Monday, November 21, 2016

Newest Travels in India — Into the Pages of History and Myth: Chettinad Photo Portfolio. South India Style. Chettinad Chic.

This week, I’m taking you into remote Southern India. You will learn about the fascinating and eccentric architecture of this region with a South India portfolio of exclusive images by Paris-based photographer, Deidi von Schaewen who photographed there recently.

I’ve written about Chettinad in previous posts on The Style Saloniste, and friends have followed in my footsteps.

Recently I returned, and collaborated with Deidi von Schaewen on an exploration of the region’s architecture, and the neat-as-a-pin heritage style of The Bangala, and trips to local antique shops.

Deidi von Schaewen is acclaimed throughout Europe and India for her extraordinary exhibitions of tribal painted houses in India. Recently in India she has focused on creating a remarkable series of images of remote village shrines, sacred temples and holy trees hidden in forests, featuring terra cotta figures and spiritual animals. Thrilling.

Earlier she published ‘Inside Africa’ (Taschen) and ‘Indian Interiors’ (Taschen) and many books and films on mythical buildings, French gardens, and interiors in Egypt, India and Morocco and Paris.

This time, she turned her curious eye onto Chettinad and The Bangala.

Come with Deidi and me this week for an exclusive visit and exploration.

And imagine the silence of deserted mansions—and then the sibilant rustle of laughter and joy and then cooking pots clanging at The Bangala. Chettinad is, indeed, a marvelous discovery.

Chettinad is a wonderful mystery. The grand mansions of this distant region, full of Belgian and Czechoslovakian chandeliers and Bavarian mirrors, are a fable and a mystery.

Lavished with Birmingham steel columns and Victorian ornamentation and Burmese team columns, and stained glass windows and colonnades and banquet rooms, they stand deserted today. The owners and their families live in Silicon Valley, in Singapore, in London and New York, deeply involved in the financial world and the enterprises of their ancestors.

Hidden in a desert landscape far from the financial hubs and swirling population of Chennai and Mumbai and Delhi are more than one hundred Chettinad villages (all with dramatic temples) that seem to have been cut adrift.

I discovered Chettinad last year, and recently made a return visit to learn more.

I stayed once more at The Bangala, a private hotel run by a leading Chettiar family of the region. It’s in Karaikudi, a center of Chettinad culture.

These Tamil Nadu villages and their regal chandelier-filled mansions were founded five or six centuries ago by the Nattukottai Chettiars—a Hindu caste banished (or bestowed) to a hidden corner of India.

In the middle of nowhere, they became private bankers, traders, travelers, philanthropists, educators, pioneers and explorers.

Working closely with the East India Company, the Chettiars were intrinsic to the expansion of the British Empire throughout Africa and Sri Lanka and Burma and Malaysia and into Southeast Asia.

The Chettiars were even rumored to lend money to Napoleon and Spanish kings for early nineteenth-century skirmishes and battles in Europe.

The Bangala

I make The Bangala my home there because it is family owned, founded in the thirties, and now run superbly by the great matriarch and hotelier, Meenakshi Mayyappan.

With her fantastic staff—family chefs and majordomos of many decades—Mrs. Meyappan also rules the kitchen.

Families drive down from Chennai just to taste her legendary authentic spices and Chettiar recipes, inventive and colorful.

Running the front office are a charming group of women—cousins and family friends. Clad in traditional cotton saris that they wear with great style, are also expert guides and trip managers.

The Bangala—staying there is one of the great pleasures of southern India.

Mrs. Meyyappan has childrean grandchildren among the Chettiar diaspora—and they sometimes visit from the tech-y worlds of Silicon Valley, Manhattan, or London.

English is spoken and the welcome is warm.
Meenakshi Mayyappan and her ladies offer tips on the best jewelers in town, the favorite antique dealers. They deftly arrange access to private historic mansions.

