A bharatnatyam dancer swirled her uncle’s 150-year-old heritage home into 2016’s cunningest boutique hotel. It’s about art. Resolutely, Tamil Nadu’s age-old arts. Svatma chicly disposes Mahabalipuram rock sculptures, Swamimalai bronzes, Chettinadu woodcraft, Kumbakonam brass lamps, bejewelled Tanjavur paintings and hand-crafted old musical veenas. If you don’t know what any of this is, you will at Svatma. For you should know that Mahabalipuram sculptures and Swamimalai bronzes are millennial art forms that predate most things you’ve seen at the Louvre, the Uffizi and the Prado. As for Tanjavur, if you didn’t know about this ancient capital of the Cholas, shockingly most Indians don’t either. Svatma is an excuse, a glamorous one, to discover. It’s more than a hotel. It’s an education and an aesthetic.
It’s expensive. And competitors snigger. Such lofty prices in Tanjavur?!! If only they knew of the might, grandeur and vastitude of the Chola Empire, India’s only one to have penetrated South-East Asia (reaching Indonesia)!
Arrive to a quintessentially South Indian welcome -fragrant jasmine garlands and bristling-white stoles with embroidered streaks. The crisp, cool all-natural welcome drink already intimates the hotel’s ethos as your eyes feast on craftily assembled antiques. Antiques adorn enchanting gardens. Antiques spurt water into the veranda’s waterways where you’re standing. All that’s not antique here is the spry young General Manager Shridhar or Shri as he’s fondly called. We’re fond of him, very. His pleasing smile and disarming candour are irresistibly inviting.
Shri has allocated me rooms in the new Millennium Wing where heritage pervades a suave contemporary space. I like it. Walls pulsate with Vedic wisdom and modernised interpretations of temple motifs and murals. My room is scant but charms. Fruit and homemade delicacies sit prettily on a platter. The bathroom has such redolent all-natural toiletries (think rose and vetiver shower gel and apricot and Shea butter body balm) that I’ll pardon the excessively tall towel racks requiring a ladder to access and the inexplicably low toilet-paper holder. I’m loving my dusky dark-wood antique bed. The wooden floors are fabulous (except when rumbustious neighbours decide to thunder on them at unacceptable hours). Veera, the brisk young Front Office manager (who I suspect is General-Manager-in-training for their sister property launching in “Temple Town” Madurai in 2018) tells me Shri has upgraded me to the Heritage Wing. It sways locals with trite preconceptions about heritage hotels. I like its museum including an enormous jewel-encrusted Tanjavur painting and embellished antiques veenas. But I prefer the dapper new wing. Over 4 nights I’ll inspect almost all their 38 rooms and return to my own, the only lovelier ones being surprisingly the 2 family rooms- by far the most romantic!
Shri’s soon urging me to a drink. I understand why. On the breezy terrace magnificent Chettinadu pillars become the bar jazzed with Attangudi tiles. Antique rocking horses fly hypnotically across a wall. Style doesn’t spare topnotch bar food presented in spruced versions of traditional tiffins. The bar’s spirited but for a keener high try Kumbakonam filter coffee at the restaurant which has swings for chairs, Brahminical Tanjavur thalis for lunch, chiselled 7-course South Indian suppers worth a Michelin-star, maybe two, and a chef worth kidnapping. Svatma’s all-veg and sassily too.
Was that too big a mouthful? Let’s serve it up again in bite-size portions like supper itself. This meal radically deconstructs the traditional thali, a medley of starters and curries courting several main courses. What in typical South Indian restaurants lands generously but often unceremoniously on your “thali” (meaning the actual metallic plate) at Svatma streams in chichi morsels spectacularly presented by Chef Leo Lawrence who twists and turns Tamil food into acrobatic positions expected rather in the Kama Sutra than on a plate. Thrilling fusion strokes thread streamlined local cuisine. Daily-changing tasting menus might include tamarind-teased pineapple rasam, racy raw mango curry salad, baby potato roast with black lentil dip, street food speciality kottu parotta transmuted into gingerly spiced satin threads and silken semiya (local vermicelli) accompanied by onion gravy and velveteen spinach puree speckled with corn curried à la Tamils! Desserts could be a trio of gleaming ghee-laden exotic halwas. Paris has fine vanilla ice cream; Paris hasn’t extraordinary homemade coconut ice cream or the unusual jackfruit ice cream- if you manage to have any for the fat group of British tourists have demolished the hotel’s entire stock!
Competitors have jibed at Svatma’s delicate South Indian suppers- dainty portions, rarefied textures, erudite, sublimated flavours are too maverick, even iconoclastic, downright sacrilegious for many. They’ve assailed this audacious unhinging of South Indian cuisine from the confines of “authenticity” and evolution into finesse. Anything emphatically different initially bewilders. Guests, at least, are in pirouettes of praise over Svatma’s sophisticated “sapadus.” As for the exiguous portions- tradition sustains in that, unlike at a Michelin-starred French restaurant where the dispensed titbits are all you get, in bountiful Tamil tradition Svatma’s measured, figure-conscious courses (soup, salad, snack, 2 mains, 2 desserts) could each be replenished unrestrainedly. But the mindfully quantified portions are just right. Gluttony doesn’t pay. Trust us, we’ve tried!
Although we gorge on the exploits of the Chola Empire about which Shri is encyclopaedic and effusive when not on con-calls to his boss, owner-dancer-designer Krithika Subrahmanian, who’s presenting America her new hotel….
