam

Karaikudi Taluk Chettinadu

Tamil Nadu

Tel: +91 98 84 203 175

+91 98 84 936 158


Email: [email protected]

I take this opportunity to thank Bernard Dragon and Michel Adment for hosting my stay at the Saratha Vilas.