Taken With Tamil Nadu

20 Apr

By MARGOT COHEN

TAMIL NADU, India—It can be tough to lure high-end travelers away from the most iconic sights in India: the Taj Mahal in Agra, the palaces and camels in Rajasthan, the party-hardy beach resorts in Goa and the houseboat cruises and ayurvedic spas in Kerala.

But a growing number of hoteliers aim to rattle those ossified itineraries by offering high-end comforts close to other marvels, found in Tamil Nadu state in southern India.

So today a traveler can enjoy the likes of Madurai’s psychedelic Meenakshi-Sundareswarar Temple, one of the country’s most lively and absorbing Hindu pilgrimage sites, and Thanjavur’s jaw-dropping, geometrically precise Brihadisvara Temple, a Unesco World Heritage site that marks its 1,000th anniversary this year—and do it without fear of having to stay in a grimy pilgrim lodge.

Trip Planner – HOW TO GET THERE
While most tourists enter Tamil Nadu through its capital city, Chennai, the drive from there to the sights around Madurai is long and tiring. Better to fly to Madurai or Tiruchirapalli. The former has a domestic airport served by the likes of Kingfisher Airlines and Air India from Bangalore and Chennai; plans call for international flights to begin in July. The latter has an international airport with connections that include Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Colombo; among the carriers are Air Asia, Sri Lankan Airlines and Air India Express.

From either, these sights of southern Tamil Nadu are mostly within a couple of hours by car and driver. Rentals run the gamut from plain sedan to imposing SUVs, though the best bargain may be India’s classic Ambassador, which once monopolized local roads.

WHERE TO STAY

Madurai
Gateway Hotel Pasumalai Madurai is 63 rooms set on about 25 hectares atop Pasumalai Hill. (40 TPK Rd.; Tel. 91-452-2371601; http://www.thegatewayhotels.com)
Heritance Madurai was designed (as a club) by architect Geoffrey Bawa, famous for buildings that include the Sri Lankan Parliament. (11 Melakkal Main Rd., Kochadai; Tel. 91-452-2385455; http://www.heritancemadurai.com)

Chettinad
The 25-room Bangala takes its name from the Tamil pronunciation of “bungalow.” (Karaikudi; Tel. 91-4565-220221; http://www.thebangala.com)
The Visalam is an Art Deco-influenced house turned into a 15-room hotel. (Kanadukathan; Tel. 91-484-3011711; http://www.cghearth.com)

Kumabakonam
The stained-glass-tinted cottages of Paradise Resort are set along the Cauvery River. (3/1216, Tanjore Main Rd., Darasuram, Ammapet; http://www.paradiseresortindia.com)

The Mantra, recently opened, is about 12 kilometers west of Kumbakonam. Guests are escorted by cart (bullock or golf) down a narrow path to its 30 cottages. This leafy setting also hosts music and dance performances. (Veppathur Village; Tel. 91-98412-88000; http://www.mantraveppathur.com)

INDeco Swamimalai is a converted century-old home, about six kilometers east of Kumbakonam, whose thatched roofs and courtyards (and village-tank-style pool) nod to its South Indian heritage. The menu is vegetarian. (Thimmakudy Village; Tel. 91-43524-80044; http://www.indecohotels.com)
Instead, the accommodation choices along this pilgrimage route include an urban resort designed as a club in the 1970s by the renowned Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa, along with a boutique hotel that recalls a French provincial inn and a converted 70-year-old home with Art-Deco flair.

And for secular road-trippers fearful of being overwhelmed by Hindu ritual, geography comes to the rescue, for between the two great living temples lies the quiet dignity of the Chettinad region, home of the Chettiar clan. Here 19th-century salt merchants and gem traders, seeking to cocoon their wives and children while they were off doing business in Southeast Asia, erected grand courtyard mansions, some now open for visitors. Also on hand are antique shops where visitors can search for remnants of some formidable dowries.

The best way to start the journey is to fly into Madurai or Tiruchirapalli (called “Trichy” for short) and hire a car and driver. From there, the landmarks are within reasonable driving distance.

Plunging into the vast complex of Meenakshi Temple requires a bit of stamina. No spot has a monopoly on spectacle; every nook and cranny pulses with color and devotion, with jostling processions on (the many) festival days. Constructed primarily between the 12th and 18th centuries, it reels with 300 Hindu priests, countless vendors of temple trinkets and 15,000 daily visitors. Elephants provide an element of placidity.

Notably, childless couples come to pray for offspring. (India’s infertility rates are rising, with the blame going to factors that include longer working hours and psychological strain.) Temple lore harks back to a childless king who made a series of fiery sacrifices in hopes of being granted an heir. Ultimately, the gods yielded and an infant girl emerged from the flames—a peculiar birth, the oddness compounded by her having three breasts. It was prophesied that the third breast would disappear when she met the perfect husband. Sure enough, in time she encountered the Hindu god, Shiva—and became his two-breasted wife, Meenakshi, now revered as a fish-eyed goddess for the infertile.

Clare Arni for The Wall Street Journal
The psychedelic Meenakshi-Sundareswarar Temple in Madurai is one of India’s liveliest Hindu pilgrimage sites.

There are other sights to absorb in Madurai, including the Gandhi Memorial Museum, which contains volumes from the personal library of Mahatma Gandhi, the revered “Father of India,” and a blood-stained cloth relic of his assassination. But visitors may well be tempted to enjoy some leisurely hours at the Heritance Madurai—the resort created from architect Bawa’s old Madurai Club—and indulge in the Sri Lankan cuisine that spices up its otherwise quiet nightlife. Conceived as a serene retreat from the hectic temple scene, the resort offers roomy WiFi-equipped villas, ancient banyan trees and a pristine swimming pool entered by gently descending steps—a contemporary take on traditional temple architecture. The architect’s signature reliance on local materials is reflected in jagged granite pillars and paving stones salvaged from a famed local thread factory, Madura Coats.

