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Garli: Chateau Charisma

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY discover old world romance and architectural gems in a heritage village in Himachal Pradesh

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If it wasn’t for the summer heat and pahadi drumbeats heralding our arrival, we could have been in a faraway village in Germany or Switzerland. We stood under the painted oriel window of Chateau Garli with blues skies broken by white clouds and gyrating weathervanes, utterly besotted and bewildered by its beauty. The arterial road running through the pahadi town was lined by heritage buildings on either side though the summer haze obscured the snow-capped Dhauladhar range.

Garli in Himachal Pradesh’s Kangra Valley wears its European influences with an air of nostalgic élan. In the 16th century, the area came under the rule of the Jaswan kingdom. The brave princess Prag Dei put up a stiff resistance against a band of marauders terrorising the valley and Pragpur was established in her honour. Its sister town Garli is peopled by the 52 hill clans of the Sood community, who originally lived in Rajasthan but were driven out by the Mughals.

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Around 19th century they settled around the hamlets of Garli and its more famous architectural twin town Pragpur four kilometres away. The site was chosen carefully at the tri-junction of three Shakti temples – Chintpurni, Jwalamukhi and Brajeshwari in Kangra to receive auspicious astral influences. They came here with cobblers, carpenters, craftsmen and other professionals to set up a trading township.

As treasurers of the Kangra royals and contractors who helped the British establish Shimla, the Soods amassed great fortunes and love for European style is so evident in Garli. The town is a haven of sprawling ancestral homes showcasing jaw-dropping architectural styles. Today, most are however in need of care and renovation. Some of the houses seem to be in a state of decay and the sleepy town does wear a tattered cloak of neglect and abandonment.

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Giving credence to this is a legend of a young bride who was wrongly accused of adultery by the villagers years ago. Angry at the slur to her reputation, the helpless girl cursed the entire village to eternal ruin. Surprisingly enough, over the years people started moving out and by the 1950s, apparently most of the houses in the once thriving village were abandoned. Thankfully, a few, like Chateau Garli, which lay unoccupied for 20 years, have now been protected.

Our host Yatish Sud and his son Amish have painstakingly restored their mansion, constructed in 1921 by his grandfather Lala Mela Ram Sud, into a boutique heritage stay. Each of its 19 rooms holds memories of another time – colonial furniture, mellow lights and crystal chandeliers contrasting sunlit coloured panes spilling rainbow reflections onto the floor.

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Our room in the old main building had a lovely balcony overlooking the large swimming pool. The ceiling artwork and gilded motifs framing the doorways, walls and windows were hand-painted by Amish’s sister Tarini, adding a classy, personal touch to the interiors. The acute gabled roofs, long windows and pillared verandahs of the main building flowed seamlessly to the annexe, which used to be a cattle shed.

Overlooking the pool and rustic kitchen counter, the annexe with its colourful windows transforms into fairytale castle at dusk. Each of the rooms are dressed with antique furniture like four poster beds and baby cribs, which accentuate its old world charm. Beside the pool, a mud-plastered counter was lined with brass pots and a traditional chulha (earthen oven) where food was prepared by local staff.

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Lunch was a lovely Kangra dhaam (meal) featuring a fixed menu of traditional Himachali delicacies like mhani, a preparation of black chana with jaggery and amchoor, siddu, the local steamed bread, mah ki dal, khatta (tangy curry) and meetha (sweet). After washing it down with some Kangra tea, we went on a guided walk around Garli.

Meandering cobbled alleys were lined by copper-toned mud-plastered homes, brick houses with slate roofs and lovely balconies, wooden balustrades, carved doors, wall murals and Rajasthani arches. Rayeeson wali kothi, the first mansion built in Garli, had murals and Rajasthani motifs on the walls, Santri wali kothi was dominated by two turbaned plaster sentries on the parapet wall while Nalke wali kothi had a public tap in front.

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We stopped by at one of the earliest bakeries in town where home-style cookies were being fired in a coal oven. On the town’s eastern end on the road to the Beas stood Naurang Yatri Nivas, a charming rustic style country lodge renovated by Yatish’s friend Atul Lal. In market lanes we discovered the progressive town planning, water and drainage system incorporated nearly a century ago.

The Soods established a boys’ school in 1918, a special women’s hospital in 1921 and a girl’s school by 1955. All of these, along with Garli Water Works, which used imported copper pipes from London, are still operational! The waterworks was inaugurated by Sir Malcolm Hailey, the Governor of Punjab on 8th February 1928 and a special road was built for the purpose. At a time when the rest of India was largely underdeveloped, the infrastructure of this tiny outpost was leagues ahead.

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Homes had wall niches for lamps to illumine the path for pedestrians in the old days. Pots of water were left thoughtfully for people to help combat heat and thirst. Such generosity of spirit was apparent even at Chateau Garli. When Yatish’s grandfather struck water while building the house, he adjusted his compound walls so that the well came outside his boundary and village folk could fill their pots. The practice continues to this day.

As Yatish drove us around local sights like Pong Dam, Dada Siba temple with Kangra paintings and 8th century Masroor rock-cut temples, we realized hospitality was not new to the Suds, it was an age old tradition.

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VITALS

Accommodation
Chateau Garli has 19 heritage rooms and suites between its main house and the annexe and serves robust, home-style meals including Indian, Chinese and local Kangra fare. Each room comes with AC, coffee maker and wi-fi besides a common swimming pool with underwater speakers!

Chateau Garli
Ph +91-1970-246246, 94180 62003
http://www.chateaugarli.com
Tariff Rs.5000 onwards).

Getting There
Garli is 4km/10 min east of its twin village Pragpur in Himachal Pradesh’s Kangra district. It is 45km/1 hr southeast of Dharamsala, 186km/3 hrs from Chandigarh and 425km/7 hrs north of New Delhi. The closest airport is Gaggal in Dharamsala which has flights from Delhi. The nearest railway station is Amb, 16km/20 min away, connected by Himachal Express from Delhi, which reaches at 8am. Regular buses ply to Garli from many cities in Himachal like Pathankot (120km), Kullu (180km) and Simla (180km).

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the November 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller magazine: http://www.natgeotraveller.in/mountain-stay-chateau-garli-for-himachal-heritage-and-kangra-khana/

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11 ways to enjoy Puducherry

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Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, set in the former French enclave of Pondicherry (now Puducherry), notched up 11 Oscar nominations. ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY pick 11 unique ways to discover Pondy, hailed as La Côte d’Azur de l’Est or French Riviera of the East

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1. Celebrate Pondy’s cultural diversity
Witness the unique amalgam of the quiet sea-facing French Quarter with its wide rues (streets) blending into the bustling hinterland of the Tamil Quarter. One can fathom how Piscine Patel embraced multi-culturalism in Pondy’s diverse air with shrines like Varadaraja Perumal in the Hindu Quarter, the Immaculate Conception Cathedral in the Christian Quarter and Khutbah and Meeran mosques in the Muslim Quarter. Meditate in silence in the leafy courtyard of Aurobindo Ashram or retrace Pi’s footsteps as he followed Anandi through the colourful, chaotic markets of Grand Bazaar. 

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2. Go French
Amidst policemen wearing red kepis and locals playing petanque (hurling metal balls), get a dose of French culture at Alliance Francaise and Institut Francais de Pondicherry (IFP), whose precious manuscripts find a mention in UNESCO’s ‘Memory of the World’ register. Observe prayers in French at Notre Dame des Anges, the only church in Pondicherry to have mass in three languages (English and Tamil are the other two). Don’t miss the marble statue of Jeanne d’ Arc in front and the tomb of French governor Marquis de Bussy in an adjacent cemetery.

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3. Walk down the historic promenade
Explore Beach Road or Goubert Avenue on foot, a seaside avenue lined by charming colonial buildings like the French Institute, French Consulate General, Secretariat, Villa Bayoud heritage hotel and Promenade Hotel, built in 1878 as a railway station! Amble down to the old groundnut bag embankment where a statue of Mahatma Gandhi now stands, the tallest in Asia. Beyond the 88ft lighthouse, the first on the Coromandel Coast, are the Custom House, French War Memorial, Le Café (a porthouse till the 1930s) and statue of French Governor Dupleix at the southern end of the promenade. With no vehicular traffic between 6pm to 7:30am it’s ideal for evening and morning jaunts!

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4. Get blessed by an elephant at Manakula Vinayagar
The 500-year-old shrine of Lord Ganesha was once closer to the shore where sand (manal) often swept into its pond (kulam), giving the temple its name Manakula Vinayagar. Having survived attempts by French missionaries to pull it down, the popular temple is a celebration of the elephant-headed god, whose various forms adorn the walls. Hand a coin to Lakshmi, the temple elephant to receive a thump from her trunk as blessing!