Contrast the epicurean concatenation at supper with the lunch thali to be navigated with your hands (drop that fork!). It’s an authentic experience. Well, almost- for Mysore bondas infiltrate the purportedly “Tanjavur” thali. Chef explains that only the thali (the actual metal plate) is from Tanjavur and not its contents! Tanjavur is Brahmin country with a unique cuisine and we’d have liked undeviated Tanjavur preparations. Mysore bondas like pizzas are ubiquitous.
Breakfasts are plated and ample and mercifully disallow endless refills. So, have more South Indian filter coffee. It’s phenomenal. Watch your waiter nimbly juggle rich brown Kumbakonam coffee between a brass tumbler and brass cup until it’s fuming out of the tumbler like a volcano. Over 6 coffees (at least!) imbibe the luxurious poolside the restaurant overlooks: sunken sun-beds arched on ornate sculpted rock pedestals admire the artful pool that’s modelled on a temple tank.
Svatma isn’t merely a temple of taste but, like the temple itself, sustains this town’s prodigious heritage with culture shows- that’s if British tourists permit. They rock up late, natter away through the poor veena player’s recital, ignore the disturbed artist’s distressed glances and your annoyed looks, frantic finger-on-lips signs and requests for silence until you snap, “Can you just shut up!” In Europe disruptors would’ve been expulsed. The Tamils are too gracious or too enduring. Promising young dancer Deepthi Ravichandran guilefully gets the audience to maintain decorum by dancing so eloquently that her liquid movements leave you speechless!
Tanjavur engendered unique genres of every classical art (music, dance, painting, sculpture, literature). Where else on earth has? Don’t wallow in Svatma’s spa that gulps a whole floor (unprecedented, even unimaginable luxury in these parts). Go uncover the splendours of this terrific town.
The millennial and stupendous UNESCO-branded Brihadeshwara Temple, amongst India’s most celebrated temples, built by the august Emperor Raja Raja Chola staggers like nothing you’ve seen. Locals call it the “Big” Temple and it is BIG. The sheer mathematics of its making send your mind into disarray for only a miracle or unfathomable ingenuity could’ve achieved this tremendous apotheosis of Dravidian architecture. Once you’ve cowered before it’s soaring gopuram (tower) stacked and stacked and stacked with divinity incarnate in sculpted panoply, felt no taller than the little toe of the monolithic Nandi bull facing India’s largest Shiva lingam (phallic rock symbolising Shiva) above which looms a whimsically high gopuram and you’ve lost yourself contemplating the temple’s stratospheric proportions and the intricate filigree of its craftsmanship you’ll agree there’s nothing left to see.
Except perhaps the Pyramids of Egypt and the Tanjavur Palace’s Bronze Gallery showcasing those fabled South Indian bronze sculptures that Augustin Rodin called “the most perfect rhythmic movement in art.” Tourists who breeze past are inevitably British, hastening to the spa, no doubt; the French are transfixed. I certainly went 6 times in 4 days for those 9-13th Cent masterpieces and for supervisor Mr Srinivasan’s witty narrations of the myths surrounding gods and goddesses embodies in rock or bronze- notably Tripurantaka, amongst the gallery’s most famed rock sculptures. With quiet elegance and not a little irony he relates how the gods, persecuted by 3 indomitable demons, supplicated the Great Lord Shiva to save them. In the meanwhile, they embarked in a chariot that had the earth as its base and sun and moon for wheels in an endeavour to “assist” the mighty Shiva who regarded this presumptuous display of the gods with amusement, opened his third eye and instantaneously smote the demons. Hence the sarcastic smile lilting the lips of this superb sculpture.
This gallery’s sculptures are imbued in legend and the amazing Kalyana Sundar depicting Shiva’s wedding to Parvati wonderfully captures Parvati’s coy smile as Shiva presses her hand. “Not sure how long after marriage that smile will last…” Mr Srinivasan says wryly.
Nataraja, Shiva in cosmic dance pose, sensationally arrayed in the Nataraja Gallery has your jaw hit the ground so hard you’d need a dextrous orthodontist to fix it. As for the goddesses more alluring than Botticelli’s Venus, they leave your mouth open wide enough to let a hippo in. After you’ve stood hours beholding the stunning Boga Sakthi, sensually poised on a lotus with a slightly raised left shoulder in enticement of her ascetic husband Shiva, you’re left bewitched and bereft of desire for any another woman.
Svatma’s guide Raja tells marvellous stories about the bronzes and the temple, unless you prefer reading Udaiyaar, EC Balakumaran’s 4000-page book on the Brihadeshwara Temple. Or speak to Mr Pandian of Cholan Tours who is so enamoured of the Cholas he says, “My name is Pandiyan (referring to the Pandiyan dynasty of Madurai) but I have named my company and even my son after the Cholas!”
Pre-Svatma the architecturally ingenious, sculpturally insuperable Chola temples that inspired Angkor Wat languished in abandon, because Angelina Jolie didn’t visit…. To project them you hire Ms Jolie but it’s cheaper to open a Svatma and as effective!
http://www.svatma.in/ Doubles from USD 239
For Tanjavur paintings try Tanjore Art Village. Call Kannan (+919787444944, +919524617689)
From Tanjavur visit Swamimalai to see bronze sculptures made and buy them (they can way a ton!).
For Tanjavur tours contact Pandian of Cholan Tours www.cholantours.com