It’s not the only choice in Madurai. For those who prefer more traditional British colonial architecture (also with WiFi) and hilltop cocktails, a venerable Taj hotel beckons. (Long known as the Taj Garden retreat, it is newly renamed as the Gateway Hotel Pasumalai Madurai.)

Moving on to Chettinad requires a two-hour drive. A good place to settle is the Bangala hotel in the central hub of Karaikudi. Opened in 1919 as a genteel men’s club, complete with a tennis court, it fell on hard times in the 1960s—but renovations commenced in 1999, with further expansion in December 2009 to 25 rooms. Today, this cozy boutique hotel offers floral cotton bedspreads and rattan recliners poised in shady tiled corridors (the perfect spot to peruse the memoirs of the 75-year-old owner, Meenakshi Meyyappan). It also enjoys a growing reputation for elaborate Chettinad meals, with specialties ranging from chicken pepper fry to tamarind prawns. While Chettinad food bears a reputation as of one of India’s most spicy, throat-burning cuisines, Ms. Meyyappan rejects that as “media hype” and says her establishment’s dishes are finely calibrated with coriander, cinammon and fenugreek.

The hotel can arrange a detailed tour of the surrounding mansions, some of them linked to the family of Ms. Meyyappan. The traders showed off their wealth with these homes, adorning them with materials such as Burmese teak, Italian marble and Belgian glass. “They got the best products from all over the world, but translated them into something that is essentially Tamil—a home for the extended family,” says Nicole Bolomey, a New Delhi-based program specialist at Unesco, which is supporting efforts to preserve knowledge of Chettinad architecture, water-harvesting and village planning. In February, for example, a squad of French and Indian university students fanned out to map the most distinctive mansions in the area.

Many Chettiar-clan fortunes collapsed in the 1950s and ’60s, the businesses hit by such changes as the loss of the once-thriving gem trade in newly independent Burma, and thousands of these properties fell into disrepair. Some heirs moved overseas. But with locals eager to host more tourists, more restoration efforts are now under way.
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Clare Arni for The Wall Street Journal
The nonspiritual side of Madurai includes street food.

Typically, the outer verandah in these vintage mansions was reserved for male business activity, leaving women to use the side or back entrances. A series of inner courtyards was lined with small rooms, most often used for caches of jewelry and household utensils. Plastered walls, heavy carved teak doors, and colorful patterned tiles from Chettinad’s famed Athangudi village all contributed to the striking interior design.

A local guide recounts that the Chettiar women wore toe-rings engraved with waves, symbolizing the overseas trading habits of their husbands. (They were also known to remove these clattering toe rings on occasion, to avoid alerting the household that they were abandoning the communal sleeping area to steal a few intimate moments with a visiting spouse.)

In contrast to the living traditions on display at the temple in Madurai, these Chettinad homes are largely abandoned—save for weddings, which can still draw families together from different corners of India and the globe. The rest of the time, they’re typically inhabited by a few elderly family members and servants.

Yet the village of Kanadukathan seems to be experiencing a mini-revival. French and German tourists have discovered its Art Deco Visalam hotel, a 70-year-old converted house with plenty of vintage photographs and a sleek swimming pool. It was built as a wedding gift for a young woman who never actually lived here, though she did store her dowry items behind locked doors. Guests may take cooking lessons, though spice levels have been adjusted for foreign palates.

For a more lived-in feeling, visitors can follow the rather strange sign “Genetically Chettinad” to find the Chettinadu Mansion and its 73-year-old owner, A. Chandramouli. He raised funds to restore the family home by allowing Tamil crews to shoot a few feature films here. “Then we said, thank you, movie-wallahs!” he recalls. The money went to repair the leaky ceiling, eradicate the termites and scrub the moss from the terraces. While his 12 guest rooms are not as big and posh as those at Visalam, the place certainly has character.

Clare Arni for The Wall Street Journal
Brihadisvara Temple in Thanjavur bowls over many visitors with the spiritual force of its architecture.

From here, it’s a two-and-a-half hour drive to the Brihadisvara temple in Thanjavur—one of the most aesthetically thrilling sites in all of India. Its subtle earth tones contrast with the lurid colors at the Meenakshi temple, and many visitors find it hard to resist the humbling, spiritual force of the architecture (though superstition holds that Tamil politicians should avoid the temple if they want to hang on to power). Unfortunately, few are permitted to view the original Chola murals, which are in fragile condition. But special music and dance performances are planned into early next year to commemorate the temple’s millennium.

Thanjavur can be seen on a stop along the way from Karaikudi to Kumbakonam, or as a day trip from Kumbakonam, site of a more intimate temple experience. Darasalam temple, another World Heritage site, is known for its exquisite carved detail. It has attracted special attention lately from officials at Archeological Survey of India, who have supervised repairs of cracked pillars and ceilings in anticipation of more tourists this year.

Indeed, two nearby resorts are determined to broaden the market. The Mantra, which just opened, serves only vegetarian food and asks guests to abstain from alcohol, in line with orthodox Hindu Brahmin preferences. “Tourists want to follow all the rules and regulations that local people follow,” reasons V. Kannan, the resort manager. An upper-caste touch is also evident at the recently expanded Paradise Resort, where the cottages are painted rust and white, colors that signify a Brahmin presence. In the dining room, however, anything goes—including a cold beer and a hot fish curry. —Margot Cohen is a writer based in Bangalore.

As seen on http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303950104575185354099298516.html?mod=WSJ_LifeStyle_LifeStyleAsia_3 on16 April 2010.

Media Release – 16 April 2010

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