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5. Hang out at a café
Get drawn into Pondy’s many cafes and boulangeries where the tantalizing smell of fresh baked croissants and baguettes hangs in the air. Overlooking the pier where Pi bid adieu to Anandi, is Le Café, a 24 hr coffee lounge serving organic beverages, pastries and snacks. Catch an evening concert at Café de Flore, an informal garden restaurant at Alliance Francaise’s Maison Colombani.

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6. Go boating at Chunnambar
If drifting on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger on the high seas isn’t your kind of escapade, try the tamer pleasures of Chunnambar. Drive 7km south on Cuddalore Road to the serene backwaters for a leisurely boat ride. Besides river jaunts, go on a sea cruise for dolphin sighting or take a speedboat to Paradise Beach with a picnic hamper.

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7. Get a wat-su treatment at Paradise Spa
For aqua adventures of another kind, get initiated in the art of wat-su (or WATer ShiatSU) at The Dune Ecotel’s Paradise Spa. Enriching your visit are rejuvenative therapies, art in residence programs, shopping at the ArtyZan boutique, gourmet cuisine and stay in eco friendly rooms, no two of which are alike!

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8. Get a history lesson at Puducherry Museum
While little remains of the Roman trading settlement at Arikamedu when Pondicherry flourished as the port town of Poduke, one can piece together the jigsaw at Pondicherry Museum. The century old Law Building, erstwhile residence of the French Administrator, displays Roman pottery and Megalithic burial urns. The Transport Gallery features palanquins, carts and the Pousse Pousse, a vehicle pushed from the rear and steered by a rider. In the French-India Gallery see period furniture like tête-à-têtes (S-shaped sofas), comptoirs, escritoires (writing tables and desks) and the cot used by French Governor Dupleix (1742-1754), whose bust adorns the museum.   

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9. Try Franco-Tamil cuisine at a restaurant with no name
Located on Perumal Koil Street in the Tamil Quarter is Maison Perumal, a Chettiar mansion beautifully restored by CGH Earth. Like in a house, the rooms are left unnumbered and the courtyard restaurant bears no name. Dine on the day’s fixed menu of fresh seafood platters surrounded by ooralis (brass troughs), sepia tinted photos and stain glass panes glinting in the sun.

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10. Botanical garden
While there’s no zoo in Pondicherry (there are plans to set up one after the movie’s success), it was the scenic locale of the Botanical Garden that served as the film set. Established in 1826, the 22-acre garden was a French experiment to analyze the feasibility of crops in the area. Flowerbeds and graveled pathways were added later and today it’s a treasure trove of 900 exotic plants, with an aquarium, a toy train and a musical fountain as its other attractions. The centrally located Bharathi Park, at the site of the demolished Fort Louis and military parade ground, is the city’s other lung space with the Arc de Triomphe-sque Aayi Mandapam dominating the centre.

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11. Hone a skill at Auroville
There’s more to Auroville than just the Matri Mandir. Live and learn in this global city of ideas where its inhabitants perfect crafts like handmade paper (Auroville Papers), indigo-dyed clothing (The Colours of Nature), incense manufacture (Encens d’Auroville) and bodycare (Maroma Spa) to energy-efficient solutions. Besides workshops and internship programs, there’s a huge communal bonfire in the Amphitheatre on 21 Feb and 28 Feb to celebrate the birthdays of the Mother and Auroville.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 18 Feb 2013 in Conde Nast Traveller online.  

Madurai: Oracular Spectacular

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY visit Madurai to see the temple town’s round-the-clock machinery of piety and commerce

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At 4am, a metal gate creaks open and a woman washes the entrance to her home, swiftly drawing an intricate kollam (floral design). A vendor unloads baskets of fresh malli poo (jasmine), soon to be threaded into elaborate garlands for temple rituals, weddings or hair ornaments. In another street, the telltale aroma of sambar and freshly brewed coffee signals breakfast as trays of steaming idlis are deftly removed. Elsewhere, the unstoppable clatter of looms working through the night has produced reams of Sungundi saris. Madurai may be no New York but it certainly is Thoonga Nagaram, the city that never sleeps.

In mythology, Madurai was once Kadambavanam, the forest where Lord Indra atoned for the sin of slaying the pious demon Virudran (Vritra). Unable to complete his ritual with the right number of flowers, Indra prayed fervently beside a lake where a golden lotus magically bloomed. The famous Madurai Meenakshi Temple symbolizes this legend. The lingam is supposedly the one that Indra prayed to and the Potramarai (Golden Lotus) tank is the sacred lake. The golden spire over the sanctum sanctorum is called Indra Vimanam and Ashta Airavat (eight forms of Indra’s famous mount) guard Shiva’s shrine. On Chaitra Purnima, Indra allegedly visits the temple to perform puja.

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It is said that when the city was being founded, Lord Shiva appeared and danced with joy, drizzling nectar (madhuram) from his matted locks as blessing. Hence the town was named Madurai. Under the Pandyas and Madurai Nayakas, Madurai flourished as a cultural capital, hosting the last Tamil Sangam, a literary conclave that produced the Tamil epic Silappathikaaram. When Greek envoy Megasthenes visited India in 3rd Century BC, he hailed Madurai as Athens of the East.

Temple of the Fish-eyed Goddess

While walking the busy streets of Tamil Nadu’s third largest city, it’s hard to discern that Madurai radiates around the iconic temple in concentric rectangles that symbolize the cosmos. Streets bear names of Tamil months – Adi, Chitare, Avani Mula, Masi and Veli. And wherever you may be, the rainbow-hued temple towers soaring 150ft skywards draw you in. As we entered the 16-acre complex, it was like breaching a portal to some Spiritual Wonderland – musical pillars, gilded domes, divine sculptures, devotees heaping ash over the Ganesha idol of Vibhuthi Pullaiyar, scenes portraying Shiva’s Thiruvilayadal (64 miracles) and murals depicting his marriage to Meenakshi.

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Customarily, we worshipped the bejeweled emerald deity of Goddess Meenakshi first before Lord Sundareshwarar. ‘That’s why in Madurai, women are superior to males, unlike Tanjore’, joked our guide. ‘In the days of Sangam literature, poets and pundits would consecrate their works to the temple by throwing their manuscripts into the Pottramarai tank. If they sank, they weren’t considered good enough, if they floated, they had passed muster.’ The 2-hr tour ended at the Temple Art Museum inside the 1000-pillared Ayiramkal Mandapam, which incidentally has only 984!

Thirumalai Nayaka’s legacy

From the third longest temple corridor in Tamil Nadu, we found ourselves at one of South India’s largest man-made temple tanks. The 1100ft by 950ft Mariamman Theppakulam was excavated by King Thirumalai Nayaka to make bricks for the construction of his palace and later converted into a stepped tank fed by the Vaigai River through underground channels. As part of his birthday celebrations, the king initiated the Float Festival in 17th century where Madurai’s presiding deities were given a ride on a decorated theppa (raft) around the kulam (tank).

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Built in 1636, the Thirumalai Nayaka Palace was sadly only a fourth of its original size, demolished by the king’s grandson Chokkanatha Nayaka who transplanted some portions to his new capital Trichy. The Swargavilasa or Celestial Pavilion was the only surviving relic. A massive open courtyard seemed to frame the sky as 13m high pillars lined the Indo-Saracenic building. The ceiling was rendered with floral designs like flying carpets hovering above. A golden throne marked the Durbar Hall while the adjoining hall Nataka Sala was where the king was entertained.

Opposite the palace, shops sold Madurai’s famous signature drink Jigar Thanda (Soul Coolant), a curious blend of chilled reduced milk, badam milk, nannari sherbet (sarsaparilla extract), kalpasi (China grass), sago, Boost (malt-based chocolate drink) and ice cream. A regular patron explained it was perfect for Madurai’s hot climate.

After a brief stop at St. Mary’s Cathedral, one of the oldest Roman Catholic churches in the region, we crossed the dry Vaigai River to reach the Gandhi Memorial Museum, one of the seven museums in the country dedicated to the Mahatma. It was during his second visit to Madurai in 1921, that Gandhiji adopted his trademark loincloth to express his compassion towards the ill-clad peasants in the countryside. His 1934 visit spurred the ‘Temple Entry Movement’ for harijans (considered untouchables). Only after Vaidyanath Iyer opened the doors of the Madurai temple to all in 1939, did Gandhiji step inside the shrine in 1946!

