On a dusty street, where parchment-yellow houses fade in the sun, the hotel stands shiny and new- bright (blue) as a penny. Its cheerful façade, lined with potted ferns and shaded by a gulmohar, stubbornly refuses to blend in. The paradox is hilarious — it has been named after the Hotel Hi in Nice, France, whose ethos is “brilliant, yet unobtrusive”. But before I can chuckle, a second look after dusk reveals why there is in fact no paradox.
In the small, tourist town of Tanjore, typical hotels on crowded streets flash their names in blinking red-and-blue neon; this resurrected 1930s building gives nothing away. Not until you walk up the verandah to the wooden front door, where a discreet plaque informs you of your whereabouts: Tanjore Hi, A Heritage Boutique Hotel. On a quiet corner, a few yards down the road from the Tanjore Palace, it melts in the darkness, save for the bright lights in the verandah and the roof-top restaurant.
Originally built as a residence, that it looks like one even today is courtesy the painstaking restoration done by the proprietor and chief designer Dimitri Klein. With his business partner, the affable Sunil Verghese, he runs two more properties — the Dune eco resort near Pondicherry and the Elephant Valley farm in the Palani Hills — all of which sport stunning good looks in spite of their near-military adherence to conservation and sustainability.
Marching to the same beat, only reclaimed wood has been used in doing up the interiors of Tanjore Hi and the dramatic illumination — behind mirrors, lining stairs, under beds — has been created using strings of LED lights. Glass bottles — tall ones that held wine, miniatures from pharmeceuticals — are recycled and used to store water and organic shampoos and shower gels, respectively. Yet the hotel is not plastic-free, Sunil ruefully informs me — they are still searching for an eco-friendly substitute for conventional shower caps.
Save for a lone refrigerator, rooms are strictly no-electrical-appliances zones, especially abjuring television sets, with their accompanying “mediocre TV programmes”. This austerity might sound harsh but it quickly becomes endearing when you picture a team of French designers treading gingerly about the stiff, unaccommodating architecture of a long neglected building, at pains to not disturb it. Fifteen rooms have been expertly squeezed into two floors, each an individual experiment in light and space, ranging from quaint to outright whimsical. Some bathrooms are bigger than the bedrooms, while some are hollowed crevices jutting from the bedroom, disguised on the other side of the wall by seating. However, the pièce de résistance is the theatrical glowing spiral staircase, which dominates the central courtyard. The latter, despite its overhead canopy, is open to the air, making the common areas seem rather still and stuffy, unless you switch on the fans.
Yet, behind the contemporary décor, I can plainly make out the skeletal framework of a traditional Tanjore residence, with rooms running around a central courtyard. Not unlike the full-grown whale skeleton that sits on the fourth floor of the Tanjore Palace, staring out at the Palace grounds, looking bored and distinctly out of place. The library adjoining the palace stores a wealth of academic and cultural treasures, my personal favourite being a crumbling map of the world on which is stenciled, across the Indian subcontinent, in an archaic typeface, the legend “Hindostan”.
Walking back from the Palace in the sun, it is a welcome relief to enter the cool confines of the hotel. I am struck by the overwhelming feel of ‘home’ — the naturally cooled building wears a deserted look (it is not uncommon to find the Reception empty, though someone promptly turns up when you do) and the air is heavily soporific. I succumb to the pull of my room — designed for afternoon siestas, or so I’d like to believe. The epoxy paint coating every available inch of the bathrooms and the floor of the bedrooms is deep blue (anointed as the official colour of Tanjore Hi). Admittedly loud, it is never jarring, offset as it is by the soothing, bare white walls and soft, concealed lighting.
Tanjore Hi takes its ‘heritage’ tag very seriously but is careful to avoid making a caricature of it. So, mercifully, the walls are clear of the predictable Tanjore paintings, no ornamental artefacts clutter the place, nor is there any out-of-place, bulky furniture. The look is minimalist with clean, bold lines and the refined style requires no further ornamentation than the flower arrangement contributed by the resident gulmohar.
If you look closely, though, testaments to this timeless town are stamped everywhere. Dramatic art installations, fitted with lights, are mounted on ceilings and walls. These riveting images capture modern-day Tanjore in negative print and irreverently superimpose it with positive prints of stone sculptures. Lying in bed, you can gaze transfixed at an apsara, come-hither eyes and all, lounging against a Tata Docomo board, a stone parrot perched on a telephone wire, or an unsuspecting pedestrian about to be gobbled up by a mythological yali. These creations of the French photographer Frédéric Delangle aim to make the mundane embrace the sublime and are in sync with the hotel’s philosophy of combining the past and the present in a way that is true to both worlds. Photographs are printed on upholstery and films of negative prints are stuck on windows and glass partitions.
Aesthetics and functionality are perfectly synchronised, though my pointedly stylish bathroom did have some plumbing issues — nothing that the hands-on staff couldn’t solve in a jiffy. For all their impeccable service, they have an inescapably home-y demeanour, displaying the genuine warmth and concern shown to a guest in a gracious Indian home. Even the chef trained in — you guessed it — French cuisine kept a watchful eye on what I was partial to. No mean feat, given that I polished off everything in the deliciously detailed three-course meals he set me on. The roof-top restaurant is air-conditioned, but it has a delightful open-air terrace where you can sit and unwind.
Tanjore Hi perfectly complements the Tanjore experience and more; it gives it a fighting chance in the South India traveller’s crowded memory. Long after you have forgotten the numbers and figures rattled off by the tour guide, an unbidden image of an apsara will rise in your mind. It will make you smile and remember your visit to Tanjore, where you spent the night in a thoughtfully restored house. The namesake lives up to its name — all the parts of it.
Location 464 East Main Road, opposite the Tanjore Palace entrance; 5 minutes (1.5km) from the railway station, 1 hour (60km) from Trichy Airport. The Tanjore Palace and Library are down the road from the hotel, while the Brihadeeswara temple is a 5min drive.
Accommodation 15 air-conditioned double rooms
Tariff Rs 7,950 (Aug–Nov), Rs 9,750 (Dec–Mar) for single or double occupancy
Contact +91-9364455440, tanjorehihotel.com