The East Enders

“Now this is the site where the body of Jack the Ripper’s fifth victim was found,” declares Emily, my guide at the Eating London food tour. That gets our complete attention. Standing in front of the modern car park at White’s Row, we silently contemplate Mary Jane Kelly’s gruesome end.

In London’s East End, there is no getting away from the Ripper legend.

Jack the Ripper was by no means the world’s scariest or most prolific serial killer, but he was certainly one of the most famous during his time and remains so after all these years. This is largely due to East End’s reputation by the mid 19th century for being a hotbed of vice and villainy.

London’s East End has gone through extremely tumultuous changes in London’s recent history. Today, it is one of the most vibrant, Bohemian districts I have visited, in a city that promises a delight in every corner. Yet, the streets of East End remain off the radar for most tourists and even locals.

East End

Nicole Monaco of Eating London Tours initially explored various London boroughs before settling on this neighbourhood for their first food walk. She says, “While each was unique in its own right, I couldn’t go past the East End. It is an area so rich in its roots and so culturally diverse that I knew there was no other choice!”

The walk begins at Spitalfields market, one of the oldest in London and most prominent landmarks of this borough. At 10.30 am, Spitalfields is buzzing, with sellers of antiques and bric-a-brac, artisanal cupcakes and organic soups, handmade jewellery and designer clothes, setting up shop.

Spitalfields

I find the Eating London walk fascinating not just for the food – after all, nobody equates Britain with gourmet meals – but for the passion Emily brings to her stories of East End’s intense history.

The East End has always been welcoming of immigrants and many of them have left a mark on its food scene. First, the Huguenots (Protestants) fleeing France came in around 1685. On our way to Brick Lane, we walk past the grand houses of these fine silk weavers on streets which still bear French names. Then the Irish workers arrived in the mid 1700s seeking employment in the London docks and later on, escaping the local potato famine.

The East European Jewish community fleeing persecution in Poland and Russia found this area a safe haven and stayed there for almost a century from 1880 to 1970, making it one of Europe’s largest Jewish communities. Emily points out the grand ‘Soup kitchen set up for the Jewish poor’ building that fed over 130,000 Jews even in the beginning of the 20th century.

Soup kitchen

BagelsWe come across remnants of the area’s Jewish heritage later on in the walk at Beigel Bake – where bagels are boiled before being baked in traditional Jewish style – in Brick Lane, famous for staying open 24 hours a day.

Brick Lane

Thanks to popular culture, any mention of Brick Lane immediately brings to mind its Bangladeshi community. Here, it does feel a bit like walking in a market in Mumbai’s Dadar or Delhi’s Sarojini Nagar; the tall tower of Jamme Masjid in the distance, little money transfer kiosks with names like Deshforex and shops selling colourful quick-dry saris. We are here to taste curry – and Britain’s national dish of Chicken Tikka Masala – at Aladin.

Desi shopping

Desh Forex

For me, the highlight of Brick Lane is the stunning street art, including UK’s own Banksy and Eine, Belgian artist ROA and Chilean Otto Schade. And the cheerful chaos. If the main street is home to conservative Bangladeshis, the narrow lanes surrounding it attract hipster Londoners with their quirky cafés and trendy boutiques.

Street art

Graffiti

Boutique

PuddingAnd what is a London food walk without the usual suspects? So, we have bread and butter pudding served piping hot, with generous lashings of vanilla custard, at The English Restaurant.

There is ‘fish and chips’ at Poppies, which is no ordinary cod but a winner at the National Fish and Chip awards. In a country with over 10000 “chippies,” this is no mean feat. I find Poppies enormously charming: the jukebox, the waitresses in cutesy red costumes and the wall posters with Cockney rhyming slang (brown bread for dead, pen and ink for stink).

Chippie

An interesting stop is St John Bread and Wine, which prides itself on its “nose to tail” philosophy. Simply put, its popular chefs follow a democratic – if queasy for me – cooking policy of “no body part left behind.” Luckily, that morning, we are offered only a cured bacon sandwich or poached pear in yoghurt sauce.

