Monday, April 6, 2015

Just Back from Ravishingly Beautiful South India

Travels of Wonder and Discovery:   A First Look at the historic and seldom-viewed Mansions of Chettinad and The Bangala hotel, a great find in Karaikudi, Tamil Nadu.

Come with me this week to explore a remote and seldom visited region of South India. I traveled there solo in March for a first look at the dramatic, historic mansions of Chettinad, and to study the fascinating history of the tribe and sect that built them—and their delectable cuisine. And discover my new favorite hotel, The Bangala, and its charming owner, Meenakshi Meyyappan.

I heard word of Chettinad and its mansions from in-the-know Indian friends only recently. I had to go there. On my travels in India last month, I first landed in Delhi (and stayed at The Lodhi hotel of course)—and then I headed far south to find a hidden jewel, Chettinad. Above, photos I took of the private Chettinad mansions I visited near the town of Karaikudi. Pure wonder. The columns are highly polished black granite, and walls are adored with carved teak cabinets, and Belgian mirrors, Baccarat chandeliers. Gilt carvings glitter in the mysterious interiors. With Palladian grandeur, it feels more like Venice than deepest India.

I always do extensive research for my travels, but I had never seen pictures of Chettinad and its mansions. It’s not on any tourist list. Few travelers (English, French) find their way here.

There is one ultra-charming hotel, The Bangala, I recommend. Karakudi with its collection of antiques galleries draws passionate insider connoisseurs. But it’s a well-kept secret.

It’s in Tamil Nadu, a nine-hour drive from Chennai, seven hours west of Pondicherry, and far from the tourist heart of India. Seventy dusty villages in an arid plain lie in wait for discovery. Goats wander down the streets. Dogs bark. Heat and dust and the over-arching bright light of a far horizon add a sense of magical realism. I was entranced.

Ramesh, my driver, and Unnamalai, my guide, (most Tamils do not use a surname), and I drove through deserted countryside, with orange clay dotted with bright green neem trees, to far-flung sleepy villages. I’d see a house of interest, jump out of the car, and dash to capture a moment, wait for clouds, and see a little sacred cow posed perfectly near a gate. Chettiars loved to adorn their facades with religious figures, auspicious animals, and various Raj-y nobles and embellishments.

Come with me to see a place and interiors you’ve never seen. You’ll see images I captured of the 18th-century mansions of the Chettiars, a close-knit community of traders and bankers and empire-builders who funded British expansion in Asia, developed vast teak forests in Burma, and built fortunes trading in Europe.

In their home villages in Tamil Nadu, they built majestic, lavish, fortified family mansions. It’s even said they lent money to Napoleon and a Venetian doge or two to fund a battle or two. The held sway as bankers in Sumatra, Sri Lanka, Madagascar. They kept their money in massive safes, still visible in their mansions.

History, the independence of India, wars and time put an end to all that. Chettinad is still an essential ancestral home (for weddings and religious observations) but now Chettiars live in London, Chennai, New York, Singapore, and the houses are empty, except for a caretaker or two to sweep and dust. 

I discovered, when the houses were unlocked for us, soaring interiors, massive carved teak plinths, gilded ceilings, and the patina of age, stained glass windows, the dust of decades, and the depredations of heat and monsoons. I walked through, with only my guide, Unnamalai, and driver, Ramesh. Silently, we gazed in solitude at beautiful relics, worlds of past splendor, and glimpses of inward-looking houses, and their stately grandeur, now quiet.

Chettinad was a total surprise. I had never seen photographs of the region.

I’ve been traveling in India since I was a student. Trains, boats, prop planes, pony carriages, cycle rickshaws, tuk-tuks, and non-air-conditioned old Hindustan Ambassadors.