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Set in the beautiful Tamukkum Summer Palace of Nayaka queen Rani Mangammal, the museum showcased Gandhiji’s life through rare images, quotes, murals and letters. The Hall of Relics and Replicas contained 14 original artefacts used by Mahatma Gandhi including a shawl, spectacles, yarn and the bloodstained cloth worn by him when he was assassinated.

Beyond Madurai

Madurai was also home to two of the six Aru Padai Veedu or Sacred Abodes of Lord Murugan. We climbed the hilly cave shrine of Subramanya Swamy at Tirupparankundram to the chants of “Vetrivel Muruganukku Arohara” (Hail to the Lance-wielding Lord). Women hurled butterballs to cool down the fierce image of Kali while others fed fish in the 11 teerthams (ponds). An hour’s drive away was Pazhamudhir Cholai, where Lord Subramanya had tested the wits of saint Avayya as a young boy. At the foothills stood the Azhagar Kovil temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu as Sundarajar or Azhagar, the brother of Meenakshi who solemnized her marriage to Lord Shiva.

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What made all the hectic sightseeing worthwhile was returning to a 17-acre oasis called Heritage Madurai. Once a club for British managers of Madura Coats and today a heritage hotel, a small Chettinad village has been recreated in its old drive-in theatre where garland making, pottery and weaving were taught to guests. But we were off for the real deal. Chettinad was just 80km away and within a few hours we were rolling through a dusty stark landscape into a fantasy world of 100-room mansions and Chettinad cuisine.

From Aayiram Jaanal veedu or House of 1000 Windows in Karaikudi to MAM Ramaswamy’s Chettinad Palace in the heritage village of Kanadukathan, each building was a masterpiece. From the Art Deco style of Visalam, the Bangala’s colonial touch, the French minimalism of Saratha Vilas to the opulence of Chidambara Vilas near Tirumayam Fort; staying in these heritage hotels was the best way to experience true Chettiar hospitality.

Blending Burmese Teak, Italian Marble, Belgian chandeliers, English crockery and Japanese ceramic tiles with an Indian ethos, the enterprising Natukottai Chettiars had transformed a landlocked region into something unparalleled. Here, caretakers proudly showed off meter long keys and served cuisine livened up by rabbit chukka, sura puttu (shark mince) and kaada (quail) fry while Hindu deities, Victorian ladies and British soldiers stared down from the walls.

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Back at Madurai, the lofty spires of the city’s temples broke the monotony of the flat landscape from our perch at Taj Gateway atop Pasumalai Hill. Madurai’s strategic position in the Tamil heartland made it an excellent gateway for more journeys. The road continued from Chettinad to Trichy via the cave shrines of Narthamalai and Sittanavasal with exquisite frescos. The locksmith town of Dindigul, Haider Ali’s stronghold famous for its historic fort and delicious biryani, the picturesque Kamarajar Valley and the misty cool climes of Kodaikanal, a colonial escape from the heat and dust of Madurai lured visitors north. Meanwhile in the golden light of dusk, temple bells rang out, muezzins called and the city continued its round-the-clock shift as we surrendered ourselves to its old-world charm.

FACT FILE

At a Glance
Easily the cultural capital of Tamil Nadu, Madurai is a temple town of palaces and museums. Located on the banks of the Vaigai and dotted with shops, eateries and shrines, it is centered around the Meenakshi Sundareshwarar Temple. Bearing imprints of the Cholas, Pandyas, Telugu Nayakas, Nawabs of Arcot and the British, it is at its colourful best during festivals when temple prakaarams (outer precincts) and wide streets come alive with processions. Summers can be sweltering, so time your visit accordingly.

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Things to Do

Sound & Light Show – The quadrangle of the Thirumala Nayaka Palace in Madurai serves as a seating area for the daily Sound and Light show narrating the glorious saga of the palace. Timings: 6:45pm-7:35pm Entry: Rs.50 Adults, Rs.25 Child (5-12yr)

Athangudi tile manufacture – Visit a local tile factory in the small village of Athangudi to watch artisans hand cast tiles using local sand, gravel, cement and some paint. The typical poo kallu or floral stones come in dark earthy hues with geometric, floral designs.

When to Go
Madurai is good to visit between September and March, when temperatures are cooler. During the Chithirai festival in Apr-May, witness Thiru Kalyanam or the grand reenactment of Meenakshi’s marriage to Lord Sundareswar when Lord Vishnu, her brother, is taken in a procession from Azhagar Kovil on a golden horse chariot to attend the rituals.

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Getting there
By Air: Madurai Airport, 12km south of the city, is connected by daily flights to Chennai and Bangalore though the nearest international airport is Trichy (134km northeast), a 2.5hr drive on NH-45B.
By Road: NH-7 connects Madurai to Tirunelveli (154km south, 2hr 40m) and Kanyakumari (245km, 4hrs), NH-45B connects it to Thoothukudi (142km southeast, 2.5hrs) and NH-49 to Munnar (156km west, 3 hrs). Karaikudi is 80km east on NH-210.

Getting Around
The Vaigai River diagonally cuts across Madurai and runs parallel to NH-85. Being a large congested city, Madurai has several bus stands. Arapalayam (4km north of railway station) on Puttuthoppu Road has north and westbound buses to Theni, Salem, Dindigul and Kodaikanal. The new Madurai Integrated Bus Terminus (MIBT) at Mattu Thavani (t0452 4219938) on Kurivikaran Road connects destinations to the north and east. Periyar Bus Stand (200m from railway station) has buses for the airport and Alagarkoil whereas Palanganatham has southbound buses for Tirunelveli, Nagercoil and Kanyakumari. It’s best to engage an auto rickshaw or a cab to cover local sights. Thirumalai Nayaka Palace and St Mary’s Cathedral are 1.5km south-east of the temple and Teppakulam 4km away on NH-49. Gandhi Memorial and the Government Museum are north of the Vaigai on Alagar Kovil Road en-route to Pazhamudircholai. Thirupparankundram is 8km south-west on Thirumangalam road.

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Eat
For classic South Indian vegetarian fare, eat at Meenakshi Bhavan (t0452 4391588) on Collector Office Road near Anna Bus Stand, New Arya Bhavan (t0452 3299104) or Murugan Idli Shop (t0452 2341379) on West Masi Street. The iconic shop opened in 1966 and their trademark soft idlis are served with 4 chutneys besides dosas, uthappams and other tiffin items. To whet your carnivorous pangs, head straight to Anjappar Chettinad at Hotel Annamalai International on 120 Feet Road.

For biryani lovers, there’s no better place than Kalyana Biriyani (t9894145555) on Nethaji Road or Sri Velu Dindigul Biryani (t0452 4510010) on Tamil Sangam Road. In Karaikudi, Saffron at Hotel Subhalakshmi Palace dishes out good veg fare while Friend’s Garden Restaurant and ARC are local eateries serving Chettinad staples like kada fry, rabbit chukka and non veg meals. For fine dining, head to Taj Gateway or Heritage Madurai.

Stay

MADURAI

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Heritage Madurai
11, Melakkal Main Road, Kochadai, Madurai 625016 t0452 2385455, 3244185
www.heritagemadurai.com Tariff Rs.6,400-10,000 35 luxury villas, 37 deluxe rooms
Voted the Best Heritage Hotel-South India in 2011, Heritage Madurai was renovated by architect Geoffrey Bawa on the condition that all materials used must come from a 30km radius around Madurai. The granite floor is from an old mill, brass temple lamps have been reincarnated as light fixtures while the restaurant is landscaped around a 200-year-old banyan tree lit by a British warship searchlight. Spacious villas come with plunge pools whereas the swimming pool is inspired by the Teppakulam Tank. Enjoy Ayurvedic and Thai massages at Svasti Spa and relish South Indian and Sri Lankan cuisine.

The Gateway Hotel
40 TPK Road, Pasumalai Hills, Madurai 625004 t0452 2371601
www.thegatewayhotels.com Tariff Rs.5,500-8,000 63 rooms
Contoured around the Pasumalai Hills near Thirupparankunram, the palatial bungalow was built by William Harvey in the 1890s and served as the official residence of the MDs of Harvey Mills (later Madura Mills). Today, the heritage hotel retains its colonial flavour with period rooms, wooden floors and deluxe cottages amidst landscaped gardens. The restaurant, aptly called View, overlooks Madurai while Harvey’s Lounge bar is a great place to escape the city’s bustle.

GRT Regency
38 Madakkulam Main Road (TPK Road), NH7, Palanganatham Signal Junction, Madurai 625003 t0452 237 1155 www.grtregency.com Tariff Rs.4,750-5,750 57 rooms
The swanky city hotel by GRT, near Palanganatham Bus Stand in the southern part of town, comes with a multi-gym, swimming pool, boutique, bar and Ayush Ayurvedic therapy center offering authentic Kerala oil massages. Aaharam serves elaborate multi-cuisine buffets for breakfast and lunch and a la carte dinner. Free wi-fi is a bonus.

