Action Replay: On a film trail in Chettinad

At the ‘Periya Veedu’ (Big House) at Athangudi, the caretaker rubbed his fingers together as soon as he spotted me getting off the car. It took me a moment to understand that he was making the time-honoured gesture for money, the way he did with all visitors. The magnificent – a word that I would use again and again during my time in Chettinad – house remained locked for most of the year under his beady eyes, opened only for such curious visitors who found their way there.

Looking up

Magnificent interiors

After the dry and dusty landscape of the region, the cool and spacious interiors of Periya Veedu came as a pleasant shock. As I stepped into the first level of the house, known as the mugappu, I could see through the long, narrow corridor all the way to the back door. “That opens out on the parallel street, that is how large houses in Chetttinad are,” said my guide with a proud smile.

The mugappu itself was stunning, with its low and wide seat called the thinnai running along the wall on both sides of the main door. This used to serve as one of the social hubs of the house: to welcome visitors, catch quick afternoon naps and hold intensive gossip sessions.

Like most of the big Chettinad mansions, the Periya Veedu was built in the early 20th century. Several mansions across the region fell into disrepair over the years along with the migration of their owners to larger towns like Chennai and Coimbatore. While some have recently got a fresh lease of life in the form of conversion into luxury heritage hotels, others like the Periya Veedu have stayed afloat by hiring it out for film shootings.

Immortalized on celluloid


Indeed, Chettinad is a popular location among filmmakers from the Tamil and Telugu film industry, and increasingly, Bollywood. And within Chettinad, the star attraction is the opulent Chettinad Palace in Kanadukathan. One look at the exteriors of the palace – as stunning as the interiors, with the brightly painted walls glittering in the sunlight – and it is easy to see why.

The most memorable film set here is Rajiv Menon’s Kandukondain Kandukondain (2000) with a stellar cast that included Tabu, Aishwarya Rai, Mammooty and Ajith, among others. A few months ago, director Hari shot the climax scene (an exciting chase sequence) for the sequel to his blockbuster Singam, on the streets of Karaikudi near Pandian Cinema.

And among Bollywood filmmakers, Priyadarshan has shown his fondness for Chettinadu, filming at Kanadukathan in Raja’s Palace (as it is known locally) and at Chettinadu Mansion (now a heritage hotel) for Virasat and Maalamal Weekly. He later went a step ahead and recreated a slice of Bihar in Karaikudi for Aakrosh, his thriller based on the theme of honour killings.

Chettinadu Mansion

Raja's Palace

The local red soil and lavishness of the mansions lend themselves readily to stories ostensibly set in Rajasthan or wealthy homes anywhere in the hinterlands (cue the rich Thakurs of Priyadarshan movies). Add to that the liveliness of the local markets and street scenes, which draw filmmakers repeatedly.

Sometimes, filmmakers have chosen Chettinad over their usual favoured locations like the snowy Alps and the streets of Paris for song sequences. A couple of Tamil hits come to mind: Iruvizhiyo siragadikkum from ‘Pirivom Santhipom’ (a story about a joint Chettiar family) and Idu daana from ‘Saamy’ (again a movie by Hari). Interestingly, both feature scenes from a traditional Tamil engagement / wedding.

In a way, this seems quite fitting, since many of these homes remain closed, with families staying in far away cities and coming back home only for weddings and major festivals. The mansions, which remain uninhabited, and often desolate and dusty, come alive to the sounds of the silver anklets of the women of the house and the booming voices of the men only once or twice a year.

These wedding scenes are set in the large courtyard (a typical feature of these mansions) just following the mogappu. These are open to the skies and used for drying appalam and pickles, and occasionally for cooking. And branching off to a side are large halls used just for feeding guests during weddings, some of which can hold up to 500 at a time.

Lavish interiors

Status symbols

Chettiars belong to a trading community, with ties once extending as far as Singapore and Malaysia. They were known as bankers and moneylenders to the British Raj and flourished under their rule. Chettiars invested their wealth in their hometowns, building large mansions. The larger the mansion, the higher the status. And they brought in the best from everywhere in the world: glass from Murano, teak from Burma, chandeliers from Belgium and tiles from Athangudi. They threw in some Victorian furniture and Art Deco influences to the mix to form arresting architectural masterpieces.

