The Kittangi – Pioneer Bank ‘Branches” that Empowered Nagarathars to Succeed Overseas as Private Financiers
Mr Subbiah Lakshmanan
The Kittangi was the epicentre of the international business dealings of Nattukottai Nagarathars during its 200-year expansion phase between 1800 and 1980. It was both a place of business as well as residence rolled into one. It also served as a sanctuary in a foreign land which kept the “bachelor” Nagarathars within their community despite the many powerful centripetal forces at work to draw them into the host communities. A vast network of about 400 Kittangis enabled Nagarathars to maintain a dense network of “branches” to provide financial services to the core business sectors in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Malaya (Malaysia), Singapore, Burma (Myanmar), Vietnam and Indonesia and thus an indelible mark on these countries economic development and prosperity.
External view of the kittang
The Kittangi was essentially composed of several Nagarathar banking enterprises that came together under one roof with a goal to do business as well as provide live in quarters. In the process, the places where the Kittangi was set-up later developed into the financial districts of the towns. For instance, the first financing firms in Singapore’s “Wall Street”, Raffles Place, were Chettiar firms. There was no one single Kittangi model but would vary based on local conditions. The paramount goal was to have one shared place of business/residence to keep business overheads down and provide the complete array of “Chettiar” type commercial services everywhere. The Kittangis were owned by either a group of Nagarathars, the temple or just by one Nagarathar. The owner would then rent out the space to other Nagarathar firms, Kadais. Each firm would pay a monthly rental for a defined set of services. In bigger cities like Singapore, Penang and Rangoon there could be 20 to 30 firms in one Kittangi. In smaller towns it could be 2 to 5 firms or sometimes just one firm in a Kittangi. By and large it functioned like a co-operative society. At times a wealthy firm may have a single firm Kittangi. In this case they were generally called “Kadai” and not Kittangi. These terms were not strictly defined and were a bit fluid in meaning and were interpreted based on context.
Only men could live in a Kittangi, though women and relatives were allowed to visit. The men in the early days would come on a 3-year sojourn and had to follow through with a 1-year sabbatical in Chettinad. The concept was essentially like a male “dormitory”. Boys from the age of 11 could live in a Kittangi once they started their banking apprenticeship. As such, a Kittangi could have residents from the age of 11 to 80+ years.
ECONOMICAL LIVING WITH LOWERED BUSINESS COSTS
The Kittangi would have an in-house cook who would cook for all the residents. Laundry men (dhobis) would visit the Kittangi to collect dirty laundry and return the washed clothes. However, the apprentices (Podiyans) would be expected to wash their own clothes, sweep the floor and do menial jobs so as to devlop their self-confidence, discipline and humility.
Barbers would usually come on a Sunday to offer their services. The Kittangi, being in the center of town, would also be in close proximity to most amenities like coffee-shops, provision stores, post offices, banks, etc. Cooks, cleaners, laundry men, barbers and other service personnel would all be brought all the way from Chettinad to service the needs of the Nagarathars. In this way, Nagarathars facilitated the overseas migration of other communities of Tamil Nadu.
PHYSICAL LAYOUT OF A KITTANGI
The Kittangi was built in the prevalent South-East Asian shop house style with regional variations. This was basically a 2 or 3 storey 150 ft to 200 ft) long building with a narrow 15ft to 30 ft shop front. The ground floor would have a raised platform of about 1 foot with a width of about 7 feet.
Furniture, like cupboards, safes (Pettagam), would be placed flush against the wall. The remaining 6 ft of the platform would serve as the business office during the day. At night, mats and cotton beds would be rolled out and the platform would double as the bedroom! Above the cupboards, on the wall, photos of Goddess Lakshmi, Lord Pillayar and Lord Muruga and photos of the ancestors would be mounted. The business name, or Vilasam, would be written on a small placard on the furniture eg. Rm.V.L.N. or Ar.Kr.S. The platform extended all the way back to the kitchen area. The length of the platform was divided into Petiyadi (foot of the box) spaces of about 3 ft to 6 ft each. This space was the basic rental “unit”. Each space was wide enough to keep at least one Peti of about 1 ft). During the daytime the Peti would be placed on the ground and the Nagarathar will be seated between the Peti and the cupboards. Clients would visit and sit on the other side of the Peti to do business. Bedding would be kept above the cupboards or in storage spaces and will be rolled out at night and at which time the Peti will be placed back above the cupboards.