Hotel Sangam
Alagarkoil Road, Madurai 625002 t0452 4244555, 2537531 www.sangamhotels.com Tariff Rs.4,000-5,500 60 rooms
A decent hotel with a bar, pool, shopping arcade and a restaurant that whips up excellent Indian, Continental and Chinese with classical performances, veena recitals and folk dances.

CHETTINAD

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Chidambara Vilas
TSK House, Ramachandrapuram, Kadiapatti, Off Tirumayam Fort Ph 0433 3267070, 9843348531 E chidambaravilas@hotelsangam.com www.chidambaravilas.com 24 heritage rooms
If you’re in the mood for extravagance try Chettinad’s most luxurious heritage hotel. Chidambara Vilas is the century-old home of TS Krishnappa Chettiar. An exquisite doorway leads to inner courtyards lined by teak, rosewood and granite pillars. Enjoy rooftop views, a swimming pool, spa and cultural performances while relishing Chettinad meals on banana leaf in a renovated Bomma kottai (Hall of Dolls).

The Bangala
Devakottai Road, Senjai, Karaikudi 630001 Ph 04565-220221, 250221 E thebangala@gmail.com www.thebangala.com Tariff Rs.5,650-6,350 (breakfast Rs.300, meals Rs.600) 25 rooms
A colonial family home run by Mrs. Meyyappan, the Bangala hosted lavish tea parties and tennis tournaments in the 1900s. Sir Athur Hope, the Governor of Madras, visited in the 1940s and all the furniture, cutlery and crockery used by him are still in circulation. Rooms overlook a central garden with a swimming pool and spa. Excellent Chettinad meals, cooking demos, kitchen tours and local sightseeing enrich your stay.

CGH Visalam
LF Road, Kanadukathan 630103 Ph 04565 273301, 273354 E visalam@cghearth.com www.cghearth.com 15 rooms
An Art Deco home renovated and infused with CGH Earth’s philosophy, Visalam is a step back in time with large brass urns, sepia tinted photos and period furniture. Three dining areas for different meals lend a bit of variety. Relax by the pool, browse the library or learn about spices at the interactive kitchen, with bullock cart rides and nadaswaram recitals organized on request.

Chettinadu Mansion
S.A.R.M. House, Behind Raja’s Palace, T.K.R. Street, Kanadukathan Ph 04565 273080, 94434 95598 E info@deshadan.com www.chettinadumansion.com Tariff Rs.5,000 (meals Rs.600) 12 rooms
Run by the affable Mr. Chandramouli, the 40,000 sq ft mansion was built over a century ago by S.A.Rm.Ramaswamy Chettiar. Its succession of courtyards with bright pillars, balconies and 100 rooms are a delight, as is dining in the lavishly decorated hall.

Saratha Vilas
832, Main Road, Kothamangalam 630105 Ph 98842 03175, 98849 36158 E sarathavilas@hotmail.com www.sarathavilas.com Tariff Rs.5,200-5,600 8 rooms Restored by French architects Michel Adment & Bernard Dragon who fell in love with Chettinad, Saratha Vilas is a Tamil home stripped of its showy past and replaced by a muted French sensibility. Old sakarapattis (sugar granaries) adorn the rooms and idli grindstones serve as sinks. Enjoy Franco-Tamil cuisine, Ayurvedic massages or relax in the garden.

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KAMARAJ VALLEY

Cardamom House
Athoor Village, Via Sembatti, Dindigul District 624701 t0451 2556765, 9360691793 www.cardamomhouse.com Tariff Rs.3,300-5,500 6 rooms
A charming eco farm run by a retired British physician, its rooms are named after Indian herbs and spices. A fixed menu (Rs.1,200/person) caters primarily to a European palate, with meals served at Four Winds, a nature-cooled area and sundowners on the terrace.

Lakeside Resort
Kamarajar Lake, Athoor Village, Dindigul District 624701 t0451 3202817, 9894563935 www.lakeside.co.in Tariff Rs.2,500-3,950 9 rooms
Run by English couple Peter and Dorinda Balchin, the resort offers five stone cottages, four en-suite twin bedrooms in the main house and a swimming pool. Meals (Rs.940/person) are served at the lake-view verandah or the large rooftop.

Double Dutch Resort
Holland House, Athoor, Dindigul District 624701 t0454 3294499, 0451 2556763, 9443828742 www.doubledutchresort.com Tariff Rs.1,750-2,400 6 rooms
Located on the spurs of Palani Hills bordered by Kamarajar Lake this Dutch run resort is spread over 8-acres. Food is a mix of Indian, European, Indonesian and Mexican cuisine (Rs.900/person), enriched with farm fresh fruits, vegetables, eggs, milk, cheese and curd, besides homemade jams, bread and Dutch coffee.

Wild Rock
Kannivadi Hills, Sadayandi Kovil Road, Athoor Village, Dindigul District 624701
t0451 2471572, 2470454 www.wildrock.asia Tariff Rs.4,000-6,000 5 rooms
Built in local granite, stone and marble, the country house comes with a swimming pool overlooking the lake. A restaurant, barbeque counter and fruit and salad kiosk serve delicious Indian fare (Rs.950/person). Adventure sports, trekking and farm visits are organized.

Tamara Resort
Perumal Kovil Pathy, Karunya PO, Coimbatore 641101 t0422 2615779/442, 6560111 www.tamararesorts.com Tariff 3,800-6,000 8 tents
An Aitken Spence Hotel, Tamara is a boutique resort 30km from Coimbatore and 25km from Siruvani. Eight luxurious tents stand against a stunning backdrop of the Western Ghats. There’s pool table–cum–recreation facilities, kids play area, multi cuisine restaurant and Internet access within the comfort of your tent.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the Sep-Nov 2012 issue of Time Out Explorer magazine.

Matheran: Riding into the Sunset

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY explore Asia’s only pedestrian hill resort on foot, palanquin, horseback and a heritage train only to find the experience anything but pedestrian

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The steady clip-clop of horses, reminiscent perhaps of an old OP Nayyar song, could be heard from the moment we hopped off the slow train to Matheran. Just under 100km and a few hours from Mumbai, the hill retreat was established by the British in the upper reaches of the Sahyadris to escape the burning heat of the plains. Literally ‘A Forest atop a Mountain’, Matheran was a wooded Eden meant for leisurely walks, romance and rides into the sunset. What made it truly unique was that it was the only hill station in Asia where private vehicles were banned. The chief modes of transport were horses, manually drawn carriages, bicycles or foot. In an age of mechanized mayhem, the only motorized sound we could hear was the hum of an airplane 30,000 ft above in the sky.

How and when the grazing ground of adivasis like the Thakur, Dhangar and Kathkaris became a posh retreat for wealthy British officers and Parsi businessmen is anybody’s guess. But records mention that Matheran was ‘discovered’ by Hugh Poyntz Malet, the former District Collector of Thane in 1850. Lord Elphinstone then Governor of Bombay laid the foundation for its development into a hill station and sanatorium for the British. But it was Sir Adamjee Peerbhoy’s introduction of the Matheran Hill Railway in 1907 (later accorded a World Heritage status by UNESCO) that made the journey as special as the destination.

As we clutched our manually stamped Edmondson tickets, the train chugged up 20km from Neral over two hours, hugging the curves of mountains, gorges and valleys. We slipped into the fleeting darkness of One Kiss Tunnel, cheekily named by a British officer, as the length of the tunnel offered just enough time to steal a romantic peck. We halted at Jummapatti station for the downward bound train to cross us on the single track. A few hawkers sold berries, meetha imli and other stuff to passengers who seemed more interested in clambering on the engine and getting photographed on the train.

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Waterpipe our next stop was where the engine was cooled. A little later, around a curve, a massive image of Lord Ganesha, vibrantly painted on a boulder suddenly appeared out of nowhere. Mount Barry, Panorama Point and Simpson Point slid by as lush forests spread like glinting sheets of emerald as we pulled into Matheran station in the heart of town.

The idea of hailing down a horse or hand-pulled carriage instead of a cab or an autorickshaw seemed novel but we decided to walk along the bridle path instead. Kapadia Market with its arched entrance and rows of shops displayed an assortment of leather belts, shoes, bags, dried flowers, chikkis and other colourful knick-knacks. The air was scented with a residual sense of lavishness as we walked past several bungalows that had seen better days. Luckily, we were headed for the finest address in town…

Neemrana’s The Verandah in the Forest, the former home of Captain Barr, was the second bungalow to be built in Matheran. A beautiful heritage property, the white, colossal two-storeyed structure was set in a wooded patch with a pretty wraparound verandah overlooking Prabal Garh. At 30 ft, it boasted the highest ceiling in Matheran. The spacious rooms were named after prominent Parsis and citizens – Jehangir, Jeejeebhoy, Peerbhoy, Kotwal, Petit, Albert Sassoon, Chenoy, Shankarshet and Kapadia. 

