Building on the Past

If the dusty plains of Chettinad—in India's Tamil Nadu state—are known for anything, it is Chettinad chicken. This rich curry is a staple of Indian menus from Bombay to Birmingham, England. But the desert region may have tasted a hint of a more enticing asset. Many of the once palatial homes of its former merchants, who made their riches during the heyday of the Raj, are up for grabs. By some estimates, as many as 10,000 of these crumbling structures are spread across the sands, awaiting rescue. Authorities hope that some will be turned into hotels or museums, boosting the local...

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