My favourite is the final stop at the super tony Pizza East, which I think is the perfect metaphor for this neighbourhood’s gentrification. Sitting on the uncomfortable high stool, I muse on the fact that, from pudding made from stale bread to salted caramel chocolate tart, the East End has come a very long way in just over a hundred years.

***
~ This was published in the Mumbai Mirror on Sunday, September 28, 2014 as ‘Community Meals’ – read it in pdf form here

~ For more information on this fun food walk in the East End, check out the Eating London Tours website. I went on a food walk with them in Rome a couple of years ago and found that fascinating too. Here is what I wrote about it then – Roman Banquet for Outlook Traveller

Remains of the day

Among the stories at the ‘Voices of the First World War’ exhibition at the Brighton Museum, is that of Subedar Manta Singh, who served with the 15th Ludhiana Sikhs. Manta, along with over a million other Indian soldiers, went to war over a cause that had no relevance for him, for a king who was not really his own. During the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in March 1915, Manta was hit by gunfire while trying to rescue his friend and fellow officer Capital Henderson. Although he was shipped to England to be treated at a hospital set up just for such injured, he died of blood poisoning soon after.

Manta Singh did not live long enough to write letters to families and friends about the war he had just seen. Thousands of Indian soldiers did, from the trenches and from the British hospital they were sent to for recovery. Just back home from the UK, I read some of these in ‘Indian Voices of the Great War,’ edited by David Omissi and published by Penguin.

One of them wrote in January 1915 to a relative back home in Punjab, “Do not think this is war. This is not war. It is the ending of the world. This is just such a war as was related in the Mahabharata about our forefathers.” He was, in all likelihood, writing from the battlefield in France. There is no record of whether he survived what came to be known as the Great War.

Another. “There is no telling whether the war will be over in two years or in three, for in one hour 10,000 men are killed. What more can I write?”

Wounded
(image courtesy: Imperial War Museum image archives)

Brighton museum

This year marks the centenary of the beginning of World War I, a war that started with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in Sarajevo and engulfed the entire world within weeks. Britain became involved in the war immediately, and having no policy of conscription, sought the help of voluntary troops from its colonies.

VolunteersAnd so, just two months later, a massive Indian army was sent to the front in France. Huge amounts of raw material, including cotton, jute and leather were sent along with handsome cash contributions – to the tune of a 100 million pounds – by the princely states.

While the foot soldiers themselves felt bound by their loyalty to a distant ruler (King George V), nationalist leaders pushed for increased participation in the hope – spurred by Britain’s promises to this effect – that India’s war efforts would ease their demands for home rule. That the rulers went back on their word following the end of the war, leading to great resentment among our leaders, is another story, not for these pages.

Indian participation in the Second World War is well documented and acknowledged but there is almost no public recognition of our involvement in the earlier war. Not even in India. How many of us even remember that New Delhi’s India Gate is a memorial to those Indians who lost their lives in this war? For, the Indian army fought not only on the Western front in France and Flanders in unfamiliar territory, against an enemy who spoke strange languages, in harsh winters but also later on in Mesopotamia and East Africa.

Now, a hundred years later, Britain has decided to honour these forgotten footnotes of its great war; over 70,000 Indians were killed and an equal number returned home wounded. Over the next four years, the Imperial War Museums have planned more than 500 new exhibitions and 1500 events all over Britain, to commemorate the war.

One of them is the exhibition at the Brighton Museum, where Manta Singh’s is an Indian voice among those of English men and women touched by the war. I have gone there after a tour of the Brighton Royal Pavilion just down the road; an opulent, fairyland structure built by King George IV in 1823 to serve as his palace. It was converted into a military hospital for wounded Indian soldiers in 1915 – over 4000 were treated there in three years – with separate kitchens and prayer areas (not to forget funeral rites) organised for Hindu, Muslim and Sikh soldiers. We do not know if the ornate chandeliers, lush tapestries and gilded mirrors reminded them of home, as the British PR machinery hoped, but soldiers certainly wrote back home of “never being so happy.”