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Malet Hall served as the dining area whereas the royal suite Elphinstone was on a lower level alongside ‘before and after’ photographs of Neemrana’s renovation efforts. The regal reading room, colonial décor, polished crockery and attentive staff ensured that we got a true taste of a Burrah Sahib’s luxurious life.

As an Englishman observed years ago in the 1924 Handbook to Matheran ‘Roaming and riding seem to be the main business at Matheran.’ The 38 scenic points were spread across three different ranges covering an area of 8 sq miles and an 18-mile circumference. Each site bore an intriguing name, often attributed to a geographical position, natural feature or some individual of note. In the magic glow of the late afternoon sun, we strolled across to the shimmering Charlotte’s Lake. Juice stalls ran a brisk business as tired visitors, unaccustomed to walking, stopped for a breather. Monkeys trapezed in the trees around the ancient Pisarnath (Shiva) Temple.

After a brief stop at Lord’s Point and the elevated Celia Point, we came to Echo Point, which opened into a deep valley that bounced off every shout. The deep gorges and craggy reddish rock acquired a mesmeric beauty as the evening softened, painting them in colours of dusk. A group of Parsis and foreigners sitting quietly on park benches shushed a loquacious Gujarati expat to watch the sunset in silence. As if on cue, the red sun dropped down a perfect V-shaped silhouette of Prabal Garh with the uncanny outline of the Indian peninsula!

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Silvery moonlight filtered through the canopy as we returned for a hot shower, a sumptuous meal and restful sleep at The Verandah. We realized in Matheran, you learn to leave your cars and cares behind. At dawn, we hopped over to the tree house for some birdwatching and after a hearty breakfast, headed to The Byke, Matheran’s oldest bungalow built by Captain Hugh Malet and named after his favourite racehorse. The original bungalow was intact with five heritage rooms while The Byke had developed into a popular resort.

At Hope Hall, another old property, we met Maria who lamented about Matheran’s fast changing landscape, ‘In 1875, Lakshmi and Hope Hall were the only lodgings. Today anyone with a roof claims to be a hotel while heritage properties can’t do any renovation or alteration without government permission. There’s rampant poaching of the Malabar Squirrel by adivasis, Maharashtra’s state symbol.’

After a delicious lunch near the bazaar we went on a 12-point horseback tour (Rs.350) to the famous lookouts. A frisky black racehorse called Rocky waited impatiently while his more sagely partner Bobby stood majestically as we slipped our feet gingerly into the stirrups and grabbed the reins. Santosh who trained horses as a kid took pride in how the animals responded instantly to his low whistle. “I earn Rs.250-300 for the 7km ride from Dasturi car park to town. That’s the nearest place for any motorized transport. The only vehicle here is an ambulance,” he said with a smile.

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Lakshman, another guide said, ‘Jaisa gaadi showroom se nikal ke ata hai, ghoda bhi waise hi milta hai.’ We learnt there were about 462 horses in Matheran, procured mostly from Nasik and Shirdi. They are about 2-3 years old and cost Rs.25,000-40,000 for a gauti (country) or Rs.50,000-80,000 for Sindhi, Marwari, Punjabi or Kathiawari, which is like an all-terrain vehicle better suited for colder climes like Matheran. Arab horses didn’t fare well here.

We trotted past King George and Landscape to Honeymoon Point, which was linked by an exciting zip-line Valley Crossing to Louisa Point, the southernmost extremity of Matheran’s westward range. Developed by Edward Fawcett in 1853, Louisa was one of the oldest points and the earliest to receive an English name. The vertigo-inspiring vantage overlooked a deep valley and a rocky outcrop in the shape of a Lion’s Head. On a clear night, one could look beyond the historic Prabal Fort to see the distant lights of Mumbai! 

As per a romantic legend, Prabal Garh was once the stronghold of Maratha ruler Shivaji and guarded by his deputy Prabal Rao. Being a devotee of Lord Shiva, he prayed regularly at the old Shiva temple near One Tree Hill, named after its lone tree. However, Matheran was under the control of his adversary and Mughal lackey Ramaji Rao, who wielded strange powers over a ferocious lion. This made Prabal’s daily visit arduous. One day, Prabal Rao aided by Shivaji, launched a surprise attack and killed the lion and Ramaji. The precipitous route he took came to be known Shivaji’s Ladder and the Lion’s Head was linked to this legend.

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The northward trail continued past Malang to Coronation Point, created in 1903 to commemorate Edward VII’s coronation. Laxman regaled us with anecdotes of how the locals thwarted the Ambanis’ plan to take over Matheran after they bought properties like Rugby Hotel and Gulmohar. ‘The impounded vehicle in the police station belongs to Nita Ambani’ he smirked.

The saddle of a frisky horse wasn’t the best location to hear about the tragic tale of a skilled rider who lost her balance and fell off the cliff, along with her horse. Danger Point or Janjeera, a narrow path with a deep valley on one side, got its name from the grave danger of falling off the cliff because an ocean of mist filled the valley, making things invisible. We finally came to Porcupine or Sunset Point, the farthest extreme on the western range. The spectacular precipice afforded a breathtaking view with smoke billowing out of chimneys in a Thakar settlement down below.

With the southern circuit of Olympia Race Course, Alexander Point, Rambag and Chowk still on our list, we rued our impending return to Mumbai. At the busy bazaar area, we bought the famous Nariman chikkis and fudge, finally settling for a moonlit dinner at The Byke. A brisk morning walk led us back to the station and our train huffed out at 7am. Engine driver Rajaram Vaman Khade invited us over to ride in the engine. Co-incidentally, the Ganesha rock painting we saw enroute was made by him, taking time out of his busy schedule. He stalled the train at the temple for a brief prayer and rang the bell before hopping back on the train.

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From types of engines to railway hierarchy and Matheran’s viewpoints, Khade was a tome of information. ‘You know what locals call Panorama Point in Marathi? Pandurang Point!’, he cackled, before continuing ‘On 1st May 1913 Sir Adamjee Peerbhoy gave his famous picnic party here in honour of WD Shepherd, commissioner of the southern division. A special train had run on the occasion from Matheran to Panorama Point!’

We learnt Alexander Point was named after the husband of Mr. Hugh Malet’s niece. Rambagh overlooked a dense forest of tall trees and Mr. Malet used the path to the foot of the hill on his return from Matheran. Navara-Naveri (or newly wedded couple) got its name after a wedding party travelling from Badlapur to Panvel mysteriously disappeared enroute.

‘You must come in the rains to fully enjoy the beauty of Matheran, when the landscape is lush green and small waterfalls criss-cross the tracks. Even though the train service is suspended in the monsoon, one train runs daily to inspect the tracks. You can ride with me!’ As we made our descent, we looked dejectedly at what we were leaving behind – clean air, peace and the rejuvenating spirit of Matheran. The only things that stuck were memories of stunning views and red dust on our clothes and shoes.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 24 June, 2012 in the Sunday edition of Deccan Herald newspaper.   

Holiday on a Banana Leaf: Best Places to Stay in Tamil Nadu

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One of the most popular tourist circuits in the country, Tamil Nadu has witnessed the impact of several cultures across centuries. Besides the royal stamp of the Pallavas, Cholas and Pandyas whose bustling seaports lured colonial powers like the Portuguese, Dutch, Danish, British and French, Tamil Nadu also bears the imprint of Roman and Armenian trade. Dotting the entire state are grand monuments, imperial forts, pristine beaches with soft sands, traditional temple towns, mist-covered hill stations and lush green paddy fields. The diversity of accommodation options would woo any traveller to overstay – from heritage hotels to boutique five star luxury, palatial mansions in Chettinad to French villas in Pondicherry, eco-friendly resorts on the Coromandel Coast to British clubs and bungalows in the hills… Here’s a selection of some amazing places to stay.

