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Published: December 17th 2017
I think I’m sleeping in the dance hall.
My room is in a renovated Chettiar mansion, built in the French Art Deco style in 1939 by a wealthy businessman as a gift for his daughter. The Chettinad area north of Madurai is known for thousands of palatial buildings built by wealthy families in the late 1800’s up until World War II. They spared no expense, importing Italian marble, Burmese teak, and Indian rosewood for their extraordinary structures covered with sculptures, hand crafted tiles, and exquisite detail. Each house follows a similar plan, with a grand entrance opening into a broad gallery room or two, then into a central courtyard with rooms off to the sides. Cooking facilities are in a separate building or far in the back of the house.
And in the cooking is the Chettiar magic, where a variety of spices are used to create a complexly flavored array of snacks, main courses, and sweets. Yes, the food is good. Really good.
Back to my room, where I get to slumber in my massive wood-framed bed for four nights. It sits in the middle of my dance hall, where the ceiling soars at least 20 feet,
A Cooking demonstration
The 24-year-old chef prepares to cook fried banana vegetable with a variety of luscious spices, tomatoes, onion, lots of garlic.
and wooden double doors open onto my personal balcony. The red tiled floor gleams, and the period furniture takes me back, back, to somewhere.
I wonder, was this the room where the wealthy businessman’s daughter slept?
Alas, no, she died during construction, and her father locked the doors and didn’t use the building. In 2001 a hotel management group out of Kerala renovated the place to serve guests, and thus Visalam was born. The granddaughter of the wealthy businessman, now 74 years old and living in Chennai, occasionally visits the property and likes what she sees, the general manager reported to me.
He explained that they had to partition the huge rooms, many which served as banquet halls, into the smaller guest rooms. So my dance hall was actually part of a banquet hall.
To get to my bathroom, I have to walk through another set of double doors down four steps and through yet more double doors. Then I must cross the entryway through more doors to get to my bag and clothing.
There’s nothing cozy about this room.
I hear myself breathing.
One of the hotel workers just
came in for evening service, straightening the bedsheets—the location of my office—and leaving a dazzling pink bougainvillea.
There are 15 guest rooms, but only a few are in use tonight. Before I slumber, I think I’ll wander through the small town of Kanadukathan and admire all the other mansions. Most of the Chettiars went bust in the 1940’s, losing their fortunes while their houses fell into ruin. Crumbling walls, missing wood details, faded paint and sagging window frames hint at their former grandeur.
I am thankful that Visalam has been lovingly restored.
So sad that the daughter never used the gift from her father. Perhaps her spirit passes through the building in the evenings as we dine on the second floor balcony overlooking the 78-year-old mango tree planted the same year the structure was built. I do believe she is pleased that so many travelers are now appreciating her house.
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