Pavilion
(image courtesy: Brighton-Hove Royal Pavilion, Museums and Libraries website)

Back in London, at the recently reopened Imperial War Museum, revamped at a cost of £40 million, a Spitfire aircraft and a Harrier jet suspended from the ceiling greet me in the main atrium. Relics of the war. By the end of two hours at the First World War galleries at the IWM, I have barely scratched the surface of the thousands of photographs, artifacts and digitised documents.

Harrier Jet

Hardships

And at the British Library, there is a stunning collection of memorabilia from the war: personal stories of fathers and mothers, friends and comrades-in-arms; letters written from the field just before the march into that fatal battle, letters written from home that were never read; cartoons and poems that were meant to boost the ever-sagging morale of the troops.

Letter

Perhaps the most voluble expression of Britain’s intent is the installation of 888, 246 ceramic poppies at the Tower of London. Called ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’, each of these crimson poppies is meant to serve as a symbol of remembrance for a fallen British and Colonial soldier.

Poppies
(image courtesy: Visit England)

ChattriHowever, I keep thinking back on my evening at the Chhatri near Brighton, where 53 Hindu and Sikh soldiers who died at the Brighton Royal Pavilion – Manta Singh included – were cremated. Although it merits a few words on the Visit Brighton website, most locals have not even heard of it. There are no signboards or convenient public transport to it. Access is only by a long walk – or as the website says, “via a bridleway (walk, cycle, horseride)” – from the nearest bus stop or car park.

It stands forlorn and desolate in the rolling downs of south England, somewhat like those soldiers themselves who died far away from the familiar, warm trappings of home. How can we forget?

(chattri image courtesy: Visit Brighton website)

INFORMATION

~ The best collections of First World War material

~ Information on the Imperial War Museum and British Library exhibitions

~ List of WWI commemorative events across Britain

~ Visit Brighton website

This was published in the September issue of Outlook Traveller. Read it in pdf form hereRemains of the day

Ringing in the new

Mylapore
(image courtesy: silverkris.com)

LocalOn any given Friday evening, Mylapore is at its festive best. Men dressed in white dhotis (unstitched cotton garments knotted at the waist and allowed to fall free), with thick lines of sacred ash smeared on their foreheads, stand in groups of twos and threes, catching up over the news of the day. Women swathed in the traditional nine-yard saris, with strings of fresh jasmine in their hair, are busy decorating their courtyards with intricate kolam (auspicious floor patterns) created with dry rice powder. And then there are the flower sellers and the gypsy bead vendors on the streets.

Some parts of this Chennai suburb indeed seem like they are stuck in a time warp. The feeling is especially intense in the areas surrounding the towering Kapaleeswarar temple and water tank, fine examples of 7th century architecture by the Pallava dynasty.

TempleLegend has it that the village of Mylapore – now one of Chennai’s most vibrant neighbourhoods – predates the city by at least 2,000 years. It has seen the Romans, Greeks, Arabs, Portuguese and the British come and go. And it finds a mention in the writings of Ptolemy (2nd century AD) and Marco Polo (late 13th century AD) who made their way there. City historian and author Pradeep Chakravarthy confirms this and says that there are fragments of inscriptions inside the temple, which indicate that Mylapore was always an important commercial centre.

Glitter and glamour

However, ask anyone in the know and they will tell you that Chennai’s real twin deities are silk and gold. And these are worshipped just around the corner, the first at Radha Silk Emporium. At this century-old shop, which locals know as Rasi, ignore the modern collections and stick to the heavy, traditional silk saris.

Pair your silks with dazzling gold and diamond baubles from NAC Jewellers, just a few minutes’ walk away. If you are on a tighter budget, then head to Sukra Jewellery down the road for its temple jewellery collection, typically worn by classical dancers. With a base of silver, coated with gold and studded with precious or semi-precious stones, the jewellery here comes with a classy antique finish.