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Around Chennai: Vivanta by Taj Fisherman’s Cove
Though Chennai has its share of 5-star hotels, perhaps the best place to stay is far from the mob, 36 km south at Covelong. Fisherman’s Cove is a luxurious beachfront hotel near the serene Muttukadu backwaters off the East Coast Road. Built on the ramparts of an old 18th century Dutch fort and spread over 22 acres, the resort’s plush rooms, beachfront cottages and Scandinavian villas offer splendid views of the sea. Wade in 10,000 sq ft of crystal clear waters in the hotel’s Infinity pool with its luxurious plunge bar Sun Burst. Dine on exotic Seafood, Med and Continental fare at the three restaurants – Bay View, Upper Deck, Seagull while the signature Jiva Spa adds to the other sensual pleasures of the cove. It’s also a great base to visit nearby attractions like DakshinaChitra and Madras Crocodile Bank.

Covelong Beach, Kanchipuram District 603112
t 044 67413333
www.vivantabytaj.com
Tariff Rs.8,400-11,900

Also check out: Hilton, Le Meridien, Sheraton, Marriott, Trident, Radisson, GRT Grand and The Park aresome of the biggest names in 5-star hospitality, though Taj Connemara, Chennai’s only heritage hotel, is the top pick.

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Mamallapuram: Radisson Blu Resort Temple Bay
The maritime capital of the Pallavas, Mamallapuram was known in antiquity as The Town of Seven Pagodas after the seven Shore Temples that once dotted its coast. Today, only one remains and the best way to see it is not from land, but from sea, like the ancient mariners did. Boat rides to the Shore Temple are the signature activity at Temple Bay, besides a range of water sports. Set in a 46-acre oasis along a spotless waterfront, the resort has a wide choice of stay options. Exclusive pool villas come with private plunge pools while elegant chalets, villas and bungalows face the bay, the garden or the meandering swimming pool, one of the largest in south Asia. Sumptuous platters, grills and pastas await you at The Wharf, the seaside specialty restaurant (rated among Asia’s best) and Water’s Edge café a 24×7 multi-cuisine restaurant. A fitness centre, a 9-hole putting course and an uber cool spa make it the perfect setting for pleasure-seekers.

57 Covelong Road, Kanchipuram Dist, Mamallapuram 603104
Ph 044 27443636
www.radissonblu.com  
Tariff Rs.6,250-11,250

Also check out: Indeco Mahabalipuram near Shore Temple, a hotel housed in a museum on an 1820’s British camping site or the psychedelic guesthouses and lodges with rooftop cafes on Ottavadai Street, a favourite backpackers hangout.

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Pondicherry: Maison Perumal
With wide rues (streets) named after French governors lined by tall villas washed in yellow and white, Pondicherry has an archetypal colonial air about it. Yet, most travellers tend to miss Pondy’s other charms. Located in a quiet part of the Tamil Quarter is Maison Perumal, an extraordinary double-storeyed Chettiar bungalow. In keeping to its theme of homely hospitality, the renovated rooms are left unnumbered and the restaurant is sans a name. The friendly staff smile and clarify, “When you visit a friend’s place, does the guestroom or kitchen have a number or name?” Mellow lights, a smattering of antiques and furniture, sepia photographs and posters add to the old world charm. Large urali (metal cauldrons) with fronds and ferns pretty up the two sunlit courtyards while a band of geometric coloured stained glass bordering the balcony livens the interiors. After delicious seafood platters and eclectic Franco Tamil cuisine, the soft inviting bed beckons…need one ask for more?  

58, Perumal Koil Street, Pondicherry 605001
Ph 0413 2227519, 9442127519
www.cghearth.com  
Tariff Rs.6,790

Also check out: Other heritage stays and boutique addresses like Calve, Hotel de l’Orient, Le Dupleix, Villa Helena, Hotel de Pondicherry, Gratitude offer the characteristic trappings of French colonial comfort.

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ECR (East Coast Road): The Dune Eco-village Resort & Spa
Imagine a sprawling 35-acre area sprinkled with villas and rooms hidden from public view, gourmet restaurants dishing out fusion food, an exotic designer spa offering wat-su (water shiatsu treatment) and 700m of seafront just for you. Sounds as implausible as the desert planet of Arrakis in Frank Herbert’s Dune saga? Well, The Dune eco-hotel is as surreal as its literary inspiration. Bearing the creative stamp of architects Dimitri Klein and Neils Schonfelder, each room is radically different in design using recycled materials from local homes and palaces, besides a ship breaking yard! Dimitri confesses “It was a mistake that evolved into a hotel”! Organic linen, recycled wine bottles for water, CFL lamps, solar heating, cycles for guests and an in-house organic farm have ensured that the resort’s carbon footprint is 75% less than the industry standard. No surprise why it was voted as one of the 5 Best Ecological Hotels in the world (Geo), the Best Spa Destination (Harper Bazaar) and the Best Luxury Resort in 2011 (The Hindu-NDTV Lifestyle Award). Shop at Artyzan, a vocational academy cum design studio, for handmade local crafts.

Eco Beach Village, Pudhukuppam, Keelputhupet (via Pondy University) 605014
Ph 0413 2655751, 3244040, 9364455440
www.thedunehotel.com   
Tariff Rs.5,500-17,950

Also check out: Ocean Spray, Mango Hill and Ashok Resort off the ECR are great places to explore Auroville nearby

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Tranquebar: The Bungalow on the Beach
At dawn, in the erstwhile Danish outpost of Tranquebar, the old Dansborg Fort on the beach is cast into gold by the awakening sun; on the gilded sea, silhouettes of fishermen set sail for the days’ catch past the 12th Century Masilamani Nathar Temple. Such picture postcard images are what you wake up to at Neemrana’s heritage property, The Bungalow on the Beach, once the British Collector’s Office. Built on two levels with a runaround verandah offering views of the garden and the sea, the bungalow’s eight spacious rooms are named after Danish ships that docked at Tranquebar – Prince Christian, Crown Prince of Denmark, Queen Anna Sophia, Countess Moltke, Christianus Septimus. Parquet flooring, period furniture and collectibles, blue and white china and a trellised garden by the pool imbue the place with old world allure. An INTACH walk around the quaint town takes you to a Danish cemetery, Zion Church, New Jerusalem Church and The Governor’s bungalow, all built in the 1700s. 

24 King Street, Tharangambadi 609313, District Nagapattinam
t 04364 288065, 289034-36, 9750816034
www.neemranahotels.com
Tariff Rs.4,000-6,000

Also check out: Neemrana also runs a B&B facility in the Danish-Tamil style Gate House and the vernacular Nayak House, a Tamil sea-facing home with 4 rooms, which includes a Tower Room (the loftiest in town), ideal for honeymooners.

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Madurai: Heritage Madurai
The graceful peacock origami towel painstakingly embellished with tiny flower petals in the room defines Heritage Madurai’s idea of hospitality – god is in the details. Plush rooms, a sagely 200-year old banyan tree and a 17-acre shaded enclave diffuse the reality of being in a hectic temple town. Conceptualized by Geoffrey Bawa around the original British Clubhouse, the architecture illustrates his design philosophy of ‘tropical modernism’ and creating spaces that seamlessly blend the outside with the inside. The resort’s 72 rooms include 35 villas with sundecks and private plunge pools. Antique lamps and lanterns have been cleverly transformed into modern light fittings. Dine at Banyan Tree restaurant overlooking its namesake as chefs rustle up traditional Tamil, multi-cuisine and Sri Lankan fare. Indulge in the wellness spa offering traditional Ayurvedic therapies and western aroma massages. Swim in the Olympic-sized pool styled after Madurai’s famous temple tank Theppakulam. After the customary visit to Madurai Meenakshi Temple and Tirumala Nayaka Palace, drop by at the Gandhi Museum.

Heritage Madurai, 11 Melakkal Main Road, Kochadai, Madurai 625 016
Ph 0452 2385455, 3244185
www.heritagemadurai.com
Tariff Rs.6,400-10,000

Also check out: GRT Regency inthe heart of town and Taj Gateway a colonial retreatperched atop Pasumalai hill on the outskirts

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Kumbakonam: Mantra Veppathur
A welcome drink of panakam (jaggery and ginger), a relaxing foot massage and a gong sounded to mark your arrival, get ready for a traditional holiday at Mantra Veppathur. Situated in a coconut grove between the Cauvery and Veezhacholan rivers, the eco-resort has agraharam-style cottages called Mantra Ilam or Paniyar Ilam, decorated with Kanjeevaram silks and Thaliyatti bommai (Tanjore dolls). Wake up to the call of peacocks, dine on sattvik (veg) cuisine at Annaprasanna, take a plunge in the Infinity swimming pool and get an Ayurvedic massage at the Punarjenma spa. Traditional games like daayam (dice), palaanguri (cowrie), parama padam (snakes and ladders) add an authentic rural touch. In the evening, sip freshly brewed Kumbakonam coffee at the Mantra Chai Kadai, enjoy pastoral life on bullock cart rides, visit silk-weaving units or witness cultural performances at Mantra Kalairangam, the open-air theatre. And of course, don’t miss the grand Chola temples at Thanjavur, Kumbakonam, Darasuram and Gangaikondacholapuram.

