Heritage Development Program at Chettinad Village – Indian UNESCO WH Tentative Site

Theme: Management of Tangible Rural Heritage

By Ms. Madhura Sham Joshi
HeritageForAll Intern (Call 2019) from Mumbai, India
Internship Program “Rural Heritage and Traditional Food”
M.A. in International Architectural Regeneration and Development, Oxford Brookes University (UK)



When we look at the rural heritage, tangible and intangible heritage are very important to understand. These are living, continuing, dynamic, cultural, social, environmental, and economic systems that extend across the lands. The rural tangible heritage is very important and are critical repositories of traditional and indigenous knowledge, essential in an era of climate change. (ICOMOS, 2019).

Rural built or tangible heritage has been defined as structures like world, castles, houses, farms, barns, stables, factories, places of worships. The form, architecture and construction of these building depends on the on their purpose, as well as the technological skills available when they were built, regional materials, site restrictions, traditions, regional architectural styles, local ways of life. Other than houses, castles the rural tangible heritage also includes fountains, washhouses, food markets, archaeological sites, ruins and walls, etc. Everything that, in one way or another, helps to structure space. The rural tourism is growing in recent years where the use of tangible heritage for the tourism benefit is vital. The rural heritage tourism linked to obsolete practices has no value and rural culture was deemed not to be noble. (https://rm.coe.int/16806f7cc2). The heritage value of the rural landscapes is relatively recent and is closely related both to a new emphasis on their historical dimension and to the different speeds of change characterizing either the rural space and people’s cultural adaptation. (Fazio & Modica, 2018)

Figure 01 – Inclusion of Intangible and Tangible heritage as a concept [www.cultureindevelopment.nl/cultural_heritage/what_is_cultural_heritage]

The rural communities have great number of cultural heritage resources that are unique to individual communities. Heritage resources are subdivided into tangible and intangible heritage resources. Although tangible heritage resources include caves, water bodies, sacred grooves, festival regalia, food, traditional attires, and so on, intangible heritage resources include belief system, value system, traditional dance, marriage system, inheritance strategy, and lot more (Gunlu et al., 2009).

Figure 02 – Heritage, its cycle and connection with people [www.cultureindevelopment.nl/cultural_heritage/what_is_cultural_heritage]

In this context management of rural landscape and tangible heritage becomes very important. With recent development the rural landscape and its heritage has received importance for its cultural value with functional. The ideal practice for rural tangible heritage management has seen major shift from practice of agricultural or productive approach to agriculture or heritage based comprehensive and integrated process. The new shift in approach of heritage rural management to a relatively new and multifunctional role of agriculture and to a multidimensional function of the rural landscape. Rural landscapes in fact, while continuing to support the production activities, today also requested to provide environmental and socio-cultural ecosystem services. The “heritage status” of the rural landscape, on its turn, needs to be seen in a new way and some categories used to characterize it, such as “historic” or “traditional”, should be redefined (Fazio & Modica, 2018).

Figure 03 – Relation of tangible heritage at rural level [www.aedon.mulino.it/archivio/2019/2/salpina.htm]

The better of managing rural tangible heritage and its landscape is by considering historic or cultural dimension with the aim to provide sustainable planning by integrating economic and environmental dimensions. The tangible heritage of rural area is major driving force behind development related to tourism, urban-rural linkages and rural upliftment. The management of tangible rural heritage is very important because its multifunctional approach to agriculture, rural life and spaces can provide great future in changing years to rural landscape, rural life and rural economy. The heritage/historical and vernacular buildings in this context deserve more attention and better approach for inclusion in the development because they represent characteristic sign of community-environment relationship. The adaptation, preservation of these buildings can be used as an effective tool for interpreting rural landscapes in todays time. (Fazio & Modica, 2018).

Every rural area has different characteristic related to agriculture and production. These production demands and agriculture patterns are represented in the local vernacular farm structure and setting of village. The technology used in construction, architectural elements express the knowledge of that era, availability of finances and resources as well as functional theme. (Fazio & Modica, 2018).

The need to adopt a sustainable approach to the built heritage throws a new light on the refurbishment and reuse of the present stock of redundant buildings, since this has now to be seen as the preferable way to answer the demand for residential or production spaces. The rural vernacular built heritage requires the protection with sensitive revitalization and reuse.

