Mantra for well-being
There is pin-drop silence as a group of 30-odd French tourists watch a 'bharatanatyam' recital in the open air theatre in the sylvan surroundings of Mantra, a tranquil 30-cottage resort, effectively hidden away within a 15-acre plot in Veppathur village, about 6 km from the temple city of Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu.
In a corner, an elderly Brahmin woman is frying pakodas, and the delicious snack is served piping hot in disposable containers made of dried palm leaves. We are bang in the middle of the Chola heartland as well as the rice bowl of Tamil Nadu in Thanjavur district.
The air is fresh and cool with a welcome nip; the architecture is traditional…slanting tiled roofs, ceilings with wooden rafters, red-tiled flooring, luxuriously spaced open courtyards where you can enjoy the scrumptious all-vegetarian fare dished out by Chef K. Maruthavanam. Oh yes, this is an all-veg, liquor-free resort — the same old hassles about getting a liquor licence in Tamil Nadu! But it is doubtful if the most hardened non-vegetarians or habitual tipplers will gripe, because the magic menu that the chef, who hails from this region, dishes out is bound to satisfy the most demanding palate.
But more about the food later. This resort is straddled by the Cauvery and Veeracholan rivers, and the bulk of its guests are here for either a spiritual experience — many of them are on the navagraha or nine-temple tour — or are keen to discover the artistic, cultural, and, above all, architectural wonders of the Chola and Pallava dynasties.
Recreating a bygone era
Tanjore paintings and artwork dominate the place; at the reception, two huge ornate, gold-covered paintings of the reigning deities of the region, Saraboji Maharaj and his Maharani greet you. Subbu, the CEO of Mantra, which is his brainchild, says when construction started three years ago, he always kept in mind the local architecture and influence. In order to recreate the magic of a bygone era, he bought a lot of the building material from old homes in the area.
Seated in the 24-hour diner, I point to the gleaming dark-brown wooden pillars supporting the roof, and Subbu says he has sourced about 700 such pillars from Karaikudi’s temples and old houses. The cottage has a thinnai (a raised platform in the front) with a lovely rocking chair resting on red oxide flooring, and period furniture.
The large, square cane and wooden chairs, the bed-head embellished with a Tanjore mural, the four pairs of small windows with traditional stoppers, and wood, cane and brass lamp fittings, some of which artfully conceal LED lamps, take you straight into a traditional Thanjavur/ Chettinad home. The open-to-the-sky bathroom, which lets in sufficient natural light, adds to the natural charm of the place.
So, did he get the furniture too from old homes, I ask Subbu, who, after an 18-year stint at Chennai’s Park Sheraton Hotel, has taken this assignment. “Oh, no,” he smiles. “My architect and I got some young people in Pondicherry to make this furniture based on our designs.”
Dressing a goddess
Subbu has also created a traditional tank at the resort’s entrance, with a small temple at its centre. Here pujas are performed regularly. Returning from a morning walk, I sight the pujari changing the saree of Annapoorni, the deity. It is a treat to watch him — with love, devotion and meticulous care, he fixes every pleat on the shining yellow saree, ensures that the waist is properly covered, and urges me to take a picture once again after he has completed the goddess’s shringar with kumkum and sandalwood paste.
As this is peak season, and weekend too, the resort has 80 per cent occupancy; the French group will check out the next morning, to be replaced by an Israeli group. Depending on the season, the rates range from Rs 4,500 to $110–$140 for full board.
About 60 per cent of Subbu’s guests are foreigners, and hail mostly from France, the UK, Germany and the US. “The French are seriously interested in temple architecture and keen on classical dance and music. The English, on the other hand, want to be left alone, and you’ll find them around the swimming pool, reading and soaking up the sun.”
The spa, offering a range of ayurvedic massages and other therapies, is a big draw with the guests, and the Israelis make a beeline for it. With great regret, I trade a long and relaxing swim for an energising and rejuvenating ayurvedic massage from the expert fingers of Manju, the therapist. The next morning, the pool water is too cold, so a walk it has to be!