No.1 Bagavathapuram Main Road Extn, 536/537A Sri Sailapathipuram Village, Veppathur 612 103, Kumbakonam, Thanjavur District.
T 0435 2462261, 2460141
www.mantraveppathur.com
Tariff Rs.7,000-12,000

Also check out: The riverside heritage property Paradise Resort and Indeco Swamimalai, an ethnic 1896 Tanjore village resort, India’s only winner of the Global Eco Tourism Award

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Chettinad: Chidambara Vilas
Chettinad’s latest heritage hotel is easily the final word in opulence. Earlier the mansion of TS Krishnappa Chettiar, Chidambara Vilas was built over a century ago at the cost of Rs.7 lakh! As you enter through the gate bearing the owner’s insignia, an ornately carved doorway makes you stop in your tracks. The profusion of carving, the pillars made of teak, rosewood and granite and the string of courtyards leave you in a whirl. Meticulously restored by the Sangam group, the resort’s 24 heritage rooms overlook a beautiful pool. The terrace offers a magnificent view of the region’s typical architectural landscape with endless rows of tiled roofs. The Bomma kottai (Hall of Dolls), renovated into a restaurant, serves authentic Chettinad fare on banana leaf. The only problem is, with so much pampering, you might not even stir out to see the Tirumayam Fort nearby.

TSK House, Ramachandrapuram, Kadiapatti, Pudukkottai Dist.
Ph 0433 3267070, 9843348531
www.chidambaravilas.com
Tariff Rs.12,000-15,000

Also check out: The other beautiful mansion hotels, Visalam, The Bangala, Chettinadu Mansion and Saratha Vilas, are located further south around Karaikudi and the heritage town of Kanadukathan

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Nilgiris: The Kurumba Village Resort
Cut away from the clamour of Ooty and Coonoor, Kurumba Village is located in a quiet forest patch between the 4th and 5th hairpin bends on the Mettupalayam-Coonoor road. Named after one of the five ancient tribes of the Nilgiris, its tribal-styled cottages in earthy tones, thatch-work roofs and Kurumba artefacts are a tribute to the ingenious forest dwellers. French windows offer an unhindered view of the Nilgiri hills while the balcony overlooks a British spice plantation of nutmeg, cloves, pepper and lofty trees of jackfruit and rosewood. Treetops, afire with the Flame of the Forest, attract sunbirds and flowerpeckers and one can spend hours watching the dance of wings. The large thatched dining area, where delicious meals are served, is an ideal perch above a murmuring brook. Go on a walking tour of the spice plantation, luxuriate in the stunning pool or hop on to the mountain railway for a leisurely ride up the hills.

Ooty Mettupalayam Road, Hill Grove Post, Kurumbadi 643102, The Nilgiris
Ph 0423 2103002-4, 2237222, 9443998886
www.kurumbavillageresort.com
Tariff Rs.8,500-13,000

Also check out: Heritage bungalows like Fernhills Palace, an organic cheese-making farmstay Acres Wild or the plush Destiny Farm, which also runs unique concept hotels like King’s Cliff and Sherlock

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Yercaud: Indeco Lake Forest Hotel
Half-hidden by tall trees dressed in pepper vines in a wooded corner near Yercaud Lake, this delightful resort was once the Eastlyne Farm Coffee Estate. Rosar Villa, the charming bungalow built in the 1800s overlooking the lobby and restaurant, is named after its former Portuguese owner Henrietta Charlotte Rosario, who resided here during the British days. Like all Indeco Hotels, the resort bears the signature of its chairman Steve Borgia – a front lobby that doubles up as a museum, adorned with carefully documented rare memorabilia.  A friendly chef and attentive staff make dining at the restaurant or in the sun-dappled courtyard, a pleasure. The Eastlyne Garden and Wood House suites give panoramic vistas of the Shevaroy Hills. Besides nature walks, Lake Forest is a great base to explore Yercaud’s main sights – the lake, Shevaroyan Temple, Botanical Garden and lookouts like Pagoda viewpoint, Lady’s Seat and Gent’s Seat.

Near Anna Park, Ondikadai Post, Yercaud 636 602, Salem District
Ph 04281 223217/8, 9444001438
www.yercaud.indecohotels.com
Tariff Rs.4,000-10,000

Also check out: GRT Nature Trails SkyRocca Yercaud, an extravagant resort contoured against the mountains and The Grange Resort, the first camping place of the British with facilities for off-road adventure.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the November, 2011 issue of JetWings magazine.  

India’s Exotic North East: Amazing places to Stay

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY pick the best homestays, tea plantation bungalows, wildlife lodges, heritage hotels, bamboo huts & farm stays across Assam, Meghalaya, Sikkim, Arunachal and Nagaland

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Assam
In the land of the mighty Brahmaputra, the one-horned rhino and the fabled Assam tea, there are hidden pleasures waiting to be discovered. At Majuli, the world’s largest river island with several centuries-old satras (Vaishnava monasteries), stay in French-designed huts of bamboo and thatch as you savour the rustic riverine culture of the Mishing community. Lush countryside, tea plantations and colonial comforts greet you at the heritage tea bungalows around Jorhat. Choose from the majestic Thengal Manor at Jalukonibari, the sprawling Burra Sahib’s Bungalow with a lake and a golf course, or the tranquil environs of the Banyan Grove, named after its ancient arboreal wonder. Live in chang bungalows (traditional houses on stilts) at Mancotta or Chowkidinghee near Dibrugarh and go horse riding or tea picking in the morning. After wildlife safaris and nature trails, relax in the warm ambience of jungle camps at Kaziranga, Nameri and Manas. Wildgrass Lodge at Kaziranga even arranges cultural evenings of Bihu and other local art forms. Spot Gangetic dolphins on boat cruises along the Brahmaputra river while staying in riverside bamboo huts.

Jet Airways flies to Guwahati, Jorhat and Dibrugarh

Hacienda, Guwahati
Thengal Manor, Jalukonibari
Banyan Grove & Burra Sahib’s Bungalow, Jorhat
Ph 0376-2304267/673, 9954451548 
heritagenortheast@gmail.com 
Web www.heritagetourismindia.com  
Tariff Rs.6,500-16,000

Chang Bungalows, Dibrugarh
Purvi Discovery 
Contact Rishi Saraf
Ph 0373 2301120, 2300035
purvidiscovery@gmail.com    
Web www.assamteatourism.comwww.specialinteresttours.in
Tariff Rs.5,200

Diphlu River Lodge, Kaziranga
Bansbari Lodge, Manas
Ph 0361-2602223, 2602186, 2540995
assambengal@rediffmail.com
Web www.assambengalnavigation.com
Tariff Rs.3,000-6,000

Wild Mahseer Lodge, Balipara
McLeod Russel India Ltd 
Contact Mr. Durgadas Sarcar
Ph 03714-234354/79, 9435197650
wildmahseer@yahoo.comwildmahseer@gmail.com
Tariff Rs.6,600

Wild Grass Lodge, Kaziranga
Contact Manju Barua/Deepak
Ph 0361-2630465, 03776-262085, 9954416945
wildgrasskaziranga@gmail.com
Tariff Rs.2,300

Prabhakar Homestay, Guwahati
Ph 0361-2650053, 9435033221/2 
bookings@prabhakar-homestay.com 
Tariff Rs.4,500-6,000

Eco Camp, Nameri
Assam Bhoroli Angling & Conservation Association
Contact Ranesh Roy
Ph 9435145563, 9435250025, 9854019932
ecocampnameri@gmail.com
Tariff Rs.1,100

La Maison D’Ananda, Garamur, Majuli
Contact Manjeet 
Ph 9957186356
danny002in@yahoo.com
Tariff Rs.600-800

Me:Po Okum, Majuli
Contact Haren Narah
Ph 9435203165
Tariff Rs.500

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Meghalaya
Be it rock music, rainfall or nature’s best-kept secrets, Meghalaya has it all. Enjoy the unique hilly region kissed by clouds and swathed in dense green forests with waterfalls thundering down deep gorges. Walk down gnarled root bridges of the Ficus elastica tree, bathe in waterfalls and savour home-cooked meals in a tree-house in the spotlessly clean village of Mawlynnong! Indulge in the colonial charms of heritage bungalows in Shillong. At Rosaville, sip Assam tea with English elegance and browse through vintage sepia photographs or put your feet up like royalty at Tripura Castle. The summer retreat of the Maharajas of the Manikya dynasty of Tripura has a collection of antique Chinese furniture, Victorian objet d’art and a bed graced by Rabindranath Tagore! Soak in true-blue khasi hospitality and cuisine in the swanky resort by the lakefront – Ri Kynjai, a luxurious Eden overlooking the serene expanse of Umiam Lake (Barapani). Its impeccable décor and architecture blends in aspects of khasi culture, textiles and art. Near Cherrapunjee, the old British headquarters of the North East, stay at a lodge that meticulously documents the region’s prodigious rainfall while offering adventure activities like caving, river canyoning and nature trails to Meghalaya’s legendary living root bridges. 

Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort, Laitkynsew
Contact Denis & Carmela Rayen
Ph 03637-244218/9
M 9436115925, 9615338500, 9863079856
cherrapunjee@hotmail.com 
www.cherrapunjee.com 
Tariff Rs.1,800-2,250

Ri Kynjai, Umiam Lake
Ph 0364-2570 45
rikynjai@yahoo.co.in
Web www.rikynjai.com
Tariff Rs.7,000-10,000        

Royal Heritage Tripura Castle, Shillong
Ph 0364-2501111/49
rh_tripuracastle@rediffmail.com
Web www.tripuracastle.com 
Tariff Rs.3,600-6,000

Rosaville, Shillong 
Contact Mrs. Topoti Bauri
Ph 0364-2231248, 9612170858 ‎
Tariff Rs.2,000-3,500

Aerodene Cottage, Shillong
Contact Sharlene
Ph 0364-2224958, 97740 65366
aerodene.cottage@gmail.com
Web www.aerodene.in
Tariff Rs.2,500-3,000

Bo-Ville Homestay, Shillong
M 9863062909, 9436335322
enid@bovillehomestay.com
www.bovillehomestay.com
Tariff Rs.2,300

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Arunachal Pradesh
In high mountainous tracts where yaks roam free, prayer flags rustle in the breeze and hardy Monpas bearing heavy loads strapped across their foreheads trudge uphill, Arunachal’s stunning beauty reveals itself at every turn. From the entry point at Bhalukpong, the road rises past Sessa Orchid Sanctuary and Eagle Nest Camp to the quaint hamlets of Bomdila and Dirang and the quiet pastures of Sangti Valley, visited by black-necked cranes. Spartan accommodation is often compensated by what you wake up to – hot tea and momos, unparalleled views of the snow-clad Himalayas and chants ringing out from nearby monasteries. Beyond the Zen-like calm of the high-altitude lake at Sela Pass, lies Tawang. Looming over town is the 400-year-old monastery with an 8ft high Buddha statue, striking wall frescos and old thangkas adorning the prayer hall. Budget hotels around Old Market, Nehru Market and Old Bazar Line are a good base to explore Singsar Ani Gompa (a nunnery), the 700-year-old Gorsham Gompa, monasteries, craft centres and rows of shops selling Tibetan and local handicrafts, jewelry and textiles. A drive beyond Tawang takes you past several high-altitude lakes like the hauntingly beautiful Sangetsar, created by an earthquake in 1973 and renamed ‘Madhuri Lake’ after the movie Koyla was shot here.

Eaglenest Camp, Tenga
Kaati Tours/Bugun Welfare Society
Contact Ramana Athreya, Mr. Indi Glow
Ph 91-3782-273359, 02132-245770 
kaati_tours@vsnl.net

Hotel Tsepal Yangjom, Bomdila
Contact Rinchen Trashi
Ph 03782-223473, 223674, 9436241432
info@hoteltsepalyangjom.co.in
Tariff Rs 1,600-3,600

Elysium Lodge, Bomdila
Ph 03782-223156, 9402071827, 9436069051
Tariff Rs.1,110-1,600

WelcomHeritage Pemaling, Dirang
Ph 03780-242615
Tariff Rs.2,200-5,000
holidays@welcomeheritagehotels.com

Gakyi Khang Zhang Farmhouse, Tawang
Ph 03794-224647/48/49
info@gkztawang.com 
Web www.gkztawang.com
Tariff Rs 1,300-2,600

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Nagaland
The native land of warriors, log drums, elaborate costumes, vibrant dances and hand-woven shawls, Nagaland is a dream destination for many. Heritage stays in the heart of Kohima like Razhu Pru and Old DC’s Bungalow (now called The Heritage) are ideal to explore the town’s various khels (old quarters). For an authentic Naga experience, try the hospitality of an Angami home in the historic village of Khonoma. Stay in typical Naga huts designed by various clans of Touphema as you get insights into their unusual culture and cuisine. Locals act as guides to nearby sites and you can share a hot brew in a morung (boys dormitory) as they regale you with folklore, stories of ancestral exploits and lavish village feasts. In Mon district, stay at Shiyong, in the home of a Konyak family and understand how their tribe evolved from being headhunters with elaborate facial tattoos to modern day farmers and tea planters. Participate in farm work and tea-picking or trek through the tribal villages.

Jet Airways flies direct from Guwahati and Kolkata to Dimapur, Nagaland’s only airport, from where Kohima is 74 km away

Razhu Pru, Kohima
Contact Jasmina Zeliang
Ph 0370-229 0291
razhupru@yahoo.co.in 
Tariff Rs.1800

The Heritage, Kohima 
Contact Teja Meru
Ph 0370-2241864, 9856972762
info@theheritage.in 
Web www.theheritage.in  
Tariff Rs.1800-2500

Tourist Village, Touphema 
Contact KV
Ph 9436005002
kvls@yahoo.com 
Tariff Rs.1,200

Jah-poh-long Mountain View Resort, Mon 
Contact Shepha & Phejin Wangnao
Ph 9436606212, 9436424210
shepha3@yahoo.com

Shiyong Homestay, Mon
Contact Phejin Konyak
phejin@gmail.com 
Web www.shiyongvillage.com

Meru’s homestay, Khonoma
Contact Khrieni & Megongui Meru
Ph 0370-234 0061

Baby’s Homestay, Khonoma 
Contact Angulie Meyase 
Ph 94360 71046

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Sikkim
Crowned by the world’s third-highest peak Kanchenjunga and bisected by the legendary Teesta River from north to south, Sikkim is India’s least populous state and perhaps one of the best places to lose yourself. Get pampered at the luxurious Nor-Khill (House of Jewels), the summer palace of the Chogyal kings in Gangtok. Experience village tourism with Himalayan homestays at Dzongu, Kewzing, Pastanga, Yuksam and Naitam. Or choose from a bouquet of farm stays – the Lepcha homestead of Mayal Lyang at Dzongu, the heritage Bhutia farmhouse of Yangsum Farm at Rinchepong or Bon Farmhouse at Kewzing, a birdwatcher’s paradise. Dotted by numerous monasteries at Rumtek, Pemayangtse and Tashiding, Sikkim flourishes under the benevolent gaze of patron saint Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava), who introduced Buddhism to the region in 9th century AD. The 120 ft high seated sculpture at Namchi is the world’s tallest statue of Padmasambhava.

Ecotourism and Conservation Society of Sikkim (ECOSS)
Ph 03592-232798, 9733088003
ecoss@sikkiminfo.net 
Web www.sikkimhomestay.com

Elgin Nor-Khill, Gangtok
Ph 03592-205637, 200170/1, 220064
norkhill@elginhotels.com
Web www.elginhotels.com 
Tariff Rs.7,200

The Hidden Forest Retreat, Gangtok
Ph 03592-205197, 203196, 9474981367, 9434137409 
kesangforest@yahoo.in
Web www.hiddenforestretreat.org 
Tariff Rs.2,000

Norbu Ghang Resort/House, Pelling
Ph 03595-250173, 258245/72, 9933004491/3/6
norbughangresort@yahoo.co.in  
Web www.norbughangresort.com
Tariff Rs.3,000-10,000

Yangsum Farm, Rinchepong
Contact Thendup Tashi & Pema Chuki Bhutia
Ph 03595-245322, 9434179029 
yangsumfarm@yahoo.com 
Web www.yangsumfarm.com 
Tariff Rs.6,250

Mayal Lyang, Dzongu 
Contact Gyatso & Samsay Lepcha 
Ph 9434446088
gyatso@mayallyang.com   
Tariff Rs.3,800

Bon Farmhouse, Kewzing
Contact Chewang & Sonam R Bonpo
Ph 9735900165, 9547667788
bonfarmhouse@gmail.com
Web www.sikkimbonfarmhouse.com
Tariff Rs.2,150-2,950

Mount Narsing Village Resort, Ravangla
Ph 03592-226822
info@yuksom-tours.com 
Tariff Rs.700-2,100

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the September, 2011 issue of JetWings magazine.