The multifunctionality of agriculture and rural space can give a new life to old buildings by housing farm shops, tourism facilities, farm museums, events (music concerts, exhibitions), training and educational activities and many other uses which show compatibility with agriculture. (Fazio & Modica, 2018).

Figure 04 – Concept of rural tangible heritage (©author, 2019)

Rural landscape of built heritage is: All rural areas can be read as heritage, both outstanding and ordinary, traditional and recently transformed by modernization activities: heritage can be present in different types and degrees and related to many historic periods, as a palimpsest (ICOMOS, 2017).


India has mix of rural, peri urban areas with rich tangible and intangible heritage. With changing rural character, modern lifestyle it becomes important to understand government and organizations approach to protect or manage the rural tangible heritage. I have selected Chettinad village which has rich cultural diversity, tangible and intangible heritage where government with UNESCO is working to promote the village. The Chettinad village was undertaken as part of Revive Chettinad Heritage Campaign that UNESCO has initiated since 2007 with technical support from a Tamil Nadu-based French NGO, ArcHe-S.

The region of Chettinad is located in the southern part of the State of Tamil Nadu (South India) with a territory of 1,550 square kilometers in the heart of the state, comprising two towns and 73 villages and spread over the district of Sivagangai. Chettinad region, spreading over the district of Sivagangai in Tamil Nadu, is becoming increasingly part of the popular tourist destination thanks to the magnificent Raja’s palace in Kanadukathan, and stately homes scattered across the towns and villages of the region. Chettinad has the beauty of an overall village landscape created by the harmony of architectural details and urban planning, most interesting water management systems and drainage patterns. (Dragon & Adment, 2010).

Figure 05 – Chettinad village lifestyle (©author, 2019)
Figure 06 – Location of Chettind village

The Nagarathars, a Chettiar community in Sivagangai district, are the predominant people of the region flourishing in trade and commerce from many centuries. They are institutional in establishing numerous educational institutions, financial services, temples, festivals, traditional ceremonies, and social welfare. Karaikudi and its neighboring places have quite many historically significant buildings, and distinguished institutions and places. The Chettinad mansions are sumptuous, spacious, and colorful with intricately formed structures. Chettinad mansions are built-in with arrangements for rainwater harvesting to provide clean drinking water. The Chettinadu palace is a beautiful edifice situated in Kanadukathan. The 110 years old Chettinadu palace is an outstanding specimen of the Chettinadu architecture. (Dragon & Adment, 2010). The Chettinad villages influence and richness allowed the community to build a dense network of 96 villages. (UNESCO, 2014)

Figure 07 – Chettinad vernacular homes internal courtyard

All the Chettiar settlements possess outstanding physical characteristics of urban and land-use planning with their South-North/East-West grid pattern, including water system, and the development of palatial architecture which depict a unique cultural interchange of cultures with influences from all over the world and the combination of the vibrant Tamil traditions.

Chettinad possesses some outstanding physical characteristics of urban and rural planning which create a unique architectural ensemble with thousands of palatial houses. Chettinad architecture is also closely linked to the lifecycle rituals of the Chettiar community. The mansions were conceived to perform the different functions, rituals and family celebrations during the course of life from birth to death. In addition to the lifecycle rituals, the temple and village festivals are part of the Chettiar culture forming a large set of rituals all over the Tamil year. (UNESCO, 2014)

Figure 08 – Chettinad community inside the palatial traders homes


Heritage building owners are encouraged by the Tourism department to convert heritage buildings into heritage hotels to attract tourists. Some of the Chettinad Mansions may be converted into Heritage Hotels. The local community promotes the Commercial activity around tourist spot, local markets, antique stores thereby generating income for local people.

The Chettiar living traditions are still alive which has probably enabled the preservation of many of the Chettinad buildings. The landscape shaped over centuries was largely preserved. Some agricultural communities are carrying out their activities and maintain the landscape features and botanical species in the region even if the young generations are more and more moving to the metropolis abandoning their native rural places for attractive job opportunities. Among other living heritage, the unique Ayyanar rituals of the region and their shrines are located in sacred groves which preserve the botanical and fauna species of Tamil Nadu. (UNESCO, 2014)

At present, the Chettinad region is practically unknown to tourist guides. To date, only a few tour operators have included the visit to the Raja’s Palace (with lunch in an old bungalow that has been converted into a charming guest house) in their program. The recent surveys of some villages of the region show that many of the mansions have already disappeared. However this network of 73 villages and 2 towns still comprised of large number of palatial architecture, more than 10 000 despite the loss of about 19% of the buildings. (Dragon & Adment, 2010).

