There’s a sense of timelessness about Karaikudi. I fell in love with this charming little heritage town when I first visited it more than ten years back. Perhaps you could attribute it to my sense of comfort with small cities/towns (the smaller, the better!). As the years unfolded, the city became an integral part of my life: not the least because I had enrolled for my PhD at the Alagappa University in Karaikudi.
With every visit, I discovered something about the place. And also gradually discovered my self. From its historical past with its stately mansions, fabled antiques, Chettinad cuisine, handlooms, and hand made tiles—here was a home spun city in every sense of the word. There was something natural, spare, and sparse about Karaikudi. Despite its heritage, there was lightness about the town as it adapted readily to the demands of modernisation, yet had the wisdom to acknowledge and own its historicity. The many educational institutions that dot the town are testimony to the tradition of patronage to education that is associated with the Nagarathar community who originated in Karaikudi.
Our cover story seeks to capture some facets of this remarkable community who fanned out to different parts of South East Asia and later to other parts as well from this tiny little town in south India.
Historically, the Nagarathars appear to have migrated from various places in Tamil Nadu to Chettinad . The migrations took place in different stages over several centuries. Around 3000 years ago, the Chettiars were living on the East coast near Thanjavur where they dominated the coastal market as merchants who traded in salt, gems and small ships. Most of the migrations seem to have been dictated by professional interests. The Nagarathars chose to settle in places that were commercial and market centres or that lay on a major trade route. Chettinad which is a dry land with no proper rain happens to lie on such a route. In the 19th and 20th century, they moved to Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Malaysia, Singapore, Java and Saigon. They were known to honour their social and business obligations without compromise. Considered as the pioneers of modern banking, the Nagarathars played a dominant role as private bankers, money lenders and financiers.
Modern Karaikudi is the inheritor of this rich legacy and yet adaptable enough to respond to changing needs in a changing context. It’s this ability that has ensured that history in Karaikudi is enshrined and alive and not merely an insect fossilised in amber. Yet the challenges are multiple. Not the least being that the younger generation of the Nagarathar community need to be aware of their heritage. The question that confronts them: How do they balance the legacy of a glorious past and the demands of a globalised world that threatens to blur social, ethnic, and cultural diversities in its quest for homogeneity and anonymity? That’s a question worth exploring. For unless they do so, they might well end up as displaced as the antiques of Karaikudi, many of which today are merely lifestyle statements of the rich and famous.