History is something that the Indian tradition seldom records and So the myths and legends, shrouded in mists of time and folklore, proliferate and become articles of faith to which much of the present is related. This is the story of a conservative merchant community whose ancient traditions of a splendid past it still strives to sustain, in a fast changing world and whose rare financial acumen has helped it resurrect itself in a business environment that is different.
It is thought that the word Chettiar is derived from Sanskrit in which shresthi which means leader of a merchant guild.
The Nattukkottai Chettiars had their roots supposedly in Naganadu, the location of which is somewhat uncertain! Be that as it may, it is known that they moved to Kanchipuram locale in the kingdom of the Pallavas in 3rd Century AD. They moved because of oppression, to more hospitable surroundings, to Manuneedhi Cholan’s great port of Kaveripoompattinam around 2nd Century AD (as mentioned in Silappathikaram, a great Tamil epic in which the Chettiars were called Dhanavaisyas). Silappathikaram and Manimekalai which were other epics list the Chettiars as traders in gems and salt at Kaveripoompattinam.
As legend has it, the Chettiars played a leading role in the business world of the Chola kingdom and they dominated the costal business as chip-chandlers, salt merchants and gem dealers. Their honesty, integrity and their respectful law abiding nature eventually won them the honour of crowning every successor to the Chola throne, a tradition that continued till the 13th Century AD.
Respected by kings and successful in business, they established a host of links across the seas when the Chola fleets sailed as far as Malacca and Sumatra and up north to the Mekong. All this lasted a thousand years and was shattered by one Chola King.
The Chettiar community prided itself on the chastity of its women and the sanctity of marriage within the community according to its conventions. They revolted when the Chola King abducted one of their women and is said that the entire community moved! There is another version that there was mass suicide leaving 1500 male children to the care of their guru. This then broke the tradition of the Chettiar crowning the Chola king as an unmarried male could not crown the king. The king then ordered the Chettiars to marry Vellalar girls, the daughters of the farming community. So when Sundara Pandyan of the Pandya dynasty, in the 13th Century, invited them over, they moved en masse.
They settled in Pandya Nadu in four villages centred around the village of Ilayanthangudi, about 25 km west of Karaikudi. New villages were then started in an area of about 600 sq miles area situated between the principalities of Pudukottai and Sivagengai. 9 different temples were built and the Chettiars, in clusters owe allegiance to their particular temple.
Every Chettiar, wherever he may be born, is a member of one of these nine temples, established by his fore fathers and to which his own father belonged! These temples are effectively clan centres and play a major role in the lives of the Chettiars. The female of one temple can marry the male of another temple and not within the same temple. It is amazing to note that all those centuries ago, they knew the dangers of in breeding when western medical science did not!
Deep in the south of Tamil Nadu, India, the land of Tamils, called Chettinadu was once a part of the ancient Pandya Kingdom the capital of which was Madurai. About 80 Km west of Madurai and about the same distance south of Thanjavur were the 96 villages that the Chettiars founded and which earned them their community name – Nagarathar – the townsfolk – in what was essentially the middle of nowhere. Gradually their numbers dwindled and their original 96 villages shrank to 75. Here, in their heydays, a glorious period, they built huge fortress like homes earning them the name Nattukkottai – land forts – Chettiars. They filled these homes with the riches they earned from across the seas.
Came the British to India and they learnt of the Chettiars’ prowess, their innate financial sixth sense and their rare judgement of a fellow man’s integrity, that led them to accumulate much wealth. They learnt that the Chettiars were very trusted middlemen whose integrity and unity was legendary. They realised the value of the Chettiars as bankers and they encouraged the Chettiars to set up financial establishments in Burma, Ceylon and eventually Malaya and Singapore and even as far away as Mauritius stretching to Vietnam!
Money lending was their prime business by this time but they were people who had the prosperity of their fellow citizens at heart. So wherever they went, they contributed significantly. In Burma they were the ones to set up large scale paddy cultivation eventually making it the rice bowl of Asia. They contributed to the development of large tracts of tea and coconut plantations in Ceylon, providing a life line to the Indian workers of the island population. Similarly they went into financing tin mining and setting up rubber plantations in Malaya contributing significantly to the community, apart from forming their first banking systems. Honesty and integrity was their byword and they stood by that.
Chettiars are known for their philanthropy and they built schools and temples wherever they went. They were astute businessmen and the temples they built were endowed property in perpetuity so that the income would be sufficient to run the temples for ever! Similarly they used their talents to establish Universities, hospitals and the worlds of fine art and letters have all benefited greatly. Many of the great professors of Tamil in the Universities were and are Chettiars. Industrial conglomerates are owned and run by Chettiars.
The heydays of the Chettiars continued till the dawn of the 20th Century. The Great Depression of the late 20s and 30s hit them hard and at that time much of the Chettiar fortunes were invested in Burma and with the independence of Burma, whose rulers were downright antagonistic and hostile to the Chettiars. Much of the Chettiar fortune was usurped leaving the Chettiar impoverished. Similar things took place in Ceylon. Then they, being resilient, started anew but this time their styles changed. They lent money and when repayment could not be made, they foreclosed and took over land and property and the hard earned friendships of the centuries began to fail and the local bonds were frayed and lost and the Chettiars became the victims in the late 40s and onwards. They then had to look at other sources of income and they turned their attention to education and becoming professionals and employment as the source of income.
Today the traditional banking community still maintains its links to that business but a large numbers are industrial entrepreneurs large and small, running pharmaceuticals, paper and engineering goods and increasing numbers are in employment owing to their education. This growing group of professionals are seeking their fortunes in faraway lands. Chettiars can now be found in all walks of life – be it in governance or finance or computing or healthcare. They strive to shine wherever they are. Whatever their job may be, wherever they may live, they carry on with the tradition of education and remain true to their religious beliefs and will continue to support their temples, come what may!
*Material has been adapted from various sources in the Internet and from the book, “The Chettiar Heritage” by Muthiah, Meenakshi Meyappan, Visalakshi Ramaswamy and Muthuraman. ISBN 81-904150-0-X 2006 edition.