Round the world

Dining room

The other highlights of these homes are the intricate woodwork on doors depicting Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth who presides over these homes. And then the smooth, still gleaming plaster on the walls made of a ground mixture of egg white, lime, powdered shells and a local fruit.

As I stepped out of the Periya Veedu at Athangudi, I craned my neck to look at the statues above the main gate. I saw vibrantly painted stuccowork of gods and goddesses, animals and birds, even British soldiers with horses and guns. They stood peering at the passersby on the streets, as they have done for over a century now.


At a glance

Barely 80 kilometres from the temple city of Madurai, Chettinad is the collective name for 75 odd villages and towns once inhabited by the Chettiar community. The biggest of these towns today is Karaikudi, which is also the commercial hub of Chettinad. Kanadukathan, Devakottai, Kothamangalam, Kottaiyur and Athangudi have some of the most opulent mansions in the region.

Things to do

Mansion visits

Hop across towns, visiting the old mansions to take in the splendor of the art and architecture. Although many are locked, some have caretakers willing to give you a guided tour for a nominal fee of Rs. 50 or so.

Athangudi tile factory

Athangudi tilesThese handmade tiles, made from local sand, are a visual delight. Walk into any one of the several home factories in Athangudi to watch the workmen fill the moulds with the bright paints mixed with a little cement. These tiles, which stay new and glossy for decades, come in typical floral and geometric motifs.

Tile factory

Pillayarpatti temple

The rock-cut temple to Ganesha is located 12 kilometres from Karaikudi and is believed to be from the 4th century A.D. Among the nine temples dedicated to Ganesha in this area, this is one of the most significant, with a six-feet tall state of the main deity.


Buy cotton Sungudi saris straight off the loom at the Mahalakshmi Weaving Centre at Kanadukathan. The local tie-and-dye technique of this area is used to weave Sungudi and Kandangi saris in soft cotton. They come in traditional patterns and bright colours, usually worn by the elderly Chettiar women.

Go antique shopping at the main market on Muneeswaran Koil street in Karaikudi. Shopkeepers are friendly and willing to chat with you about the rich history of their wares, most of them from local Chettiar homes. Look out for Mangalam Arts (Tel: 91-4565-239679) with multiple levels of hidden gems.

Antiques market

Traditional cookware


Tuck into a traditional Chettinad meal (both vegetarian and non vegetarian) at The Bangala, complete with local delicacies like milagu kuzhambu (pepper stew) and Crab curry. Classic Chettinad snacks include kuzhi paniyaram (shallow fried snacks served with chutney), idiyappam (string hoppers served with coconut milk) and adhirasam (deep-fried sweet made with rice flour and jaggery).

Breakfast at Visalam


Base yourself in one of the heritage hotels to explore the region: Visalam in Kanadukathan, Chidambara Vilas in Kadiapatti, Saratha Vilas in Kothamangalam and The Bangala.

When to go

The area can get unbearably hot in summers, so the ideal time to visit is the cooler months between November to February.

Getting there

Take a train or flight to Madurai, the nearest large airport and railway station and hire a cab to your destination within Chettinad. The roads are excellent and the journey takes less than two hours.

Getting around

While you can take cycle-rickshaws or even walk within the smaller towns and villages, auto-rickshaws are available for longer distances. Local bus connectivity between towns and villages is sketchy, so it is best to hire a cab to explore the region. Cab drivers often double up as guides and help gain access into some of the local homes.

A slightly different version of this was published in the July-August 2014 issue of Time Out Explorer as ‘Keeping It Reel’.

Friday photo: Mother

Working as I am on a story on Bhutan for a magazine, this Friday, I give you an image from there that always brings a smile to my face. This was on the way to Takhtsang Goemba, or the Tiger’s Nest monastery near Paro, just before I had begun the hike. I had no idea just how arduous it was going to be. Ah, but that is another story altogether…

The Bhutanese – I have also seen this in Ladakh and Sikkim so far – carry their babies in such slings effortlessly, even up on steep mountain roads. This photo is particularly dear to me, the way both mother and child are smiling.


