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Travel
August 21, 2013

Of Ponds And Payasam

Text by Mala Vaishnav.

Mala Vaishnav travels south to the innermost realms of Tamil Nadu and discovers the land that gave Chettinad chicken and Tanjore paintings a place in the archives

  • Tamil Nadu
  • Tamil Nadu
    Thanjavur’s Big Temple
  • Tamil Nadu
    Chidambara Vilas
  • Tamil Nadu
    Fiery cuisine

We are speeding on a semi highway deep in an arid district of Tamil Nadu with no other vehicle, animal, or human in sight. Eight of us, adult women, have been bundled into two auto rickshaws (there wasn’t a third available) by a well-meaning sari shop owner who has just made a killing off our group. One of us has seated herself next to the cowering driver who has turned glass-eyed. “If my children could see me now…,” she sings, whizzing past. “….they would cringe with embarrassment,” I complete, waving back. Giving in to an impromptu urge, we are en route to Golden Restaurant for an authentic Chettinad thali. Azhagudevar Sakthivel, the lungi-clad owner, runs out of a green-coloured building to welcome us and to our consternation, sends our transportation on its way. “I will drop you back,” he assures and proceeds to personally supervise our six-course meal that exudes the aromas and flavours of a dynasty in decline.

Chettinad, a cluster of 70-odd villages, is home to the prosperous Chettiars, former gem merchants who made their fortunes in Burma, Malaysia and Singapore. Earlier residing on the coastline under the benevolent hand of the Chola kings, the financially powerful community was driven inland through the centuries by the constant threat of tsunamis and cyclones. They built imposing mansions, replete with embellished pillars, ornate doors and vast courtyards. Today, many of these lie abandoned and in ruins, wistful survivors of the migration exodus. Others have been injected with new life in their changed avatars of heritage hotels. One such, Chidambara Vilas, 110 years old, rising tall and beautiful in Kadiapatti, is where we return to for five nights after our daily wanderings in the countryside.

Breakfasts here are served straight from the fire to the plate. Smiling ammas keep up a steady flow of fluffy idlis, crisp dosas and baby vadas from an open-air kitchenette while we idle with our filter coffee in a foliage-encased verandah. There’s even a well in the yard. The hotel interiors boast an elegant melange of rosewood, Belgian glass and handcrafted Athangudi tiles. One night, post a traditional banana leaf dinner, we take a wrong turn and stumble upon mysterious passages and steep staircases, to find ourselves on the moonlit rooftop being stared at by a trio of monkeys!

To the local inhabitants, we appear to be a bit of a puzzle. Accustomed to Italian and French groups who are ‘doing Chettinad for the day’, they don’t quite know what to make of a bunch of non white women travellers relishing fiery crab curries, taking sunset walks around the villages and confidently achieving price reductions for antique enamelled cookware in the cramped warehouses on Karaikudi’s MK Street. At the Weavers’ Centre, bursting with hand-woven, rainbow-hued saris, the sales staff ask, “Are you from India?” In a sweetmeat shop, as we buy boxes of the famed Tuticorin macaroons, the manager decides we are NRIs from Singapore and gives us tips on payasam tastings and religious tourism.

Since we are in spiritual surroundings, one day is reserved for temple gazing. Fresh from the not so pleasant experience at Madurai’s Meenakshi Temple where we were propelled by frantic crowds towards deities and shrines like speeding missiles, simply because we happened to be at the right place at the wrong time, we leave for Thanjavur 75 km away, early on a week day, picnic boxes in tow. Popularly known as the rice bowl of India and home to the famed Tanjore painting, the town’s real pride is the 1000-year-old legacy of the Chola rulers, the Brihadeeswarar Shiva temple complex. A UNESCO World Heritage Monument, it is one of the country’s prized architectural sites. A 13-feet-high Nandi bull, chiselled from a single stone, stands sentinel-like at the entrance. Post a traditional feast at Hotel Gnanam and a super-quick dalliance with the uninspiring environs of the old palace where the erstwhile Raja’s private museum is approached by a tunnel-like stairway lined with silent bats, we make our way back, past swaying paddy fronds and stop at the ancient hill fort of Tirumayam.

In one of the two rock-cut temples at its base, we encounter a young man who hesitantly introduces himself as the diner at the table next to ours at Thanjavur! An engineer from IIT Mumbai, he is holidaying with his family in his hometown and offers to play guide, explaining the nuances of the voluptuous dancers on the pillars, the unusual reclining Vishnu hewn out of rock and the rare octagonal pond from where his mother fills some holy water. Trudging back to the hotel, a couple of km ahead, we notice a familiar red auto rickshaw expertly fitted with doors, come to a screeching halt. Sakthivel pokes his head out. We just got our ride.

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