About kaapi and coffee

In the heart of Mylapore, your best eating options are Saravanaa Bhavan (70 North Mada Street, Tel: 91 44 2461 1177) or The Grand Sweets and Snacks restaurant, both Chennai legends in their own way. Drop in for South Indian snack favourites (known as tiffin) such as masala dosa (crepe made with fermented rice batter) and vada (savoury fritter-type snack), rounded off with a cup of strong coffee.

Just around this little nucleus of history and tradition is also a world that has comfortably marched ahead with the times. As you move away from the four streets that form an almost perfect square around this ancient temple, hole-in-the-wall dosa joints give way to trendy global fusion cuisine cafes and there are as many mini skirts to be seen as silk saris. And the average Chennaite comfortably straddles these two avatars.

BrewRoom

Take the Brew Room at Savera Hotel, on Radhakrishnan Road, known locally as RK Salai (Salai means road in Tamil). While homegrown filter coffee (or kaapi) is still available here, this new kid on the block offers coffees from around the world, from Ethiopian to Thai blends.

Lifestyle hub

For brews of a different kind, Chennaites love Dublin at the Sheraton Park Hotel and Towers. At this pub and discotheque, which stays packed even on weeknights, sip on a Guinness beer or Bushmills Irish Whiskey, in a nod to its name.

Lamandier

L’amandier Bistro (57, 2nd Main Road, RA Puram, Tel: 91 44 4282 7882; above) has brought fresh and light European cooking to Chennai. You will find the interiors cheerful and inviting, with a clever use of Mediterranean colours. And in a city that has for generations tucked into rice-based idli (savoury steamed cake) and dosa in the mornings, L’amandier dishes out a hearty and popular Continental buffet breakfast, starting from 7.30 am.

Chamiers1

In this area, Chamiers is your best bet for an afternoon of eating and shopping. A white bungalow set in tree-filled premises, Chamiers is an oasis of calm away from the sweltering Chennai heat. Pick up garments in hand-block prints and earthy tones from Anokhi at ground level, or splurge on some Kama Ayurveda skincare products at the gift shop on the first floor – look out for the quirky illustrations on the staircase as you walk up. After shopping, rest your feet with a tall glass of watermelon juice or a slice of rich chocolate cake at the cafe next to the gift shop.

For modern silhouettes and comfortable work wear in Indo-western styles, make your way to Brass Tacks. Designer Anaka Narayanan uses dying traditional prints such as ajrakh and ikat in modern garments to create interesting style statements.

Along the way, spare a thought for the way modern businesses like spas, salons, and boutiques are housed in stately bungalows of old: perfect metaphors for the way Mylapore has enfolded the emerging into its existing self.

***

Published in the September issue of Silverkris, the inflight magazine of Singapore Airlines, as “Ancient Indian City Buzzes with New Life”

Friday photo: Thiksey

Just back from a quick trip to Ladakh for review a fabulous new luxury camp – watch out for it in print soon.

So, this Friday, a photo from my one of my favourite Ladakh monasteries – Thiskey. Just before the commencement of the morning puja…

Thiksey

Also see: Friday photo series

And more stories from Ladakh – including one on my monastery hopping experience

Postcard pretty Appenzell

In a country that is littered with jaw-droppingly, breathtakingly beautiful natural scenery – just think Interlaken, Jungfraujoch and Zermatt – Appenzell stopped me short. No towering mountains here, all that snow sprawled on top like it belongs there. No icy blue waters or Bollywood heavyweights (although Yash Chopra is mentioned ever so often in hushed, revered tones ever so often).

No sir. This village, in the picturesque north-east of Switzerland, remains far away from the tourist trail. In some ways, it feels nice to have those narrow lanes and stone benches to yourself. Yet, it’s a pity more people don’t know about it.

Appenzell

Appenzell marches to its own drummer, this region even speaking its own version of Swiss German (unfamiliar to “normal” Swiss German speakers). It is what the Swiss proudly call the repository of living traditions. And even to my cynical eye, it never felt that Appenzell was putting on a performance for the benefit of tourists.

