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Travel
April 18, 2012

Tamil Nadu Takes Off!

Text by Devanshi Mody.

Tamil Nadu, India’s must-visit state, has more temples than Italy has churches, and boasts India’s greatest concentration of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. If you are not impressed by this, join the devotees who plan pilgrimages here principally for the prasadam! Still not convinced? Visit simply to enjoy the mouth-watering local cuisine which Verve declares beats the fare at most Michelin-starred establishments

In the Sundarbans, I met some Chennai High Court lawyers. I asked about Tamil Nadu’s fabled temples. For two days Mrs S expounded upon the undulating intricacies of prasadam across TN temples…. Here was enticement.

I discovered TN has more temples than Italy has churches, India’s greatest concentration of UNESCO World Heritage Sites and devotees who often pilgrimage here for (admittedly delicious) prasadam! But few, French tourists apart, visit 1200-year-old UNESCO temples. Indians throng European monuments and museums but being sighted at desi sites?

Temple trails,
UNESCO World Heritage Sites
Thanjavur: Mighty Emperor Rajaraja Chola’s stupendous Brihadeeswarar Temple, an over 1000-year-old architectural masterpiece, the world’s first granite temple, incarnates Chola glory and artistic dedication. Intriguingly, this stratospheric construct casts no shadow. The sheer magnitude awes: The 66m vimana myriadly encrusted is among earth’s tallest, whilst India’s second largest Nandi is monumentally 20 feet long and 13 feet high, weighing 25 tonnes. The Nandi-dotted octagonal shikharam presides on an 81-tonne granite block. The mammoth mahalingam pervades a two-storied sanctum pulsating with murals and sculpture, including the 108 Bharata Natyam postures.

The frescoed Thanjavur Palace’s Library exhibits miniatures, manuscripts, scrolls and perhaps India’s largest Sanskrit text collection whilst the Bronze Gallery’s imposing stone statues, delicate bronzes and entrancing arrayed Natarajas belittle Greek and Roman sculpture.

An elderly lady evinces, “I’m pleased India’s cultural heritage interests you. Most youngsters only care about the fastest way to reach America.”

Darasuram: On our departure the hotel receptionist cursorily mentions Airavateswarar Temple. We almost missed Rajaraja Chola II’s architectural treasure which has been called ‘the sculptor’s dream in stone’. A tremendous horse-drawn chariot immortalised in sculpted rock forms the mandapa, highlighting carvings of extreme finesse draping emphatic pillared enclaves. Art historian Fergusson said, ‘Chola artists conceived like giants and finished like jewellers’. The temple languishes in solitude. Someone deserves a lashing.

Gangaikonda Cholapuram: Rajendra Cholam’s temple enshrines a 4m Shiv lingam, South India’s largest. From Gangaikonda, Chola capital for 250 years, Chola emperors controlled all of South India, northern Lanka and attained Bali (hence, Bali’s Hinduism). The British who apparently civilised India dismantled rock from this astoundingly ancient temple for their forts…. Under soaring stacked sculptures of staggering beauty, millennial this year, tramps snooze as urchins gambol under gyrating Shivas.

Kampahareswarar: Kulothunga Chola’s temple completes the four ‘Great Living Chola Temples’. Pietistic artistry assumes a splendid chariot mandapa chiselled in curlicues depicting The Ramayana.

Mahabalipuram: Twelve hundred years ago, seven magnificent temples laced the sea. Survives the legendary Shore Temple, including two Shiva temples. However, Vishnu’s shrine most captivates with its sprawled reclining statue. Necklaced in Nandis, the temple has painstakingly engraved bas reliefs. Dravidian architecture, notable Buddhist design elements and subtle Pallava art interweave. Rock-hewn monolith ‘Pandava’ rathas stun. Seek the spectacular Arjuna’s Penance, Descent of the Ganges, Varaha Cave Temples…. Utter petrified poetry!

In Europe, guards surround Indians scrutinising paintings. Here, tourists giddy-up blissfully on Nandis….

The following temples aren’t UNESCO sites. But they should be!
Meenakshi: Listed amongst ‘India’s Seven Wonders’. Behold 12 towers, including two golden gopurams, an enchantment of endless carvings, mammoth monoliths – remarkably, eight majestic elephants upholding the santum santorum swirled in Natarajas in extraordinary poses. Imbued in myth, overwhelming 2500-year-old Madurai, the temple occupying Tamil literature since antiquity fetches Rs 60 million per annum. Opposite the temple thrives the Tailor’s Market. Get stitched clothes whilst you meander through jewellery, embroidery, accessories….

Srirangam: Renowned for courtyards in infinitude and architectural grandeur, with Moghul and Jain infusions. Expect to queue hours, Vishnu being the god en vogue. Priests are dismayed at NRIs declining fast-track to God. Thanjavur paintings enfilade to the shrine under whose 90kg gold dome Lord Vishnu stretches luxuriantly.

Alagar: Intimate, laconic. Refreshingly restrained architecture.

Chidambaram: Five fantastic courtyards, eminently particular architecture, unique for the bejewelled Nataraja and Shiva embodying, unusually, an anthropomorphic murthi rather than the anionic lingam.

Kancheepuram: Temple City and Silk Sari City. Must do the Vishnu temple where vistas of terrific rearing horses stilled in stone overlook water bodies.

Rameswaram: In the Ramayana Rama worshipped Shiva here before embarking upon Lanka from Dhanushkodi with its blinding white sands and striking blue waters. Ah, Dhanushkodi to Dhanush Kolaveri! Meeting Mrs S in Chennai, I mention that I couldn’t make it to Thiruvannamalai. Did I miss much? I’m solemnly informed, “Yes, their prasadam is unmissable!”