~ Also see: Friday photo series

~ And more stories from Bhutan here, including one on their natural body warmers, viz. red and green chillis…

Up in the air

This is the story of a hot air balloon ride I took in Drakensberg in South Africa, told in pictures. It was this whirlwind trip, where we had driven up from Durban the earlier day. I had completed the Canopy Tour (more on this coming up soon), much to my own amazement – and secret pride – and my nerves were shot to pieces. We were staying at the gorgeous Drakensberg Sun Resort but didn’t get to spend any time walking around the resort or sitting by the lake with a glass of wine. Back from the zip lining adventure, I could barely keep my eyes open – though I had a really disturbed sleep that night, where I kept dreaming off falling off cliffs.

The next morning, we were up and early. By early, I mean that we left the resort by 5.30 am to get to the hot air ballooning location in time for our ride. When we got there, everything in front was a thick, soupy fog. It was early winter in South Africa and in hot air ballooning, there is little control over anything (as I found out several times during my ride later).


So we spent a couple of hours drinking lukewarm coffee and stomping our feet against the cold, waiting for the mist to clear and the sun to come out. At the first signs of a hesitant sun, the team swung into action and soon, the first group went up for a 45 minute ride.

What I was saying earlier about having little control over anything – the pilot Davie had to coast with the wind and land in the middle of a corn field. Getting to the balloon through the thick, tall corn stalks was a mini adventure in itself.

Corn field

The flight was brilliant: deep blue sky, with the sun out in full force. No trace of the morning’s mist or cold remained as we went up. We were surrounded by the Drakensberg mountains on all sides, with fluffy blankets of clouds below us. I loved the way the shadow of the balloon stayed with us throughout – according to Davie, “angels flying with us.”



And our landing, much nicer in the middle of an open field (although we did get perilously close to more corn stalks), celebrated with a glass of champagne.

Trying to land

More corn

Tying down


Easily one of the best hours I spent in any holiday ever…

To do it: Take a 45 minute ride with Drakensberg Ballooning.

Friday photo: South Bank

I am off next week to one of my favourite cities in the world – London. I am there on work for the first few days. And then… a quick weekend trip to Leeds, a couple of musicals, a morning food walk, lots of catching up with friends, revisiting old haunts…

This Friday, from a rainy-sunny summer afternoon (the kinds that only London can see) from South Bank:


Memories of London: The buskers are abusking
Also see: Friday photo series

Bye bye Bangalore, Hullo Haryana!

So it’s bye bye to Bangalore after five years. And a good five years it was. When I moved to Bangalore in 2009, this was my third stint in the city. I was not particularly fond of it, though I didn’t actively dislike it.

My husband and I were both fans of Bombay and suffered a massive Bombay hangover for close to two years. But I slowly fell into its languid rhythm and grew to like everything about Bangalore. Well, almost everything. And leaving has not been easy. Especially for a place like Gurgaon. Ah, well, the things we do for work…

I will definitely miss Bangalore. As I sit here sweltering in the north Indian summer, my thoughts ran to all the things I will miss about Bangalore:

~ The weather: This has to top any list about Bangalore – the lovely, cool, breezy days and the al fresco dinners that are possible almost through the year. I am so tempted to block all Bangalore friends on facebook because all they seem to talk about is how cool their city is. Grrrrrr.

~ Kharabhath and filter coffee breakfasts: Airlines was already shut by the time we left, but there is still MTR and Ballal and the dozens of small places that dish out lip smacking masala dosa and kharabhath. Sunday mornings will never be the same again.

<Also read: Breakfast in Bangalore 1, 2, 3, 4, 5>

Masala dosa

~ Cubbon Park blooms: This was one of my absolute favourite parts about living in Bangalore, the fact that we could drive through Cubbon Park and always see some trees in bright bloom through the year.

Cubbon Park

~ Summer evenings at Lalbagh: Although I didn’t do this as frequently as I would have liked – one of the things I took for granted – walking through Lalbagh was always a delightful experience. Apart from all that greenery, I loved the people watching opportunities that Lalbagh always offered.

<Also read: A summer evening at Lalbagh>



~ Drives on Mysore Road: Another favourite weekend activity, long drives on Mysore Road, especially during the cooler months. Kishore Kumar or Gulzar on the speakers and the windows rolled down, the breeze caressing my cheeks, bisi bisi thatte idli within calling distance… need I say more?

~ The markets: Mangos at Gandhi Bazaar. Street side bargaining on Commercial Street. Fresh flowers at KR Market… Avenue Road. Malleswaram. The annual crafts mela at Chitra Kala Parishat.

