CGH Earth Mantra Koodam opens to a shrine set on a tree-lined temple tank
Legend-steeped Tamil Nadu pulsates with over 100,000 temples. Think millennial architectural marvels whose soaring tops dizzyingly stack sculpted divinity, deities from the tremendous pantheon of Hindu gods. Underlying this seeming multiplicity is the ancient Vedantic concept of Brahman, the undivided supreme consciousness, from which the universe emanated, to which you connect in yoga and merge in moksha.
Tamil Nadu is a tumult of colour and sound. But there’s a pervasive and palpable spirituality that connects you to that ineffable beyond. The French have long been lured by the spiritual ‘connect’ of India’s southernmost state. But now tourists from everywhere declare Madurai’s Meenakshi Temple more astonishing than the Taj Mahal. But there’s more to Tamil Nadu than temples. Across a sweeping diversity of landscapes, discover Chettinad’s splendid heritage mansions, Rameswaram’s beaches, tea gardens and tiger reserves in the Nilgiris and hill stations where Raj-timers fled from the smouldering southern summers.
Tamil Nadu’s capital Chennai has the world’s largest expat population of Japanese and Koreans and an accumulating French, German, American and British contingent living it up in massive pooled beach villas. Amidst Chennai’s cosmopolitan jazz, Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music survives through a flourish of enthralling dance and music festivals.
A Bharatnatyam dancer transformed her uncle’s 150-year-old mansion into a boutique hotel in 2016, resolutely about Tamil Nadu’s age-old arts. Mahabalipuram rock sculptures, Swamimalai bronzes, Chettinad woodcraft, Kumbakonam brass lamps and bejewelled Tanjavur paintings meld in contemporary chic. Antiques adorn plush gardens and spurt water into the veranda’s waterways. Sunken sun-beds arched on ornate sculpted rock pedestals surround the artful pool; the spa takes up a whole floor.
On the terrace handsome Chettinadu pillars become the bar with geometric tiles. The restaurant has swings for chairs, Brahminical Tanjavur thalis for lunch, chiselled seven-course South Indian suppers worth a Michelin star and a chef worth kidnapping. Svatma is all-veg and glamorous. Tanjavur engendered unique genres of every classical art (music, dance, painting, sculpture and literature). This temple-town’s prodigious heritage unveils exhilarating cultural performances at Svatma whose young GM Sridhar is encyclopaedic about the Chola Empire.
Pre-Svatma the architecturally ingenious, sculpturally superior Chola temples that inspired Angkor Wat languished in abandon. Even if the 1,000-year-old, stupendous Brihadisvara Temple staggers while Tanjavur’s Bronze Gallery has goddesses more alluring than Botticelli’s Venus, to protect them you must hire Angelina Jolie to visit…
CGH EARTH VISALAM
Amongst the loveliest boutique hotels you’ll see, the tasteful Art Deco heritage bungalow built as dowry for a pretty young bride has a haunting romance about it. Basked in gardens galore it boasts a courtyard in midnight blue Belgian stone, floors richly tessellated with Athangudi tiles and abundant Burma teak crafted into ceilings and furniture. Vast rooms feature enormous four-poster beds, bathrooms where luxurious coconut oil replaces body lotion and verandas opening onto gardens embowered in golden flowers. Here and there an artistic bench, antique cart or indigenous pot imparts charm to the verdancy enlivened by birdsong.
By night the gardens become perfumed enchantment, the edifice blushing as if in the glow of embers. Plastic and Coke are no-nos. Instead you have all-natural elixirs with jaggery and palm sugar. You can dine on terraces, at the gardened pool or by candlelight during Earth Hour when the eco-conscious hotel turns off its lights. Lunch offers a banquet on a banana leaf with produce from Visalam’s own gardens, while breakfast is served on a garden pavilion where crimson bougainvillea sometimes softly descending onto your plate of local specialities.
THE TAMARA KODAI
Spanking new! A 160-year-old Jesuit monastery has become the first ultra-luxe resort on the green hills of Kodaikanal, where stylish spaces and cloisters turn into slick lily ponds. Lake-view clusters dotting groomed gardens each comprise four exquisite suites whose dark wood floors, doors and vintage-look furniture usher in the forest. Bistro 1845 occupies the erstwhile library – have breakfast amidst leather-bound books or sit al fresco on quaint patios by billowing verdure. Lunch on French-style terraces whose crimson-shaded umbrellas overlook manicured gardens bounteous with plum and pear trees. La Providence has monastic stone walls but this restaurant’s 15 chefs and four cuisine varieties are anything but ascetic.
Nature, world-class golf and handmade chocolate are Kodaikanal’s greatest luxuries. Now it has its first spa and heated outdoor pool, a lotus-shaped beauty presiding on a hillock. The lovely elevated spa seemingly levitates on a sea of green. But real rejuvenation is in activities crafted by suave Syed Mehaboob, unique guest experience manager. You have Coolie Ghat Trek on the colonial courier-dispatch path where leopards lurk, visits to reserve forests and cycling circuits to remote lake-studded plains. Local flavour comes with Ravi, officially resort guide, but actually walking forest-pharmacy and culinary expert dispensing herbal cures for all ailments and strange forest growths for biryanis.