I’ve explored every corner of the subcontinent, from history-laden Kolkata and Agra, to jewel-rich Jaipur and romantic Udaipur, to French-accented Pondicherry, remote regions of the Himalaya, dramatic Hyderabad, dreamy Maheshwar overlooking the Narmada River, the beaches of Goa, the ghats of Varanasi, the Ajanta and Ellora caves, and haunts of maharanis and maharajahs hither and thither. Kerala backwaters, Rajasthan desert camps, tiger preserves
I’ve written about them on THE STYLE SALONISTE.

But I had not ventured into deep Tamil Nadu. It’s distant, unknown, but it’s richly rewarding for those who love architecture, a deep culture, discovery, and interiors, design, and a highly evolved cuisine. Women in vivid saris wear garlands of jasmine in their hair. There’s beauty in the everyday.

Chettinad was thrilling. Imagine mansions built in the 1890s and early twentieth century with Burmese teak pillars, Ceylon satinwood doors, Italian marble floors, mirror plaster walls, vivid Japanese and English ceramic tiles, Belgian and Czech chandeliers, Venetian mirrors, English wrought iron railings, and intricately carved capitals and brackets. It’s a dazzling pastiche of styles—often announced by exteriors vibrant with carved deities and a cavalcade of avatars of Ganesh, Shiva, Parvati and heavenly hosts and their animal cohorts.

It’s an intense tropical climate (cool only from December to March) so interiors are somewhat dark, shaded, with thick walls to modulate temperatures.

I was fortunate that my friend art dealer Sharan Apparao spurred me on. My trip was enriched by the lively and erudite insight of Jean-Francois Lesage, and my longtime collaborator photographer Deidi von Schaewen.

The Bangala Hotel

The Bangala, with just 24 rooms/ suites, is especially known for its cuisine, closely supervised with family recipes and authentic dishes by Mrs. Meyyappan. It’s like a private club.

The chef, Karuppiah, has been cooking with her family for fifty-seven years. Yes, fifty-seven.

The major domo of the restaurant, Raman, has been with the family for twenty-seven years. He is charming and wonderfully conspiratorial in taking care of guests.

Seven-course dinners are served each evening. I’m a vegetarian and as it happens many of the best dishes are fresh and meatless including complex salads, subtle lentil dishes, and delicate soups, steamed rice dumplings, an ethereal celery soup, parotta (flat bread). I enjoyed Appam (rice and coconut milk pancake), and cashew nut chutney. I loved a desert of strawberries macerated in cane syrup, with a yoghurt cheesecake.

Many dishes are the Meyyappan exclusive family recipes, handed down for generations, she told me.

Breakfast was fresh Assam tea (looseleaf), as well as fresh watermelon juice, and fresh pineapple and papaya with housemade yoghurt. A menu of Idli (steamed rice flour dumpling), Dosa (pancake), Vadai (lentil donut), and pongal (rice porridge with cumin and lentils), and all the condiments—fresh coconut chutney, sambar (a gently spicy sauce), and subtle flavors.

Welcome to The Bangala hotel in the heart of Chettinad.

Imagine a private hotel in a remote South India village, where the proprietor, a delightful and very worldly octogenarian host/owner/director, is the gracious matriarch of a local patrician Chettiar family.

Jean-Francois Lesage, a longtime friend, connected me with The Bangala and its lively and fascinating owner, Meenakshi Meyyappan, and I’m so grateful to him. He’s been a close friend of Mrs. Meyyapan for over twenty years—and she is a treasure, the key to unlocking the doors of Chettinad mansions but also to an understanding of the history, culture and lives of her ancestors. 
My travels in Chettinad offered moments of reflection and tranquility. Many families of the Chettiar community are working today to protect and save their heritage. Meenakshi Meyyappan and her family are restoring their family mansions for future generations. For a few travelers who are passionate about architectural heritage, history, unknown cultures and traditions, this hidden, untouched destination is rare in the world.

The Bangala was a fortunate discovery. The Bangala is the vivid heart of Chettinad, its history, its crafts, its cuisine and its living culture, thanks to the passion and lifelong involvement in Indian heritage of Meenakshi Meyyappan.