KR Market

Commercial Street

So, bye bye Bangalore. I hope to be back. And for now, I will leave you with a collection of my posts from Bangalore. Regular programming to resume soon, from Gurgaon from now on.

Friday photo: Cliffs of Moher

Just returned from a short trip to the Republic of Ireland, where I visited Dublin, Galway and Limerick. I managed to go on a drive on part of the Wild Atlantic Way to the Cliffs of Moher.

In Ireland, they say “if you don’t like the weather, just wait for a minute; it will change.”

Although the day started off grey and gloomy, the rain stayed away and it actually turned sunny by the time I was ready to leave the cliffs. As I was walking down towards the car park, I ran into Tina singing and playing on the harp. A beautiful song for Ireland…

Cliffs of Moher

Also see: Friday photo series

Roos of the game


I so want the life Tim Williams has. He drives people around Kangaroo Island, showing them the local colour that comes in the shape of kangaroos and koalas, seals and sea lions. He takes off from work every Wednesday to go sailing with friends. He stops the jeep every few miles to check on his beehives and coo lovingly over his pet bees. And he owns a home by the beachfront, where he watches the parade of the penguins every night.

Yeah, so I want that life. And the penguins; above all, I want a daily penguin adda in my backyard.

I know all this within an hour of being on Kangaroo Island. I have just got there after a terrifying half hour flight from Adelaide on a wobbly 34-seater. Tim, my tour guide from Exceptional Kangaroo Island, meets me at the tiny airport. Just as we drive out, two kangaroos cross the road in front of us. They look startled for a moment – just as startled as I feel – and then scamper into the bushes. Of course, when I say scamper, I mean they go hop, hop, hop like a couple of awkward but adorable kids on pogo sticks.

kids on pogo sticks

I can’t hope for a better welcome. And I am sold on Kangaroo Island. Or KI, as I have begun to think of it. Just like a local.

KI is Australia’s third largest island, spread over 4400 square kilometres, with 4500 residents (and according to unsubstantiated reports, over 70,000 kangaroos). Tim keeps up a steady commentary as we drive along deserted roads, pointing out wallabies hiding in the bushes and koalas dozing on tops of trees, young ones tightly tucked into their pockets. We also stop for the occasional kangaroo; marsupials have right of way on these roads.

KI roads


One third of all land on KI is devoted to National and Conservation Parks. And Tim is taking me on a tour of some of them. First stop, Lathami Conservation Park. KI is home to over 250 avian species but they dedicate the Lathami Park towards the protection of one single subspecies: the Glossy Black Cockatoo, of which less than 250 remain. You cannot say Kangaroo Islanders don’t take their birds and animals seriously. Sadly, the Cockatoos are all in hiding but I spot my first echidna, the local “fast tongue” anteater, with its deceptively glossy blonde spines.

On to Seal Bay, where over 1000 Australian sea lions are working on their tan on the powder white sands. The gulls keep up a steady cacophony, descending and taking off in a big flock. But nothing disturbs the siesta of this colony of sea lions. If they were nearly hunted to extinction on the 19th century, today they are protected and admired from a distance. Although Tim takes me down to the beach, visitors are usually allowed to watch only from the viewing platforms on the boardwalk. A few pups are frolicking in the water in the manner of young ones everywhere. Watching them at play, I find it hard to believe that sea lions can get aggressive.

Seal Bay1

Sleeping seals

Sea lion

Later that evening, I sit with a drink at the Great Room of the Southern Ocean Lodge looking out at the giant waves crashing below. There are plenty of lounge chairs scattered around this large circular room with floor to ceiling glass windows, directly overlooking the Southern Ocean. And an open bar. I think life cannot get better than this.

Southern Ocean

Dinner at SOL

Ditto for my suite – not quite circular but think infinite sea views stretching all the way to Antarctica. And a minibar stocked with wine from local vineyards and champagne. Like the other 20 in the Lodge, this suite is named after a shipwreck that occurred on this once highly turbulent coast. Someone with a macabre sense of humour but also a classy sense of style has been at work here; along with the sophisticated music system and luxury spa products, there are books on these shipwrecks. Not ideal bedtime reading, so I fall asleep to the sounds of the ocean.