Figure 09 – Chettinad village built heritage facades

The rural heritage development initiative in Chettinad village involves two phases, where in first phase the steps are;

  1. Creation of heritage house in restored places
  2. Creation of an Interpretation Centre in the old Chettinad train station

Similarly, in the second phase;

  1. Creation of Eco-museum in the village
  2. Centre for Training and Production of Handicrafts and Applied Arts
  3. Centre for International Exchange

The activities in both phases are suggested and planned by the organization in order to create synergy between creativity and heritage conservation, to serve as a reference for local people and visitors (Dragon & Adment, 2010).

Figure 10 – Religious structures of Chettinad villages

The major objective of the initiative was to promote culture which is off beat to Indian and International tourists. The Chettinad has potential to provide authentic and rich experience to visitors. Chettinad is a real treasure trove of authentic and well-preserved urban architecture, and of ecological riches. Many of the Chettinad mansions could easily be converted into heritage hotels with moderate alterations or appropriate extensions. Owners could also begin to improve parts of their homes in order to develop sustainable tourism. (Dragon & Adment, 2010).

With recent developments, the community has migrated to urban areas. The urban migration and high maintenance cost of palaces has resulted into poor state of rich intricate tangible heritage. In India growing demand of heritage antiques, the Chettinad palaces has lost so many built heritage elements due to lack of protection regulations.

The initiative has focused on creation of raising regional heritage with inclusion of local community and authorities by creating the local visitor center. As per initiatives guideline, the suggestion is to develop a regional identity brand by creating temple, architectural, urban handicraft trails in and around the village. The proposal has suggested to create regional master plan to restore or adaptive reuse of tangible heritage with local protection plan. The guidelines suggested to reuse of buildings to create tourist homestays, restaurants, coffee or souvenir shops.

Also new tourism based activities to create local employment like interpretation center, eco museum, place for Chettinad gourmet cuisine, heritage or religious festivals in those buildings. The handicraft training centers can be established in old Chettinad homes.

Economic pressures and land speculation in the big cities of Tamil Nadu have eliminated almost all of the state’s traditional houses. Chettinad is the only remaining site which bears testimony to Tamil architecture and urban planning.

Understanding the current development and context the Chettinad management of tangible heritage needs heritage and development agendas which are taken into account the interests of multiple stakeholders. The process and implementation needs careful planning.

The fact that this region has been excluded from traditional tourist itineraries is all the more surprising as South India is very rich in temple architecture (Dravidian temples) but poor in domestic architecture and palaces.

By including this Chettinad region, tourists will gain a considerably more complete picture of another way of life in South India. A major objective of the project is to promote cultural pursuits that are off the beaten track to Indian tourists and international visitors. The Chettinad rural heritage development proposal has focused on major activities as mentioned below;

  • Initiatives of cultural tourism to enhance natural and built environment, the aesthetic, historical and architectural value of the buildings in the village
  • Respect local community and invite active participation in implementation
  • Creation of a resource center for monitoring and mitigating the impact of tourism on the environment and humans in this fragile context.
  • To spread awareness of the region throughout India and abroad, to organize visits, conferences and any other programs to promote the region.

From the case study of Chettinad village implementation plan the learning shows us that there is also the cultural dimension of agricultural landscape that endows it with heritage function. As famously explained by the agrarian historian Emilio Sereni, agricultural landscape is a product of tangible heritage (dry-stone wall terraces, rural architecture, and irrigation systems) and intangible heritage (traditional agricultural practices, culture, music, food).

Incase of Chettinad village we see strong historic value which has perceived, experienced, and contextualized by people’ (di Dana Salpina, 2014). Through the study it is evident the multifunctionality of management of tangible rural heritage can be challenging task but on the other hand it can bring sectoral funds for its preservation. It is important driver of rural economy and provides direct forms of support for non-productive services of agriculture, including bio-diversity and landscape.

Figure 11 – Chettinad vernacular palaces built by traders community
Figure 12 – Birds eye view of Chettinad vernacular homes and village


Other Figures’ Source: www.natgeotraveller.in/chettinad-guide-magnificent-mansions-peppery-cuisine-and-antique-markets/

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: