Tiny Guna capered about barefoot, hopping on the balls of his feet.
“Five hundred rupees, gentleman,’’ he said, fanning a pack of photographic postcards illustrating Arjuna’s Penance, the eighth-century Shore Temple, and a gravity-defying boulder called Krishna’s Butter Ball.
Guna’s thumbnails, I noticed, were painted red.
“Too much, Guna, too much,’’ I said, laughing, as a veil of marine mist drifted over us and over the seaside temple complex at Mahabalipuram and over a lane of shuttered souvenir shops fringed with clusters of tattered palm trees.
“Fifty,’’ I said, quoting an amount in rupees roughly equivalent to a U.S. dollar. Out shot a tiny hand.
“Okay, fine, sir, very fine, gentleman,” said Guna, who is the size of a child and looks 50 but has claimed when we have met in the past to be 20 or sometimes 30 but who, with his grave small face, could be any age at all.
“First sale of the day,’’ said Guna brightly; in India, a day’s first sale is often taken as a bright augury.
Then, in an instant, Guna was gone, having disappeared under the canopy of a gulmohar tree. And I, too, was headed off—to the Shore Temple itself, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that on this particular April morning seemed to be the exclusive province of some snoozing yellow pye-dogs, a scattering of noisome ravens, and me.
Friends are seldom convinced when I mention how often I have experienced days like this in India, finding it hard to believe that parallel to the teeming, filthy place of cinematic and journalistic cliché is another country, one in which I have experienced uncommon serenity. It is not that I question their incomprehension: India, after all, is a vast place, a country whose population of 1.25 billion is gaining fast on that of China.
Where are they all? Increasingly and in great numbers, India’s population is quitting the countryside for urban centers, abandoning traditional village life for the rapidly metastasizing megacities that are coming to define the Subcontinent and possibly also the rest of the developing world. Yet demographic shifts were not exactly top-of-mind that morning. As often in the past, I had come to India seeking solitude and—as also in the past—I had a strategy.
Back in New Delhi my old friend, the artist and photographer Dayanita Singh, had regaled me over breakfast at the Taj Mahal Hotel with stories of the recent Venice Biennale. It used to be that when Dayanita returned to India from her global art rounds, she stopped just long enough to change clothes and then hop a flight to Goa, where she’d purchased a Portuguese colonial mansion some years back.
Lately, Dayanita announced, Goa has become the Hamptons of India, full of hot restaurants and mobbed dance clubs and cocktailing socialites. Now, when she wants some peace and quiet and escape from the incestuous socializing that tends to define India’s creative classes, she heads in another direction. She goes farther south.
She goes to the somnolent temple towns of Tamil Nadu, the very ones I’ve been sneaking off to for the better part of two decades; drowsy backwaters where it can sometimes seem that if only a metaphoric plug were pulled one would fall back in time and find oneself returned to the classical world.
I am referring here to towns like Mahabalipuram or Gangaikonda Cholapuram (whose tongue-twisting name alone has surely kept it from greater renown); to vital Hindu pilgrimage sites like busy Madurai; and also to coastal villages like Avudaiyarkoil, where bicycles and bullocks outnumber cars.
I am thinking, too, of the mansion towns of Chettinad.
It has been 20 years since I took my first automotive journey down the Coromandel Coast to the Shore Temple, jogging inland on impulse to a region few in those days knew much about. Along routes mainly trafficked then by bullock carts, my long detour led me into a semi-arid land of palm-lined roads twining deep into the Tamil heartland.
Back then, Chettinad seemed to a traveler to have been slumbering in some kind of long hibernation, its villages moated by a distance as much temporal as physical. There was something dreamlike about motoring through placid landscapes of rice paddies, palm groves, raucously colored bougainvillea, and yellow-flowering flame trees, suddenly to fetch up in villages filled with row upon row of extravagant mansions.
Though they seemed like stage sets, these villages founded long ago by the Nattukottai Chettiars—a caste of traders and bankers—were very real. And there were scores of them, designed and built in three great waves beginning in the mid-nineteenth century and ending just after India’s independence. The results of these building booms remain as impressive as they are confounding, elements of Victorian, Indo-Saracenic, and vernacular South Indian architecture fused in a manner that could be seen as pastiche were the structures not given actual and aesthetic gravity by the ancient building principles that underlay their design and also by their colossal scale.
In Chettinad it is not rare to come upon houses of 50 or 100 rooms. And because the wealth to build them was derived mainly from trade conducted throughout Southeast Asia, they are also like great treasuries filled with ceremonial silver, chandeliers of Bohemian crystal, floors of checkered marble, arcaded pillar halls whose columns are made from entire logs of Burmese teak. While in recent decades most of these houses, built for large extended families, stood untenanted, overseen by ancient barefoot retainers and shrouded in muslin and desuetude, lately that has begun to change. Travelers are increasingly making their way to Chettinad, drawn by the oddity of the place and also by a number of stylish boutique hotels.
Out of long habit, I always stay at The Bangala, which is run by the octogenarian Chettiar entrepreneur Meenakshi Meyyappan. The charms of this small hotel set alongside the main road in the Chettinad capital of Karaikudi are many. Not least of them is the access Mrs. Meyyappan provides her guests to great private mansions that are all but impossible to enter without her help. I have seen many of these over the years, drifting around empty ballrooms and pillared courtyards under the baleful gaze of the Chettiar ancestors whose photographic portraits invariably hang angled high on the walls.
These days I come back for different reasons: out of affection for the placid landscapes, curiosity about the local temple architecture; for the chance to see masterpieces of Chola sculpture unlikely ever to leave Tamil Nadu; and for the intense enjoyment to be derived from spending time among the hospitable and deeply traditionalist Tamil people.
I also come, as many do, for the food.
Lately, Chettiar cooking has become an obligatory stop on the global foodie caravan, Western chefs finally learning to savor its complex spicing and nuanced subtleties. The Bangala’s black pepper chicken, tamarind crab curry, mutton fry, and king prawns with spring onions have become enough of an attraction that tour buses now haul foreign visitors here for cooking lessons in the hotel’s demonstration kitchen. Yet it is The Bangala’s old-world atmosphere, most of all, that compels me to return.
During the long years of her marriage, Meenakshi Meyyappan directed her abundant gifts of hospitality toward charity work and running a large household. It was only after she was widowed in her 60s that she dialed back her charity work, which had occupied much of her time, and embarked on the transformation of what had been her father-in-law’s private club into a heritage hotel.
Somehow this small woman in a cotton sari and with a tidy gray bun contrived to put the place on the international tourist map, expanding its 4 rooms to 25 and adding a pool. That Mrs. Meyyappan brought to her new enterprise a cosmopolitanism which seems startling in this rural setting should not, in itself, come as much of a surprise. Raised in the last century in what was then colonial Ceylon, Mrs. Meyyappan was the daughter of a man who was both mayor of Colombo and proprietor of the local Daimler dealership, and of a mother who, although altogether unlettered, turned her house into a cultivated international salon.
If the lessons of Mrs. Meyyappan’s early life have remained with her, so too have much of her staff. Even now, the kitchen at The Bangala is overseen by septuagenarian chef Karuppiah, a cook gifted enough that hostesses in Madras spent decades trying to steal him from Mrs. Meyyappan. The dining room is the domain of her longtime majordomo, a small, handsome, bustling man named Raman. Under him, a group of similarly seasoned employees pad around barefoot in starched white shirts and crisp lungi, their sometimes unorthodox methods balanced by a humming efficiency.
For this trip south, I asked a driver I’ve often employed in the past to pick me up at the Taj Coromandelhotel, my preferred digs whenever I find myself in Chennai. From there, the two of us headed out of the city and over a series of modern cloverleaf ramps onto the East Coast Road—our destination, the seaside Fisherman’s Cove resort.
Last time I saw this place, the 2004 tsunami had not yet swept through, carrying off several buildings and an uncounted number of local villagers and obliterating swaths of the coast. Now the resort had been redone and lushly replanted, a series of new cottages erected close enough to the sand that from my bed I could gaze out at small whitecaps breaking on a body of water so calm it was hard to believe it had ever wrought such devastation.
The month was April—Chithirai on the Tamil calendar. It was an auspicious season in many senses, although ordinarily not in terms of weather. “Hot, hotter, and hottest” is how people tend to characterize South India’s seasons. And yet this year was different. Unseasonal torrents had swept in from the south, flooding the states of Andhra Pradesh and Odisha and dragging behind them moody cloud banks that, while they did away with shadows and cast the landscape into ominous relief, also brought blessed cool. If the unseasonal 70-degree weather was a nuisance to locals, who took to wearing mufflers and complaining of chill, to a traveler it was a benison.
Later at the Shore Temple, I paid what I think of as a courtesy visit to one of India’s more poetic ruins, a cluster of tiered granite structures reached along an avenue flanked by rows of sentinel stone bulls. The entire fragile and yet enduring complex sits perched at the lip of what on that morning was a snarling and ominous sea.
After buying my postcards from Guna, I kicked around for a time and visited a local stonemason to pick up some of the lacy carved soapstone lanterns that are a specialty here as souvenirs for friends. Then I hopped into the rear seat of my rented Toyota and settled back for the five-hour trip inland to The Bangala hotel.
It was from this familiar perch that I would set out over the next week on daily jaunts to the little-known temples that abound in the region, first on my list a rock-cut shrine whose presiding deity is Ganesha, the elephant-headed god. Known as the remover of obstacles, Ganesha is surely the most lovable among the millions of gods in the Hindu pantheon. Pot-bellied, he has a notorious sweet tooth that devotees satisfy with candied balls called laddus; he also savors the sweet grass that vendors sell in fragrant bundles outside the temple, along with rope-like garlands of roses in his favorite red.
As it happened, my arrival at Pillayarpatti Temple coincided with the ritual bath of the idol. And so I found myself queuing up behind scores of pilgrims processing through a cool stone pillar hall that led to a gated portal to the inner sanctum. Once there, we all strained to yield offerings to bare-chested priests, who draped them briefly around the idol’s neck for sanctification before uncloaking the gold-covered effigy and bathing it in honey, milk, and rosewater.