In early autumn, for instance, the alpine herdsmen make their way down from the mountain pastures in a ceremonial descent, wearing colourful attire, which includes tight yellow pants, richly embroidered red waistcoats and hats decorated with flowers. Think our own Bollywood’s Govinda clothes but on extremely fit and handsome Swiss men.

Herdsmen(pic courtesy: myswitzerland.com)

Come festivals and weddings, women take out their traditional costumes, and locals would rather carry the secret of their special Appenzeller cheese to the grave than share it with outsiders. There are advertisements about it and local nudge-nudge-wink-wink jokes that I can never hope to understand. But never mind, the cheese is the important thing, not its recipe.

BetrufAnd much to my amazement, they love their music: the yodelling, which seems to be made for the mountains. And the very special Betruf, which is an evening prayer. Sang through a wooden funnel, it is haunting and moving, a call to the gods to protect and bless their loved Alps and cattle. As I listened to it, I realised that it can be a lonely life out there in the high mountains, when the cold sets in and darkness falls in the middle of the day.

It was in August last year that I visited Switzerland for the first time. I skipped the usual suspects and made my way to Appenzell, changing a couple of trains – which, unsurprisingly, ran like clockwork.

The only annoyance in an otherwise perfect three days was that it rained almost continuously in my time there – and this was in the end of August. I had gone there expecting a nice, summery time and instead found myself shivering in the wet, miserable cold – and those burnt out, dull sky in the photographs, every one of them. Ah, well.

HeidiBeing in Appenzell is a bit like being inside a fairytale. Narrow lanes perfect for aimless strolls, 16th century houses with brilliantly painted facades, shop windows with absolutely twee yet alluring souvenirs. Cows are an integral part of their lives and the cow motif is everywhere – from shiny cowbells to smiling moo faces on soap boxes. And I am not joking when I say that in the Appenzell canton, there are more cows than people. They take their bovine friends very seriously indeed.

The Heidi story is also immensely popular around this region and finds its way into most of the souvenirs displayed in the shops – at prices that made me want to weep and laugh at the same time.

There isn’t much to do in Appenzell village – there is a museum that showcases the crafts and culture of this canton. The best thing is to walk up and down the main shopping street, admiring the buildings, choosing your favourite and looking up at the painted windows.

Then, there are the ‘tafeen’ – from the word tavern – unique metal signboards hanging over commercial establishments, that clearly indicate the nature of the business.

Tafeen1

Tafeen2

A tiny church bang in the middle of the village – the Heiligkreuzkapelle with its stunning stained glass. This was my absolute favourite among all the things I saw in Switzerland on this trip. Unassuming and unique, unlike any stained glass work I have ever seen.

Stained Glass

And towards the end of the main road, the Church of St Maurice with its gilded and imposing interiors, more stained glass windows – opening out at the back to a churchyard lovingly tended by locals and surrounded by mountains.

Church

Postcard

I stayed at the cozy Hotel Santis (don’t miss the ‘Romantik’ in front of the name), with its fiery red exteriors with wooden floors and beams inside.

Village

Santis

You can see why I didn’t want to leave, can’t you?

***

Read my other stories from this trip:

~ The Swiss sound of music – published in The Hindu as Notes on a mountain
~ High up in Heidiland – published in Mumbai Mirror as Rooting for Heid

Losing the fear of flying

Hanging on

I had never thought I would find myself 65 metres above the ground, hanging on for dear life. And doing this of my own volition. I am not the particularly adventurous type, preferring to get all cultured out through museums and concerts while on holiday.

Well, it is a bit of an overstatement to say that I was hanging on for dear life. After all, I was tethered in three places as I zipped across the steel cables in the heart of the dense Blue Grotto forest.

