A visit to Dakshinachitra

A welcoming Kolam and flowers greets visitors
The glass of chilled mosambi juice was a life-saver. The blinding white heat and the humid haze that had assaulted my senses from the time I had landed in Chennai dissipated a wee bit.

I became aware of the quiet and calm of Dakshinachitra, “a living museum of art, architecture, crafts, and performing arts of South India”.

Located on the East Coast Road in Muthukadu, Dakshinachitra is about 21 km south of Chennai. The sprawling, 10-acre complex houses carefully recreated heritage structures, traditions and culture from the four southern Indian states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. It is also a hub for performing arts, a retreat for artists, a learning centre for students, an exhibition space, a place to visit for the culturally inclined tourist… And a place that I had been wanting to visit for a long time, particularly to see the heritage structures.

So when the opportunity to visit Chennai came up about 10 days back, I planned my itinerary in such a way that I would go straight to Dakshinachitra from the airport itself. So far so good. What I had not accounted for, or rather ignored what everyone told me, was the severity of the infamous Chennai heat. I mean, how much more different could Chennai humidity be from Mumbai’s? By the time I reached Dakshinachitra, I was almost dehydrated and was having fond thoughts about Mumbai weather !

A shady courtyard at Dakshinachitra

Though the mosambi juice and lots of water revived me enough to brave the heat and take a walk through the heritage houses, the relentless heat made it difficult for me to really enjoy my visit there. I did manage to walk through the entire section of heritage structures, but my mind and camera did not register or record everything I saw.

But do allow me to share with you what they camera recorded. 🙂

Dakshinachitra is a work in progress. It has a small, but growing collection of heritage structures from the 4 southern states with representations from certain dominant communities. What is striking is that even the vegetation of a particular region has been recreated to a certain extent to complement the area the heritage structures belong to. So while we can see the scrubs and bushes of northern Karnataka around the houses from that region, Kerala’s lush green vegetation is also seen around the houses from that state.

The heritage house in the photograph below is from Karnataka and was not yet open to the public as it was still being reconstructed. Don’t you think it looks rather grand and beautiful?

A house from Karnataka being reconstructed

The cluster of houses in the photograph below belong to the weavers community from Ilkal in northern Karnataka. These houses are typically built of granite and the largest room in these houses is the one with the loom.

A beautiful shrine outside the cluster of houses belonging to the weaving community from Ilkal

South India has a large population of the Lambani or banjara or gypsy community, who are well known for their embroidery. The photograph below depicts the Lambani version of the “Ardhanareeshwara”. Isn’t it stunning?

The Lambani “Ardhanareeshwara”

This cluster of houses originally formed the agraharam at Ambur village in Tirunelveli District in Tamil Nadu. When it was demolished, they made their way to Dakshinachitra to be reconstructed as they were in their original place. Personally, this was the highlight of my trip to Dakshinachitra, as my ancestors were from Tirunelveli District. I like to imagine that they must have lived in a house like this.

An agraharam from Tirunelveli district.

The merchant’s house in from the Chettinad region of Tamil Nadu in the photograph below was grand, but what I liked the most was this sepia-toned photograph mounted on a door. This prim and proper little girl with a sulky expression reminded me so much of someone I know. 😉

A photograph mounted on a beautifully carved door at the Nattukottai Chettiar house

The Kerala section has two Hindu houses, a Syrian Christian house, a granary and a cattle shed—with each house being special and unique to the community and purpose that they served (see the next 3 photos).

A Syrian Christian house
A wall mural inside a Hindu house from Thiruvananthapuram
A cattle shed

Dakshinachitra also offers space for artists to exhibit their art and craft and at any given time there are 2-3 artists exhibiting their work. I saw an exhibition of giant leather puppets from Andhra Pradesh. All the puppets were mounted on the walls and most were on characters from the Ramayana.

