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 economy.

Financially, Chettinad has never been the same since the decline of the local Nagarathars. Once dubbed “the moneylenders of the [British] Empire,” the Nagarathars, lacking suitable land for agriculture, were émigrés by tradition. As bankers and traders, they made fortunes in teak, marble and pottery across Asia during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Their wealth was remitted to Chettinad and used to build the homes that are now decaying.

It was the tumult of war that caused the economic collapse of this mercantile society. The community’s assets were requisitioned by the British at the start of World War II to service the war effort in East Asia, crippling the Nagarathars at the height of their affluence. They returned home, but abandoned their properties, preferring to relocate to India’s heaving cities to rebuild their fortunes. Today, unable or unwilling to maintain their former family seats, many descendants are taking the buildings apart and selling the spoils. The antique shops of Chettinad’s biggest town, Karaikudi, are full of them- and they are pitifully cheap. Intricate, 200-year-old teak doors, depicting a wonderful miscellany of Hindu Gods, Victorian ladies and scenes from the Raj, fetch a mere $250.

One Nagarathar home that has been spared this kind of fire-sale is an Art Deco-style mansion on the outskirts of Karaikudi now converted into a boutique hotel, the Bangala, tel: (91 4565) 250221. Chettinadu Mansion, tel: (91 4565) 27308, a similar property, also recently opened as hotel. Tamil Nadu’s tourism commissioner, Shakti Kanta Das, hopes hotels like these will propel the region “to the threshold of big-time tourism.”

But there’s still a long way to go. Aside from the architecture, for now there is little to amuse visitors in this scorching desert. And while the royal families of Rajasthan adroitly revived their state by carving tourist trails between their exquisite forts and palaces, it remains to be seen if the Nagarathars can do the same. They have the raw material. What’s needed now is the mercantile hunger of their forebears.

This article appeared in the November 25 2006 issue of TIME Asia.