Here, in the midlands of South Africa, they call it the ‘Canopy Tour,’ a nod to the lush canopy formed by the venerable trees of this forest located in the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park. This UNESCO World Heritage site encompasses the Drakensberg mountain range – roughly translated as Dragon’s Back from Afrikaans – which stretches on for 200 kilometres.

Lake at Drakensberg

The canopy tour site was a short walk away from the Drakensberg Sun Valley resort, where I was staying. At the site, we went through a detailed safety briefing, after which we were kitted out and harnessed. My guide’s name was Promise; in my super nervous state, I took it as a divine signal. Promise was a local who had been doing this for five years, a woman with a gentle smile and (as I discovered later) endless reserves of patience.

The canopy tour

South African midlands

And then there was a bumpy jeep ride into the forest, followed by a long walk to the starting point. Sharp sunlight was soon lost to us, as we found ourselves surrounded by ancient yellowwoods, cape chestnut trees, red pear trees and pine trees. The two accompanying guides kept up a constant comforting chatter but I was preoccupied with morbid thoughts of the adventure ahead. Let’s get this over with already.

Into the forest

The first slide – aptly called the Rabbit Hole – was very short and easy, meant to lure me into a sense of false security. At the next stop, reached through a walk over a wobbly hanging bridge, I found that I could barely see the other end of the zipline on the other hill. There was no turning back. This was just the beginning. And there were twelve such platforms perched on treetops and cliff faces to cross before we reached the end.

Canopy

Sure, we had been told all this before, but seeing it on a map and doing it were two different things.

My guide Elijah went first, performing all kinds of tricks to reassure us of how utterly effortless and safe the whole thing was. “Easy for him,” I muttered under my breath as he waved both his hands while mid-air and turned somersaults in harness. He whistled and sang, even as I found it difficult to take normal breaths.

On the platform

Upside down

When my turn came, I got harnessed again and brought long-forgotten prayers to my mind. I found that the toughest thing here (as in life, chimed my inner philosopher) was to let go. I had to assume a sitting position, stretch my legs forward and just launch myself into thin air.

Trouble struck at the end of the third slide. That was when I braked too early by pressing on the cable – I misread my guide’s signal – and went sliding back on the line.

We had been given clear instructions on what to do in such situations. We were to turn back and crawl our short way to the platform, monkey style. But panic took over and I just hung on screaming for help till my guide came and towed me to safety. I admit that this is not a moment I am particularly proud of, but what can I say, I am not a monkey.

My adventureAfter a few initial hiccups – embarrassingly captured on video for posterity – I actually began to enjoy myself. The Drakensberg mountains, and particularly the Blue Grotto Forest, offer several popular hiking trails for all levels of walkers. However, the canopy tour offered something no hike could: a bird’s eye view of the spectacular mountains. A vista of lofty trees above, below and all around. An occasional glint off the thin ribbon of river way below. The novel sensation of flying straight on to a waterfall. And of course, the company of birds at eye level; there are over 150 avian species in this forest alone, including the Greater Double Collared Sunbird and the much rarer Bush Blackcap.

 Each of the platforms has been built to harmonise with the existing natural feature: cliff face, waterfall, tree trunk. So, there were times when I went zipping through a large tree on one side and a rock jutting out on the other. But by then, I was in Tarzan (or Jane, if you will) mode, happy to fly from these ancient treetops.

Harmony in the forest

I lingered at the end of the last slide, on the circular platform built on a 300-year-old Outeniqua Yellowwood and affectionately nicknamed Madiba by the crew. It was at that moment that, on a lingering adrenalin rush, I wondered why I had fussed so much. Bring it on once more!

 The Canopy Tour

The entire activity takes approximately three hours and costs R495 per person, including all equipment, guides, transport to the starting point and refreshments afterwards. Visit Drakensberg Canopy Tour for more information.

***

Published in the Sunday magazine of The New Indian Express as Losing the fear of flying

 

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

Kanadukathan

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.

FACT FILE

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.

Shop

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

Eat

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

Stay

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.

Mother

~ 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).

Fog

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.”

Balloon

Shadow

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

Champagne

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:

London

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