Suite at SOL

In the morning, I find it tough to drag myself out of the daybed on the terrace but Tim tells me that more roos await. And some Remarkable Rocks. These weirdly shaped enormous granite boulders are one of the main attractions at Flinders Chase National Park. Eroded by natural forces over five hundred million years, they now look like something designed by Salvador Dali specifically for the South Australia Tourism Department.

Remarkable Rocks

Down the road, at Cape du Couedic, Tim points to the lighthouse built over a century ago. “You can stay here at one of the keeper’s cottages, but chances are, you won’t see any shipwrecks these days,” he says with a straight face. However, naval disasters are not on the minds of modern day visitors to the Cape du Couedic. They come to see the Admiral’s Arch and the colony of New Zealand fur seals nestling on the rocks below. Admiral’s Arch is stunning, with stalactites hanging from the roof, framing the ocean for those perfect photo-ops.

To my untrained eye, the New Zealand fur seals, also native to Australia, look similar to the sea lions at Seal Bay. Tim says their fur is much finer and thicker, which made them the target for hunters till conservationists raised the alarm. Since I am not about the stroke their necks to verify this, I take his word for it. My other learning from this seal watching session is that during the summer months – peak breeding season – fierce territorial battles take place. But right now, there seem to be enough rocks to go around.

Fur seals

KI also prides itself on being the original land of milk and honey within Australia. Of the local population, most of those who are not directly engaged in the tourist trade are producers or traders of cheese, milk, honey, wine, meat and fish. At the Southern Ocean Lodge, every meal consists almost exclusively of local gourmet produce. At breakfast, I feel like I am in a scene out of a Wodehouse novel, as I tuck into “eggs laid by contended hens” à la Bertie Wooster.

I leave KI clutching a small bottle of Hooroo, a local Ligurian honey, a farewell gift from the Lodge. The accompanying note says that Hooroo! is Aussie-speak for goodbye, see you later. Oh well then, Hooroo to you too, Roo Island.


Getting there

Fly Qantas to Adelaide from Mumbai or Delhi (approx. Rs. 62,000) and connect to KI on Regional Express. Or take the cheaper 2½ hours drive and ferry option.


Tourist visas can be obtained from the Australia Visa Application Centre, managed by the VFS at various cities; visa fee Rs. 8600, allow two weeks for processing.


Exceptional Kangaroo Island offers a range of tours – including a food safari and a ‘KI for kids’ tour – on 4W drive vehicles with experienced guides. If you are out exploring on your own, look for Eat Local signs to enjoy the best of local food.

Where to stay

The Southern Ocean Lodge is undoubtedly KI’s most luxurious and exclusive option (suites from AUD 1050 per person per night, inclusive of all meals and beverages). If you are looking for a unique experience, stay at one of the cottages at the Cape du Couedic Lighthouse.

This was published in the special Australia issue of Outlook Traveller in May 2014.

Tso far tso good

Tso Moriri

When we reach Tso Moriri, it feels eerily quiet and desolate. No tourists, no locals. And then we hear a feeble sound from the distance. A group of children are playing cricket on the banks of the lake (‘tso’ in the local language). And we start walking towards them. There they are, engrossed in their game, each wearing only a thin sweater on top of cotton shirts and drainpipe pants. Me, I want to weep for the cold.

It is still early in the season and it appears that the camp has not yet been set up at Tso Moriri. We have driven for seven long hours from Leh through dry brown roads. True, the Indus had given us company for most of way, snaking along the road like a shiny green ribbon. But I cannot bear the thought of driving back to Leh now, a journey of 250 kilometres. That apart, this place deserves more than a fleeting visit.

Tso Moriri, at an altitude of over 15000 feet, is just stunning. Surrounded by snow-capped mountains, the lake stretches on for over 28 kilometres and at its broadest, spans eight kilometres. I stand on the shore and watch the water change colour with the sun every minute; now a pale grey, suddenly a deep cobalt blue and then aquamarine. Shades I had only heard of are now playing themselves out in front of my eyes and I am greedy for more.

Tso Moriri1

Suddenly, there is some bustle behind us, as a couple of trucks pull up with tents and supplies. It turns out that the camp – the only one allowed here – is to open in a couple of days. I send our driver, Murub, to negotiate and soon we have a deal. They pitch one tent for us and get the kitchen going. Which is a good thing, since breakfast is long forgotten and it is way past lunchtime.