First-time travelers in the region may wish to book a driving tour from Chennai or Madurai that takes in all the major temples. The blessing: you may be the only Western traveler entering temples and sacred sites, joining fervent pilgrims and families and schoolchildren. It’s a privilege and a rare insight.

At the end of an intense day, guests return to The Bangala for dinner alfresco and an evening cloaked in the velvet darkness of the area.

Chettinad Antiquaire

I went antiquing in Karaikudi with Deidi von Schaewen, the photographer, and our friend Shirin Jacob, a medical specialist living in Singapore.

Chettinad, with its crumbling mansions and deserted villages, is a focus for many Indian and international dealers who trawl estate sales for teak columns, bronze statuary, carved teak doors, European enamel kitchenware, crystal, brass water jars, ceramic storage urns, and quirky decorative objects. The enamelware and pottery are particularly appealing.

Logistics and credits

The Bangala Hotel, in the heart of Chettinad
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. Some guests drive down from Chennai, stopping to view temples on the way. Another approach is from Pondicherry, the delightful former French colony carved oak door

All mansions of Chettinad are private
Meenakshi Meyyappan, 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 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 throughout the property.

A series of new suites, discreetly sited among trees, were recently added, bringing the total to thirty. Calls from nearby temples, the whirr of crows, and songs and chants drifting in the air all intensify the feeling of being in deepest India.

The Bangala also boasts a professional laundry facility. My white linen blouses have never looked better.

The Mayyappan family has a strong social awareness and environmental policy with all water solar heated; all kitchen and garden wasted composted; all paper recycled; purely organic local vegetable gardening; and they employ only local staff.

Most of the great Chettinad mansions are within a twenty-minute drive from the hotel.

When to go there: From October through February/ March are the best months. Summer is intensely hot. Winter is sunny and fresh and extremely pleasant.

To get there: fly from New Delhi or Mumbai to Chennai or Madurai, and drive into Chettinad.

The Bengala, Chettinad Heritage Hotels Pvt. Ltd. 

Exciting New Books

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

The Bangala Table: Flavors and Recipes from Chettinad
by Sumeet Nair, Meenakshi Meyyappan and Jill Dosenfeld 
Photographer, Rohit Chawla 
Preface by Guy Trebay

Moments of The Bangala and Chettinad photographed by Diane Dorrans Saeks

Tourists (except for a few French and British groups who come and go) have not yet found Chettinad. Tamil Nadu is in the far south of the Indian sub-continent, and centuries away from the glamour and palaces of Rajasthan. 

The Bangala is the place to stay.

Here, nourished by fresh Chettinad cuisine by The Bangala’s highly trained chefs, guests may sunbathe all day,enjoy a massage, or head out into the villages nearby to discover the Mansions of Chettinad.

The Bangala arranges private guides and drivers—who gain entry to family mansions, historic temples. No-one is there but silent caretakers. Photography is permitted.

“I remember all the celebrations and family gatherings, weddings, parties and religious ceremonies with great pleasure,” noted Meenakshi Mayyappan. “For me the mansions are our heritage, reminders of a vanished way of life. The craftsmanship, the materials, and the architecture were magnificent. Our happiness lingers on.”

Note: special thanks to Shirin Jacob.

New and exclusive photography of the Mansions and The Bangala, and Chettinad Antiquaire by Deidi von Schaewen, based in Paris.

Photographer: Deidi von Schaewen


columnist said...

We are just back from our trip to India, and thanks to your recommendation, used Banyan Tours for the whole of it. They are quite simply brilliant. Not sure whether I will revive my blog to write about it, but I'm very happy to share it with you, if you'd be OK giving me your email address; mine is

We are still basking in the wonderment of the short tour we had. Both of us absolutely fell in love with India and the people we encountered.

columnist said...

Well, I've finally written the first segment post about our tour, and I gave you a shout out for your recommendation. I took so many photos, it's quite a task editing them for a post, or three!