'The Bangala', a century old classical structure, has been classified as a heritage property by the government of India. Mrs. Meyyappan and her family run it with warm and friendly hospitality. They are Chettiars, the Chettinad theme runs through it. Rooms are decorated up with exquisite pieces of Tamil Nadu-Colonial furniture. Floors gleam with handcrafted terra cotta tiles, and beds are covered in quilts and linens crafted of handwoven cotton. Very beautiful.

Crafts and arts of the region are on display at reception. Vintage sepia family photographs add an air of times past. And it is comfortable, at ease, and especially welcoming for guests who have driven far to find this calm retreat. There’s a book shop with an excellent selection. 
Mrs. Meyyappan’s cookbook, 'The Bangala Table: Flavors and Recipes from Chettinad' is now available on Amazon. Highly recommended.

How to get to Chettinad

My journey to Chettinad in southern Tamil Nadu, India, took me first to Chennai, where I met my driver, Ramesh, then a three-hour drive south to Pondicherry. I spent three days in Pondicherry, a former French colony, visiting the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, and researching French colonial/ Tamil architecture.

From Pondicherry, I took a 7-hour drive on the back roads of Tamil Nadu to travel via Tanjore and see seldom-visited temples in remote villages.

Note that it is traditional and customary in this region for the hotel to provide accommodation and breakfast/dinner for guests’ drivers. Ramesh was well taken care of.

How to see the mansions:

The mansions of Chettinad villages are all privately owned—and in varying states of repair, restoration, and decrepitude. The families have long since become part of the diaspora and return only for weddings and religious observations.

I chatted briefly to one charming English couple arriving at a house as we were leaving (they were guests at the Bangala) but otherwise I saw no Westerners.

Villages, with no through traffic, have a school here and there, perhaps a little local shop selling tobacco or candy, or a workshop repairing bicycles (the old standard style favored here).

It is life preserved in amber. It could be the twenties. A group of goats wander. Heat shimmers. Jasmine scents the air. An old man wobbles past on his dusty old black standard bicycle.

Best time to visit: December—March. It’s tropical there. Exploring in intense heat is not ideal—even with a promise of swimming in the hotel pool later.

Tamil is the local language, but everyone at The Bangala spoke excellent English. Street signs, written in Tamil script, are rare.

The villages and mansions of Chettinad are spread out over 60 square miles.

The guide knew all of the houses we could visit and the villages to view, and she arranged a very effective series of trips through the area. We also stopped to see artisans weaving cotton sari cloth, as well as skilled carvers creating temple deities and religious objects. The region has basket weavers, metal crafters, talented wood carvers and decorative artists.

The Bangala Hotel and Region

Chettinad can also be accessed from Madurai, the temple city in South India, a two hours’ drive away. It is essential to have a car and driver.

All mansions of Chettinad are private.

Meenakshi Meyyapam, the delightful and hospitable owner (with her family) of The Bangala hotel, will also open some of her own family residences for guests of the hotel. These residences, built in the late 1900s and 1920s, are superbly maintained.

And the hotel offers cooking classes.

The Bengala, Chettinad Heritage Hotels Pvt. Ltd.

The hotel is located in the heart of Chettinad in Karaikudi. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served for guests.

To note: the hotel has excellent high-speed wifi. It also boasts a professional laundry facility. My white linen blouses have never looked better. 

Forthcoming book: 

‘The Mansions of Chettinad’
Photographer, Bharath Ramamrutham
Art Director, Fravishi Aga
Author, George Michel
With a foreword by Guy Trebay


Images from the new book, The Mansions of Chettinad’ to be published May 2015 used with permission.

Some images of interiors and exteriors and villages of Chettinad by Diane Dorrans Saeks.

Images of The Bangala terrace breakfast by Diane Dorrans Saeks.

Other images of The Bangala courtesy The Bangala hotel, used with permission.


welltravelledbrit said...