Luxe Havens
CGH Visalam: Amongst the world’s best hotels. A heritage home with enormous antique-filled suites, burgeoning gardens, verdant verandahs, gorgeous coffee… . Twenty-two-year-old Chef Ashwin’s ‘secret weapon’, a village lady, deploys feisty Chettinad gastronomy, including 23-course banana leaf lunches. The French think they invented straggling menus? Sultry terrace suppers and poolside breakfasts are unmitigated banquets. Visalam can teach self-pompous Michelin-starred chefs about technical ingenuity – ethereal textures, astonishing flavours, creatively flashed, troublingly tasty. Visalam’s eco-friendly ‘Lean Service’ is exquisitely efficient sans five-star sycophancy. Comely village damsels sweep floors and rectify satellite problems! Conceding 10/10 seems indiscriminate, but how else to describe perfection?

Dune: Sleep in bamboo huts, 150-year-old wood houses, stilted homes, plunge-pooled studios. Book Granite House (transformed rock temple the government razed). Careless architecture obtrudes upon you sounds of neighbourly intimacies, though…signature home-grown coffee. Exceptional spa. No fussy therapists with scarily strained skin. Under thatch, local ladies dispense with incredible Ayurveda advice.

The Heritage: Imbibe Bawa’s minimalism, expansiveness, pillared pavillions…. The pool replicates ancient royal tanks; the reception showcases an ornate wooden fortress door. Antique-filled villas, private plunge pools, marvellous Madurai coffee!
Indeco Swamimalai: India’s only International Eco Tourism hotel winner. Enjoy 1896 Thanjavur village-turned-villas with in-house museum and fanciful owner….

Chennai
Destination dégustation!
Sangeetha: Oxford friends stayed three months in Chennai for Sangeetha dosas. I’d re-route flights via Chennai for Sangeetha’s masala dosas and mouth-melting idlis like little snow blobs. My brother, forsaking England for Chennai, lives by Sangeetha. Here, you might share a table with a gold-drenched Brahmin lady, a tourist, a five-star waiter. Inexhaustible menu, invariably delectable. In the loftiest five-stars my brother rues, “Sangeetha is better,” refusing to leave Chennai, whilst our mother weeps as if Sangeetha were a woman come between her and her son.

Dakshin: Iconic. Nita Ambani’s favourite. Embraced in Thanjuvar paintings, under temple-bell lamps, temple-door menus open. Executive chef Praveen Anand can discuss Vedanta, third century vadais and Tamil king Nala’s culinary treatise, the world’s first. Chef’s researched, re-instituted obsolete recipes, sous chef Harish executes. Nuanced Deccan preparations unfurl, culminating in bewildering payasams, halwas and coffee. TN’s gourmet obsession beggars France’s. Endearing waiter Abdul’s enthusiasm for food betokens he’s inevitably local! Remember, in the lobby, over resurrected age-old snacks, a maami tumbles Chennai’s headiest metre coffee, tumbling like brocade, which Italians avow routs cappuccinos.

Kudumbam: Boutique restaurant. Features orderable Keralite artefacts, besides Kerala’s historic cooking traditions and recipes. Amazing iced nelli juice, Keralite biryanis, hoppers, stews, puttu and jackfruit ice cream refined to epicurean pinnacles. Apparently, time-devouring ancestral techniques and premium ingredients in McDonald’s era displease the owners….
Madras: Innovated cabbage chutney, beetroot rasam, varietal podis, wondrous vadai…

Be seen
Spice Market: Resplendent art, riotous, 7000 square feet of madness when the Alwarpet set and expats invade champagne brunches effusing chaats (expect Bengali/Marvadi variants), Gujarati pharsaans, 20 delightful chocolate desserts and the only five-star sugarcane juice worth its roadside prototype. But at breakfast abound cereals, seeds, compotes and extract-your-honey hives!

On the Rocks: Adventurous concept. Meats cooked at your table on volcanic rock naturally sizzling at 3000C.

Foccacia: Avail of top-notch tapenades, the only authentic foccacia outside Italy, spinach gnocchi…. Watch well-travelled locals swill Barolos by the stem, unlike bulb-clutching wannabe Mumbaikars. Discover the best pizzas with bases flatter than a Parisian model’s belly, as minimally clad as a Parisian model’s body. Puree and cheese cover bare essentials or, essentially, barely cover.

Sandy’s: Hundred per cent desi-Kerala chocolate beans, Kashmir badam, Kolkata mustard. Sandy declares, “Unlike Mumbai, Chennai is brutal with mediocrity.”

Tuscana: Italian only in evoking the excruciations of Dante’s Inferno. ‘Italian-Indian’ fare, egregiously overpriced. Expat-chef ownership sells. People exclaim, “Spot expats there!” (Like expats were exalted specimens). As-good-as-in-Italy gelati redeems.

Season’s Eatings
My Fortune: Post-concerts during Chennai’s famous December Music Season, orchestrate five-course South Indian breakfasts in private dining.

Preggo: Christmas champagne brunch assemble antipasti, artisanal cheeses served with honey Italian-style and plethoric desserts. Memorable orange ricotta cake.

Taj Fisherman’s Cove: Forget Vijay Mallya’s Goan New Year’s Eve. Chef Samir’s beachside fiesta is so expansive (the Rajasthani halwai’s mitthais excel), I thought I’d be eating until 2013.

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