We go for a stroll while lunch gets ready. The husband is keen to join in a game of cricket but the high altitude makes it tough to even breath deep or walk steady. Some portions of the lake are still frozen, although the native Brahmni ducks make their way placidly through the water.

By early evening, it gets so cold that I begin to question the wisdom of our decision to stay on. But at dusk, the snow peaks gleam golden, catching the last rays of the sun. The lake is perfectly still, reflecting the thick white clouds like so many fluffy pillows. The silence is absolute. And as I sip on hot chai, I think I could get used to this after all.

Another day, another lake.

Unlike Tso Moriri, Pangong Tso is abuzz with noise and activity. And why not? It has recently shot to fame as the location of the blockbuster movie 3 Idiots. Murub says, with part amusement and part dismay, that this has now become almost a pilgrimage spot for large groups of tourists.

Pangong has always been the more popular lake in Ladakh, the item to be checked off every visitor’s list. For one, it is much closer to Leh than Tso Moriri. And the drive is through the spectacular Chang La pass, which at almost 18000 feet, is one of the highest motorable roads in the world.

Chang La

Chang La1

With plans to spend the night at Pangong, we start from Leh late in the morning, unlike peppy day-trippers who leave at 4 am. The mountains are covered with fresh snow, and we drive through a narrow road that is part earth, part slush. At Chang La, breathless and disoriented, we pose for the mandatory photographs with stilted smiles on our faces. The discomfort lingers long after we descend, but is forgotten at the first glimpse of Pangong, a sapphire band shimmering afar.


At Pangong, there are several camps already in business and some local homes have opened their doors to curious visitors. By the side of the lake, a child plays with flat stones, in his own version of the Buddhist meditative practice of stacking stones. A group of young men dares each other to wade into the freezing water, till one of them finally does it. Predictably, he does not last very long and I notice that his lips look almost as blue as the water by the time he steps out.


As at Tso Moriri, I could spend all evening here just seeing the varied blues of the lake. Pangong is much much longer, at over 134 kilometres, of which only one third is in India and the rest in Tibet. Apart from the brown-headed gulls that clamour for pieces of bread or biscuit that tourists throw their way, large herds of Kiangs (Tibetan wild asses) are usually found grazing on its banks.

Ladakh has a way of holding on to you and never letting go. Long after I am back in my urban jungle, I keep playing it all back in my mind. I remember the time I spent in meditation at Thiksey monastery, as the monks went about their morning prayers. And the long walks and lively chats with the vendors at the street market in Leh. Above all, I think of that evening at Tso Moriri. Who knew solitude could be so soothing?

Published in New Indian Express on May 25, 2014 as The waters of life

Friday photo: Posing

I have just come back from a fun week long trip to South Africa, taking in the fabulous INDABA tourism conference in Durban and a quick tour in the beautiful Kwazulu Natal region. I explored street markets, went on a canopy tour, floated on a hot air balloon, spotted giraffe and zebras aplenty and spent hours at the luxurious spa at Karkloof.

More on all this soon. For now, my Friday photo on a bunch of curious children near Durban…


Also see: Friday photo series

Friday photo: Madurai

Malayadhwaja Pandiya must have been a sad king. Fate had played a cruel trick on him. After years of being childless and spending days and nights in prayer, and pouring countless kilos of pure ghee in the sacrificial fire, he had been blessed with a daughter. Alas! A daughter who was a freak; she was born with three breasts. Just as the royal couple was torn between joy and despair, a voice from the heavens informed them that her abnormality would disappear as soon as she met her consort. The girl Meenakshi — the fish-eyed one — grew up into a beautiful princess who was finally won over by Lord Shiva and married him.

Read on for my story of Meenakshi and Madurai (from a long time ago) here


I was in Madurai last weekend on week, when I stayed at the lovely Heritage (more on it soon), went on food walks and explored the streets around the temple. This was possibly my tenth visit to this city and I enjoyed it as much as I did my first. The only thing that has changed is the paranoia around the temple itself – the tight security and the cameras prohibited inside the temple. This photo is from an earlier, easier time.

Must read: The divine distractions of Madurai

Also see: Friday photo series