The Golden Age of Coimbatore

         Coimbatore, the Rome of Kongunad, is the gold capital of South India. Thousands of craftsmen and jewellers have added glitter to the city. The business of jewellery is a cauldron of magic potion that has instituted the entrepreneurial spirit to the region. P.A. Raju Chettiar (1895 - 1984) was hugely responsible for placing Coimbatore on the jewellery map of the world. He was described as the man with the Midas touch by the yonder era, by the historian Nilkan Perumal. P.A. Raju Chettiar (PAR) was born as the son of Alagiriswamy Chettiar and Subbulakshmi on the Sathabisham (Sadhayam star) during the Tamil month, Thai, on the Jaya Year which occurred on the tenth decade of the nineteenth century. Raju grew up to be an intelligent boy and the astrologers prophesized that he would literally live up to his name. He was quick to pick up Tamil, Telugu, and Kannada. Education was only up to second grade in a Thinnai Pallikoodam (Verandah School). The family belonged to Balasamudram village near Palani, the home of Lord Dhandayuthapaniswami. 

         Raju was deeply devoted to Lord Muruga (Dhandayuthapaniswami). During those days, he used to help his father out with his small textile cum grocery businesses. Unfortunately, Alagiriswamy Chettiar died quite early and the responsibility of looking after the family fell on the tender shoulders of Raju. He took it up happily and this was a role that he discharged with aplomb for the rest of his life. His elder sisters Balavasavambal and Padmavathi were married to Kalayamuthur Krishnan Chettiar and Sundarakamaleswaran Chettiar, respectively. Raju had two younger brothers Ramaswamy and Lakshmanaswamy (twins). The youngest was a girl called Aparanji. Lakshmanaswamy died as a boy while the rest of the younger siblings grew up under the care of Raju. Life was tough in a country which had been impoverished by the English rulers. However, this did not deter Raju from moving ahead in life. He would leave home early, work hard for long hours and return home for a late meal served lovingly by his mother. Raju was known to seek her blessings every day and this habit continued for years. He used to offer his salutations at the dawn of each day in front of the picture of his dear mother even during his later years. 

         Palani was a temple town but Coimbatore had begun to be the happening place. Therefore, Raju decided to move forward in life by settling down in Coimbatore, the town that had just begun to flower as a textile centre. His mother Subbulakshmi gave one of her bangles to let him use it as seed capital and some kai murukkus for snacking on the way to Coimbatore. Those were times when people travelled by bullock carts from one place to the other, however it was kind of a relay. For example, the cart would pick up its passengers and drop them off at Thazhaiyuthu. The passengers would travel by another cart which would kind of serve as a relay to the next point. It used to take about two days max to reach Coimbatore. Raju reached his destined city on a Friday. He went to his sister Padmavathi's home on Vysial Street and decided to stack up there until he could find his own way to live. Raju was an ardent Muruga devotee and would always have the name of the Lord on his lips. He began to miss the presence of the Palani hill on reaching Coimbatore and wanted to offer his prayers to his favourite God in Coimbatore. Raju was advised to pray to Lord Shanmugha Subramanya at the ancient Kottai Sangameswaraswamy Temple. He reached the temple and offered his prayers to the deities and made an auspicious beginning in the city of his future laurels. 

         Raju began by stringing corals in gold and silver. The wires had to be hand drawn and the day used to begin quite early. A break was possible only on the day of the new moon (Amavasya). There was a perennial shortage of coins in the market area and Raju decided to address this issue. He would deal with the oil merchants and the small change thus exchanged helped him to have an additional source of income. The shandies offered him one more opportunity and Raju used to sell gold sovereigns (coins) in each one of them. He used to go along with the carts that carried goods to the various commercial centres. Raju had a working case and it used to contain tools, cash, and a bit of gold. He used to sit in the Thinnais (verandah-s) of Big Bazaar Street and Vysial Street at times. Orders would be taken from customers and work was executed from facilities run by the traditional goldsmiths. 

         The youngster began to find regular business and he began to share the house rent with his elder sister Padmavathi. The working case used to be left in the home of Kulur Balaraman Chettiar who belonged to a family of wealthy bankers. Marriage to Rajalakshmi followed and lady luck entered his home in the form of his wife. Rajalakshmi (1900-1970) was the daughter of V. R. Manickkam Chettiar, a leading landlord from Virugalpatti. This Mirasdar family were deeply impressed by the caliber of the handsome Raju and he proved them right over the years. 

         Raju tried with his luck by establishing a retail outlet on Big Bazaar Street, but he could not succeed much. The traditional manufacturers held the sway. He decided to understand things better and undertook a visit to Mumbai. It was in Mumbai that Raju purchased a nice showcase for his shop. He was impressed with the hallmarking methods of the Europeans. However, it was not possible to get the jewellery hallmarked in Coimbatore. This made him apply his mind and an ingenious idea was born thereafter. Raju decided to inscribe the ornaments sold by him with his initials ' PAR ' and this was to be a sign of guarantee. His clients could recover 90 per cent of the price of gold on the day of sale and the exchange rate was to be 94 per cent. He was the first to display the retail price, purchase price and exchange price of gold on a slate in his shop in India! History was being made for Raju was the first jeweller to offer a buy back guarantee. The shop founded by him came to be known as P. A. Raju Chetty & Brother - Swarna Maligai and this happened in the year 1917. Handsome Raju with his kudumi (pigtail) and ear studs began his long and successful sojourn with jewellery. His tryst with innovation began to yield results. Raju became Raju Chettiar and eventually came to be known as PAR. 