Next to the platform was a 3 ft passageway leading to the kitchen. Footwear was not allowed inside the Kittangi and had to be removed at the doorway. Behind the office area was the dining area, with adequate space for a “Panthi” style eating arrangement. The kitchen was besides the dining area and would have a firewood stove, chimney, Ammi, Attukal and other essential cooking facilities. Behind the kitchen was the communal bathing and toilet area. The entire floor was an open communal area with only a wall separating the office area from the dining/kitchen area. Though there would be 10 to 15 people on a floor, there was absolutely no private space whatsoever other than in the toilet! In bigger towns, where there were more Nagarathar firms, there would be a second business floor with a similar layout.
The office furniture was custom made to be convenient for doing the business while sitting on the floor. The basic working desk was called the Kai Peti. It was about 1.5 ft long and about 1ft wide and 1ft high. Inside the box were compartments to keep documents, pens, stationary, stamps, etc. These were made of light wood as they had to be carried daily. The traditional desks did not have legs. But other models with legs 3 inches high would become prevalent later. And these were called as Mesai Peti.
Against the wall would be the main storage cupboard cum safe called the Marap Pettagam. The traditional Pettagam was made of teak and was about 3ft wide, 5ft high. The door would open from the top – somewhat like opening a laptop. It would be empty with only a large cavernous central chamber to keep documents and cash. The heavy Pettagam had no legs and would be placed on a stout wooden dias. At the bottom of this dias, there would be sliding drawers which could easily be slid open when sitting on the floor.
The Peti and the Pettagam were the basic mandatory necessities to conduct business. Other accessory furnitures could be metal safes from Europe; wooden or steel cupboards; 6 inch high stools for clients to sit on; side cabinets; 3 feet long flat tables with short 3 inch legs for writing on large accounting ledgers and 1 foot high kerosene lanterns to use for writing accounts at night.
(to be continued)
The Kittangi was a brilliant innovation and demonstrated how the Chettiars planned and conceived strategies to expand business and overcome challenges. The Kittangi was a precursor of branch banking and telegraphic transfer. For about 180 years this model worked well and gave a good run for the money against banks like HSBC and Standard Chartered Bank. These banks in their official histories mention the Nagarathars as their key competitors and the strategies they used to wrest business away from them. It should be noted that, these institutions are known to have incorporated successful Chettiar practices and financial instruments into their own corporate practices.
Today out of an estimated 400 or so Kittangis worldwide only less than 20 are in a minimally functional condition. The traditional Nagarathar banking business model has been superseded by modern banks which offer easily accessible loands and credit card facilities. However, in Malaysia there are still Kittangis where small scale money lending is still done – Penang, Alor Star, Telok Anson being some of them. In Kuala Lumpur and Singapore Kittangis are still in a good condition but being used for alternate purposes. In Sri Lanka, Burma and smaller towns in Malaysia the Kittangis are in a derelict condition with few or no regular occupants. There is an effort being made in Singapore and Penang to preserve the Kittangis as heritage centres. It is hoped these efforts will bear fruit in the next few years as important heritage of both the host countries and the Nagarathar community.
Like the American pioneers, who journeyed into the Wild West and converted the prairies and deserts into vibrant economic enters, the Nagarathars journeyed into the wilderness of South-East Asia braving the tides of malaria, insecurity, loneliness and uncertainty. They surfaced as pioneers in the banking profession converting jungles into plantations and mines which then in turn grew into prosperous settlements and towns. In the process they established a reputation for piety and honesty and were respected by one and all.
Sir Harcourt Butler, Governor of Burma wrote in 1927 (as quoted in the “Fiery Dragons: The Chettiars in Burma”
“You represent a very important factor indeed in the life of this province…Without the assistance of the Chettiar banking system Burma would never have achieved the wonderful advance of the last 25 to 30 years…The Burman today is a much wealthier man than he was 25 years ago; and for this state of affairs the Chettiar deserves his thanks.”
A British planter in 1900s Ceylon is quoted to have said:
“Hamlets became villages, villages became towns, towns became cities, thanks to Chettiar businesses”
Nagarathars seized the opportunities of the day with great courage, business acumen and most of all a strong value system to generate enormous wealth both for themselves and the host countries. Indeed, even today they are a beacon of inspiration and have left us so much to be proud of.
About the Author
Subbiah Lakshmanan is a Singapore-born Chettiar whose great grandfather started a Kadai in Singapore in 1892. He has been a Financial Controller with various MNCs for over 20 years and he has completed his MBA at UC Berkeley. He has been involved with many Chettiar related heritage projects in Singapore since 1998 including museum exhibits, talks, TV and radio shows, published articles, community education classes, Chettiar statue and MOE history curriculum. His family originates from Kallal and Vairavan Koil and he has 2 teenage children.
Mr K Varadarajan
Mr N Subbiah Chettiar