Why Memories of Burma Live On in Chennai

Wealth faded, political rifts widened, but the Indian-Burmese connection lives on.

Kalpana Sunder

April 12, 2021

Why Memories of Burma Live On in Chennai
Chettiar home

For Indian women, having a spouse who worked in Burma was at one point so common, it seeped into pop culture. In 1949, the hit song “Mere Piya Gaye Rangoon” detailed the long-distance relationship blues of a woman who awaits her husband’s phone calls from Rangoon — present-day Yangon, Burma.

VRK Jalaluddin moved from Burma to India as a young boy in the 1960s. Now 64, he recalls the period of political turmoil and how a particular wealthy South Indian community — the Chettiars — may have widened the rift between native Burmese people and Indians. Their actions, he said, “created a lot of discord and ill will.” 

The Chettiars of Tamil Nadu’s Chettinad region, in the latter half of the 19th century, took Burma’s financial sector by storm. Traditionally a financier subgroup from Southern India, they traveled throughout Southeast Asia in the latter half of the 19th century to provide working capital, investment, and loans. The wealth they created through this profession allowed them to return to Tamil Nadu and build lavish homes for their families — using solid Burmese teak to build courtyard pillars and doors and showcasing expensive lacquerware throughout their halls. The Chettiars knew how to spend their money — and how to make it. In Burma, they loaned money to native Burmese people, often farmers. Due to this history, they have a fraught legacy in modern-day Burma. But across India, those who returned from Burma still keep the culture alive through their stories and their food.

Today, the interiors of many of these houses have been torn apart and sold to collectors; families have restored some houses while others languish, derelict with just a caretaker in charge. In one of the homes, CVRM mansion, the entire ceiling is made of ornate Burmese teak. In the antique shops of Karaikudi, the region’s urban center, giant Burmese teak pillars and doors, and lacquer platters from Yangon and Bagan line the shelves.