Just like the menu, the spa products are reasonably priced and a good buy is a bottle of ayurvedic massage oil for Rs 500.
Increasingly, more Indians are coming in; a young couple from Bangalore — he is a Kannadiga, she a Sikkimese — are on a temple tour of the region.
They politely decline a bullock cart ride, specially designed for the resort’s guests, as that would cut into their temple-visits.
A spectacular temple
A visit to the awe-inspiring Darasuram temple dedicated to Lord Shiva is all I manage. About three kilometres from Kumbakonam, this temple, with exquisite stone carvings that weave a magical spell around you, was built by Rajendra Chola in the 12th century.
Legend has it that Yama, who was suffering from a burning sensation on his body thanks to a rishi’s curse, was cured by the presiding deity Airavatesvarar, who asked him to take a dip in the temple tank.
Whether it is the horse-drawn carriage, the intricately carved pillars, the exquisitely carved ceiling, the sensuously beautiful carving of Shiva and Parvathi inside an open lotus, or the seven stones that emanate the seven swaras when struck with a wooden stick (but which have now been cordoned off to save them from human onslaught), this temple takes your breath away. Of particular interest is a carving that shows a village woman delivering a child standing! A UNESCO heritage site, the temple is well maintained with huge manicured lawns.
Back at the resort, tea and coffee are served at the chai kadai, which is modelled after a typical village tea stall. It is buzzing with activity. I am reminded of my election tours in Tamil Nadu’s villages, where even after downing endless cups of sugary tea, journalists like me were none the wiser on which way the electoral wind was blowing. It is great to chat with the Israeli guests at this chai shop about the magic of India, and the “tranquillity and spiritual ambience” of Mantra.
Quiet and peaceful, eco-friendly with a plethora of swaying coconut palms, shady badam and neem (veppa is Tamil for neem) trees, chirping birds and dancing peacocks… and yet, the most compelling aspect of Mantra is its cuisine. Chef Maruthavanam dishes out to his guests traditional South Indian vegetarian fare, embellished with the tricks he has learnt from his grandmother.
For the first time I taste elaneer rasam made from tender coconut water and its pulp. “The pulp is mixed with pepper corns, curry leaves, toor dhal water, cumin seeds, asafoetida; all this is ground together and its extract is taken. We then add a spoon of lemon juice and garnish it with curry leaves and so on,” he says. The result is delicious.
But then, so are the other items he serves — he is proudest about his Maharaja Thali, which is served for lunch and has 28 items! Before you dig into it, your hands are washed with fragrant rose water from a copper vessel with a spout. Pickles, podis (spiced powders), sesame oil, ghee, and pappads are placed on the table before the thali arrives. Snakegourd, bittergourd, curry leaves thuvayal (dry chutney), stuffed brinjals cooked in gingelly oil, carrot, cabbage, potato, vadais, sambar, rasam, dhal, spicy buttermilk and more entice and assault your taste buds, and you simply surrender. Mercifully, the dinner is lighter and I feast on the drumstick soup and set dosai and vada curry, rounding off the meal with date halwa. “Since we don’t serve non-veg food, this is essential to provide the iron content,” says Subbu, who personally draws up the menu, which makes a single exception for eggs.
That 60 per cent of the vegetables used in his kitchen are grown in the resort also helps the chef in creating this culinary experience. “I ensure that everything is served fresh. No food can be kept in the fridge; if I see anything refrigerated, the staff will get it from me,” says Subbu. Coming as he does from a five-star background, he should know the horrors of recycled food.
The challenges in running such a place in a back-of-beyond region include finding, training and retaining skilled staff members. The chef battles with the task of providing healthy, wholesome, and tasty food day after day.
In any hotel or resort, if good food is ensured, even the grumpiest of guests can be placated. Here there are the other add-ons… fresh air, lush greenery, tweeting birds, and the aura of spirituality floating in as much from the surrounding temples as from one’s own being when it is calm and rested.
An added bonus for me was the privilege of hoisting the tiranga on Republic Day. Who can ask for more?