Wall mounted leather puppets from Andra Pradesh
Leather puppet of Surpanakha

If weather had been nice, this trip would have been a dream come true. It was the perfect time to visit as apart from a group of some 10 odd college kids, who were probably there on a study trip, there were no other visitors. At any other time, I would have relished this opportunity to explore and photograph and generally soak in the atmosphere. And when I would have left the place, it would have been with a happy buzz of having discovered and learnt something new. Something to talk about, something to share with others, and something to write about too.

But when I finished the tour of Dakshinachitra, I think I must have looked like Surpanakha in the photograph above; I most definitely felt as bad tempered as she looks here !

Note to self: (i) Please listen to well-meaning friends about weather updates in a city you are not familiar with. (ii) Another visit to Dakshinachitra is needed, but in better weather.

50 thoughts on “A visit to Dakshinachitra

  1. Ok..where do I first start? First of all, a big LOL!!!!! Chennai heat is crazy and sucks you dry!!! Now, you come to my city and you show me a part of it that I have myself not seen and even I had seen it would not have sensitivity to understand as you have done, Sudha. I love that Lambani work of Ardhanareeshwara! It is a wow. And the houses are so cute and serene. The syrian christian house and the Hindu brahmin house is so interesting.
    You know I would love to see a comparison of these houses and the Wadas of Pune–like what are the commonalities, how do they differ..history etc. Thanks for sensitizing me about my own city.

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    1. I’m so happy you enjoyed the post. However, I do not agree with the fact that you would not have “understood” the place with the same “sensitivity” as me. With your experiences and background you would have just seen it in a different way. 🙂 Your comment on the wadas has set me thinking. The next time I am in Pune, I try and visit one. In the meantime, you can want to read this one: https://thatandthisinmumbai.wordpress.com/2010/07/16/vishrambaug-wada/

      And as for the Chennai weather, lets not talk about it shall we? 😛

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  2. now this post really convinces me to visit dakshinachitra the next time i am in chennai… am sure samhith would love to see all those houses…. and as for me, this looks like the perfect place to take my camera too 😀 of course, in better weather.. am not a great fan of chennai weather either…

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    1. So start planning your trip, Anu. Dakshinachitra would be like a 10 acre playground for Samhith with lots of opportunities for hide and seek and learning for him. And for you too 😀

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  3. My favorite spot in Chennai, I have always enjoyed my each and every visit there, yes..despite the heat. Viewing DC through your lens has made it further special. The one thing which is bothering me is why such a beautiful place made you “Surpanakaha”.

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    1. Dakshinachitra didn’t turn me into a Surpanakha, Asha. The Chennai heat did. Never thought a day would come when I would complain about the weather coming in the way of enjoying travel. But there is a first time for everything. I regret not having a photo taken in my Surpanakha avatar, though.

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  4. Lovely post Sudha! Great pictures too!!! The blue door and window against the backdrop of white-washed walls and granite structures is stunning, so is the yellow of the shrine in the Illkal community houses. I like the Syrinan Christian home – I can see a combination of wood and brick – so much like my grandparents home in Udupi. It brings back fond memories…….
    I love the cattle shed….it is so beautiful. I wonder if this can be replicated for the Maharashtra weather?

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    1. Glad you liked the post, Neena. I did not notice the structural details too much apart from what was evident.

      And out of all the heritage structures, you liked the cattle shed the most? Right. I really can’t say if this can be replicated in Maharashtra weather. For you see, I’m a city slicker and did not even recognise what the cattle shed was supposed to be, until it was pointed out to me. So there.

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    1. Awww… Arnavaz. The heat in Chennai is not always unbearable. I have visited the city in better weather and enjoyed my stay there. And Dakshinachitra is best seen and experienced first-hand and not read here.

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  5. When is the best time to visit Chennai-when it is hot, hotter or hottest? One really doesn’t have a choice. Perhaps, one day, I will summon enough courage to make a day trip- fly in one morning, drive straight to DC, head back to airport and fly out.

