Sivagangai: The search for roots by scores of children of Chettiar families living abroad and coming to Tamil Nadu learn about the community’s cultural heritage in August created a buzz in Sivagangai. The community's efforts to regain its old glory by inspiring the next generation to involve themselves in traditional professions like trade, commerce and business came in for praise from the locals who have all been immersed in such professions for generations.
The community of Nattukottai Chettiars or Nagarathars is in fact the first Tamil diaspora community to have established banking and financial institutions in countries ringing the Bay of Bengal. They have been in these fields now for over 150 years from the late 18th century. The community has only now woken up to the fact that their children are no longer keen on carrying forward their culture and heritage.
“Our early migrants are still been remembered not only for being successful in their business ventures but also for making their cultural capital visible, both aboard and on their home turf through the establishment of many temples and huge Chettinad houses. Ironically, our grandchildren have few traits of their ancestors,” said K.V.AL.RM.M.RM Valli Muthiah (70), from Kolhapur village in sivagangai, the first woman to take the initiative to teach NRI children on the community's heritage.
Valli Muthiah decided to dedicate the rest of her life to educate the children on the history and cultural heritage of the community after she had an interaction with the kids during her business visit to Malaysia 7 years ago.
“The interaction was in fact a self-realisation for me about where we stand today as a community in the globalised world,” she said. Being a trading community for centuries helped the Chettiar merchants to be connected with their roots always, observed Valli Muthaih whose family owns oil farms in Malaysia.
The Chettiars began expanding their business during the Colonial period, first to Calcutta in the 1780s and then to Ceylon in 1796 and Burma in 1824. In the 1850s, they were in the Federated Malay States and the Straits Settlements (Penang, Malacca and Singapore) as well as in Siam.
And a few years later they even had a small presence in Mauritius and South Africa. With the French and Dutch colonial powers also seeking their help, the Chettiar business of banking spread to the countries of Indo-China and to Sumatra and Java, pointed out S. Muthiah, Editor, Madras Musings, who also hails from the same community.
In the words of an early European planter in Ceylon, the Chettiars helped make hamlets into villages, villages into townships and townships into today's towns. Most of the merchants ensured that they visited their ancestral homes spread in 75 villages in east of Madurai and south of Thanjavur and Tiruchchirappalli districts at least once in three months.
“The famed Chettinad houses which are standing tall even after 100 years are a witness to it today. They invested their hard earned money and imported Burma teak to build those massive homes and named them as Nattukotai (country fort) in remembrance of their ancestral place, Poompugar,” Valli Muthiah recalls.
Each house took nearly 20 years to construct. “Every time the merchants visited their home town they would complete one Mugappu (room) and would also conduct the family marriages only in the houses as per tradition. “When asked about this during the interaction, none of the children in Malaysia were able to relate to it,” she observed.
Muthiah attributes the change in its outlook of the community members to the dark side of their history. “At the end of the 19th Century, Chettiar investment in all these countries was estimated at over `2,000 million—with about half of it in Burma alone,” he said.
“However, the Chettiars became the victims of freedom movements of the 1940s and 1950s in the Southeast Asian countries, particularly Burma, from they were forced to leave abandoning all their wealth,” said Sunil Amirth, Mehra, Family Professor of South Asian Studies, Harvard University.
“During the turbulent period, our elders sold the teak doors of our houses to feed the families and asked us to focus on education, not on the business,” said Ramesh Ramanthan, secretary of the Nagarathar Business Initative Group (NBIG), Dubai, which was behind the initiative of bringing the children to Chettinad. Ramanathan said that his father had gone to work in the TVS group, which the family had patronised.
The next generations of the community focused only on education and used it as capital to regain the lost glory. With India witnessing the IT boom in 1990s, they used the opportunity to move to America, Australia, Dubai and Singapore and have settled there.
“This training initiative has two agendas - to train the children on their heritage and thereby inculcate not only the cultural values and also to inspire them to take up business like their ancestors. Only if they are in business, they can be connected to our roots like our forefathers,” said Annamalai, a member of NBIG who also owns a chain of hotels in Dubai....