Magnificent, thank you so much for posting. We've travelled to India many times and this area certainly wasn't on our radar.

Auro @ Add that Xtra in the Ordinary said...

Absolutely a stunning insight of the place and its architectural features.Definitely a must go destination in my travel list!Thanks for sharing.

Tamar PR said...

Thank you, Diane, for transporting us to another world! Chettinad is amazing - it is India's chateaux region. Its remoteness is both its savior and its doom. Seven hours to get there by car - worth it for the visitor but a daunting journey for the families.

peggybraswell said...

stunning + amazing Chettniad + thanks for the posting.

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Dear Tamar--

Thank you for your comment. Yes…it was the remoteness of the arid region that forced the Chettiars to travel far (Mozambique, Venice, London, Singapore, Sumatra ports, Burma…)…to trade and set up banks and work hard far from Tamil Nadu. The mansions were about power and prestige and celebrations and family gatherings--as you said just as French chateaux were. Few in India, even, have been there, and few Indians know about the discovery. I am honored to have been there. best DIANE

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Dear Peggy-

Yes…it is wonderful to see architecture and interiors that you've never seen before. You as a designer would appreciate the details and the materials. stay in touch, DIANE

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...


I've posted the CHETTINAD post onto FACEBOOK and have many many comments and 'likes' and 'shares' and notes.

My friend Cynthia Woodyard said:
"Cynthia Woodyard: Thank you for the introducing me to this fascinating area which I haven't visited! Beautifully presented!'

Cynthia also commented on how well preserved the interiors of the Chettinad mansions are, compared with many historic palaces and houses in other regions of India, including Shekawati.

Yes, I agree. While there are those who are very concerned that the Chettiar houses are falling into disrepair, many are being restored and maintained superbly. I hope you will all visit and see them. DIANE

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...


I was delighted to receive the following message from the lovely Meenakshi Meyyappam at The Bangala:

"Dear Diane,

"I have just seen your blog – what a superb blog. I have never known Chettinad to look so good. Even my son says that anyone seeing the blog will surely want to visit. You have done very well by Chettinad and The Bangala. The latter also looks so lovely – the picutes you have taken and chosen are so superior to the ones we have . Thank you ever so much, Diane."

Meenakshi--Thank you. I am honored. I had such wonderful material to write about and ponder--at The Bangala and at all the mansion of Chettinad.
I know my readers will want to visit--and perhaps for some it will awaken a love of India and the history and culture of Tamil Nadu.
I can't wait to return.


Diane Dorrans Saeks said...


I have such a fantastically talented and well-traveled and accomplished salon of readers.

I heard from my friend Mike Donaldson, a leading antique dealer, today:

"Hi Diane,

Michael Donaldson here, I'm so jealous of your trip, I've had a few trips planned to the Chettinad area over the years, but have never been. I've sold some Chettinad house parts over the years, but that's about it. The photos look amazing and I'm a huge fan of South Indian cuisine. My current favorite town in India is Fort Cohin (Kochi), someplace that you should visit if you haven't already."

Yes, Mike…thank you. I have been to Kochi and love it. South India is so mellow, so quiet in comparison to rushing and loud and noisy and engaging and lively North India. I am looking forward to exploring more.

best DIANE

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Dear Friends-

My friend Julie in California sent me the following lovely note regarding this Chettinad post:


Just read/saw the Southern India piece. Divine. Made me dream. Cooking classes? Worth the journey. Loved everything about it.


I would be so much fun to gather a few friends and cook in the airy kitchen at The Bangala. The cuisine is so refined and special. I hope many of you will consider taking a cooking class when you visit Tamil Nadu and the Chettinad region. let me know. DIANE

Karena said...

Diane, Chettniad is such an amazing discovery that one usually only dreams or reads of, truly a treasure.

The Arts by Karena

Anonymous said...

Diane, thank you as always for taking us along on your adventures!