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    1. Simple. You visit Chennai, When it is hot 🙂 And don’t visit only DC. There are lots of other places to see. Wait for my next post and you’ll see what I mean.

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  6. Sudha, my first time here…and am floored …completely :)) I have heard about DC…but, never had a chance to visit the cultural odyssey. The pics are great…so is your narration :)) awesome blog!

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    1. Delighted to see you here, Panchali. And thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. DC is definitely worth a visit or two and I hope you get to visit it soon.

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  7. This place is on my wishlist. I wanted to do this the last time I was there, but it didn’t happen. Hopefully this time it will. After reading this post of yours, I’m desperate to visit Dakshinachitra.

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  8. Hi

    Feel proud seeing a post on a place in my home-town. Unavoidable I guess 🙂

    I have been to Dakshin Chitra in 2007. My husband and I loved the place. But to my inlaws it held something that they grew up seeing. I mean the homes and the things used etc. SO it was not a big deal for them which is quite understandable.

    Its definitely a fun visit and Chennai Heat? No comments ha ha…Remember SunGlasses, SunScreen, Plenty Of Water and Do try Elanir(Tender Coconut) and Nungu(Palm fruit) 🙂

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    1. Thanks, Jaish. I quite enjoyed the Dakshinachitra visit, in spite of the heat, and the next time I am in Chennai and in better weather too, I will be better prepared. Thanks for your suggestions for dealing with the Chennai heat. 🙂

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  9. Sudha ji, love the pictures and the description. I’ve only been to Chennai once on my way back after visiting pondicherry and mahabalipuram,and the heat is searing no doubt. This kind of heat is a put off for me too :).

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    1. Welcome here, Rachana, and thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. Chennai has a lot to offer apart from the heat, that is. 😀 You might be interested in my latest post on Mylapore.

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  10. How nice to see that history of various places is being preserved for future generations. Thanks for your pictures and wonderful descriptions. If all Indian states did something like this, studying our history would be so much more interesting that reading dry text books. Now this is on my list of things to see, so far I had never felt the need to visit Chennai (especially thanks to the heat, despite being used to Mumbai’s heat and humidity). But now there is at least one reason!

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    1. Delighted that you liked the post, Nima. Most states do have initiative like these, but not all of them are so serious about it like Dakshinachitra. Chennai has a lot to offer and I have only touched the surface. Do try and visit it, I think that you will be pleasantly surprised.

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  11. Good one..Even though I live in Chennai I haven’t visited Dakshina Chitra till date. But after reading your post, I feel compelled to visit the place as soon as possible! 🙂

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    1. Welcome here, Deepz, and thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. It often happens that we rarely take our own cities seriously. Do you know that in spite of having lived in Mumbai for nearly 20 years now, I visited the Elephants Caves only last year? 🙂

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  12. I have only heard about this place, but like many other posts of yours, you have made me want to go there 🙂 The best treat I can think for myself is a trip with you to some place to see the beauty of it through your eyes, as I did some parts of London 🙂

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    1. If you want to visit Dakshinachitra after reading my post, then that is high praise indeed. What say that you and I plan a trip to Chennai (in better weather of course) and have fun exploring the place? 🙂

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    1. I loved Dakshinachitra and I am going back there at the first possible opportunity. 🙂 And thank you for not telling me “I told you so” about the weather 😛

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  13. At first sight, I thought this was about Dakshineshwara. 🙂
    The place looks so serene! Totally worth a visit… too bad the weather didn’t side by you though.
    Lovely post as usual, Sudha. The pictures remind me of an old trip to Rishikesh.

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    1. Welcome here, Priyanka and thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. Dakshinachitra is a beautiful place and is a must visit for anyone, I would say. But if you are interested in art, architecture and local crafts then you would appreciate it that much more. Do visit it when you are in Chennai next, but in better weather than I did. 🙂

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  14. dakshinachithrais so awesome. it was mind blowing. this gorgeous dakshinachithra gave me more thoughts. superbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbb

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