On the following morning, I set out early for the 90-minute drive along back roads through a flat, shimmering landscape of lagoons and paddies. My destination was the little-known temple at Avudaiyarkoil. This temple is singular not merely because its rooftop, nails, and structural beams that resemble wood are all carved from granite. Of all the Shiva temples on the Subcontinent, Avudaiyarkoil is reputed to be the sole one lacking a presiding deity.
Where normally a statue or phallic lingam might be placed to focus the prayers of devotees, at Avudaiyarkoil there is just a void. “There is deep spiritual significance in the queerness’’ of this, said a guidebook entry that seemed to neatly capture the symbolic import of a shrine whose builders considered formlessness the ultimate spiritual state.
As usual, I found the place empty, no one around except some random pilgrims, a few priests snoozing on woven straw mats, and an attendant feeding hay to the milk-white temple bullocks. Throughout my many travels to South India, scenes like this have been repeated, whether in the polychrome ziggurat-shaped temple at Kumbakonam or else Gangaikonda Cholapuram, which in April I wandered about almost entirely alone.
In the eleventh century the Chola king Rajendra Chola I ruled a vast kingdom extending to most of the southern Subcontinent, as well as the lands that are now Sri Lanka, Sumatra, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Bangladesh, from his capital at Gangaikonda Cholapuram. But on the day I visited, his former bustling city was a deserted picnic spot. Once a center of commerce and culture, once surrounded by groves and orchards and fertile farmland, once at the core of a trading empire reaching throughout the known world, the gorgeously carved great stone temple on that day was occupied by me and a small Punjabi family washing down their picnic dosas with Coke.
The sodas came from a snack stall that doubled as a shoe depository. Beneath a billboard extolling the joys of the ubiquitous American soft drink were hung bundles of inflatable plastic puppies. I bought one of each and realized as I slaked my thirst that I’d spent so much time wandering the temple grounds that it was getting too late for the long drive back to The Bangala. Waving my phone around like a dowsing wand, I managed to detect a Wi-Fi signal and an Internet connection and, finally, through the magic of Google, a nearby hotel I chose on no particularly rational basis.
It turned out, as it happened, that the driver knew the place; he assured me they would have late-season vacancies. He also pointed out, with notable tact, that there might be one problem. A strictly vegetarian establishment, Mantra Veppathur eco-resort was also dry: no alcohol served. And at the end of a long day of temple hopping, little is more welcome to me than a cold alcoholic beverage.
Thus on the way to the hotel, it became a mission to find one of the TASMAC government shops that monopolize alcohol sales in the state of Tamil Nadu. Midway to Mantra we found one. The driver hopped out to buy me some beer, returning after a few minutes hauling a plastic bag containing what looked to be a pair of torpedoes. Inside were two 40-ounce bottles of a warm brew with the worrying brand name 10,000 Volts. The shop also sold both 5,000 Volts and 2,000 Volts beer, the driver mentioned, tactfully refraining from adding that he knew his customer. If the remainder of the drive was then given over to internal debate about whether I risked becoming an Amy Winehouse lyric, these thoughts soon gave way to other distractions as we turned down a country lane right out of Satyajit Ray’s ‘Apu Trilogy.’
Forest grew on either side, broken periodically by small villages. Dogs lay in the middle of the road, cooling in the dust. Reaching a one-lane bridge, we pulled over to make way for an oncoming oxcart and then moved on to a destination that seemed to confirm a long-held conviction that often in India reality seems to blur into dream. It is not merely that at Mantra we found ourselves inside a handsome walled compound, 14 acres of mango, teak, and palm groves; or that a series of stucco bungalows with deep eaves surrounded an island whose open-air pavilions are reached across a series of footbridges that spanned narrow canals. It was not that monkeys looped through the treetops and unseen peacocks shrieked from somewhere high in the canopy. It was not that, after checking into a capacious villa whose veranda was painted with traditional kolam diagrams, I rinsed off in an open-air shower and then padded through the twilight to an arcaded pool to swim cooling laps beneath a waxing moon.
Rather, the fantastical part came clear only once I had changed and walked in the dusk to the dining pavilion, where a waiter in a starched white lungi explained that the alcohol prohibition did not apply to foreign travelers, and promptly fetched me a bottle of icy Kingfisher. As he poured, he mentioned in a merry offhand way that—since I was apparently the only guest at the Mantra—for tonight at least, the place was my own kingdom.
There are times, it seems, when one falls into a sleep so deep it resembles the slumbers of fables, and that was one. I awoke the next morning as if restored to life from a spell in some peaceful oblivion. Tossing my things into a duffel bag, I felt fresh and ready to begin the 14,000-mile trek home across continents and oceans. Just after checkout, as I walked to the car, a young clerk trotted after me proffering a coconut.
Would I mind, he asked, if he performed a small ritual to assure a safe onward journey. Putting a match to the husk, he lighted and rotated the coconut three times clockwise over the hood. Then he raised his arms above his head and smashed the coconut on the ground in a traditional—and at that moment perhaps redundant—gesture of blessing.