         The young jeweller began his advertising blitzkrieg by distributing pamphlets in all the shandies. His friends who went to those shandies helped him. Socially conscious Raju addressed several social causes and problems from the very start of his career. This trait was part of his soul. Business grew and Raju, his wife Rajalakshmi, brother Ramaswamy and mother Subbulakshmi lived in Vysial Street. They used to transport the ornaments from the shop to their house for safe keeping on their own bullock cart. They used to weigh the ornaments and check the accounts regularly under the watchful eye of their mother Subbulakshmi, who would be ensconced on the family swing with a palm leaf fan on her hand. 

         Raju began his contributions to the society by founding the Coimbatore Town Arya Vysya Nagai Vyaparigal Sabhai by 1923. The organization was founded to address the issues faced by the jewellers’ belonging to the Vysya community and help the poor people of the town. Of course, conducting the Mahashivarathri Pooja at the Perur Patteeswararswamy Temple, Adi Velli Pooja in the prominent Amman Temples and celebrating the birthday of their community deity Vasavi Kannika Parameswari in a big way. Both Raju and Ramaswamy would take cash from the shop, bid for the jewels that were being auctioned by the pawn brokers and bankers. There would be an understanding among the jewellers that none would bid in the auction. The jewels taken in the auction used to be re-auctioned in the shop belonging to Raju and his brother Ramaswamy. Most of jewels would be bid by P. A. Raju Chetty & Brother. The profits were used to purchase properties for the Mahasabhai. Of course, the cash drawn was returned. Such novel ideas were part and parcel of Raju's life. Meanwhile Raju purchased commercial space on Big Bazaar Street and a few properties on Vysial Street. He demolished two of the houses bought by him and built a big mansion for his family. The family moved into the new home by 1930. 

         The successful jeweller became a Municipal Councillor and served during the tenure of Diwan Bahadur C. S. Rathinasabapathy Mudaliar who brought the tasty Siruvani water to the parched throats of Coimbatore in 1929. Meanwhile Raju was blessed with Janabai, Krishnan, Vittalabai and Sithakalyani. Damodaran and Rathna joined the family from their new palatial mansion 'Raju Bhavan'. Business flourished and the brothers led by Raju established a number of jewellery outlets named after their kids – P. A. R. Krishna & Co, P. A. R. Viswanath & Co among other ventures like P. A. R. Janardhana & Co and P. A. R. Raghunath & Co which followed later. The shop had become a chain of jewellery stores and Raju became a retailer, wholesaler, manufacturing jeweller and a bullion merchant. His turnover and good-will grew by leaps and bounds. Raju was a patriot and he decided to support the cause of freedom. He offered a working partnership to a graduate gentleman who did not want to work under the Europeans. This gentleman began being the working partner in one of the ancillary firms. He involved himself in the construction of a school on Vysial Street for the people of the old town. 

         Raju got a car for his family and would travel to Palani every Kiruthigai to offer his prayers to Lord Dhandayuthapani. He used to observe a vow of silence and would talk only after offering his prayers to the Lord of Palani. Raju used to offer his prayers at the Ankala Parameswari Amman Temple (family deity) in Palani before beginning his journey to Coimbatore. He had offered a bronze lamp for the temple in 1924 and the family continues to offer oil to the deity, a habit that was begun by him. The family had come from the Telugu speaking parts of the country during the times of the rulers of Vijayanagar. Their parentalu deity (family God) Subbamma was being offered prayers regularly in a box and this continues to be in Balasamudram. 

         The jeweller came to be known as Raju Chettiar and his fame grew far and wide. Bus service and the mills added to the prosperity of the city and Raju became rich. Customers flocked from all over Tamil Nadu to his shop. They came from Thrissur to Sankagiri and from Chamrajnagar to Palani. The business extended beyond Vellakovil and went up to Karur. Very quickly PAR became a family name. Raju Chettiar invested into brand building and he began to carpet bomb the market with his advertisements. Meanwhile Coimbatore got electricity in 1933 and PAR had revolving showcases in his shop. It was a novelty those days. 

         Freedom was far away but the freedom movement picked up momentum. Mahatma Gandhi visited Coimbatore in 1934 and Raju Chettiar met him. The influence of Gandhi and the freedom movement made him discard mill fabric and shift to Khadi. This became his fabric for life. Raju Chettiar made a silver model of his residence and gave it to Gandhi as a gift. The Mahatma auctioned the wonderful piece which had been crafted in the jewellery factory owned by P. A. Raju Chettiar. His close friend Abhaichand Vendravan took in for Rs.500 in the auction and the proceeds were recorded by Gandhi in his book of accounts. Raju had become P. A. Raju Chettiar and had marked his GOLDEN identity in the history of time.