South India sizzles in summer. The sun scorches down and burns up everything in sight, my garden and me included. It seems like madness to venture deep into Tanjore in April. But evidently my family and I have inherited genes from mad dogs and/or Englishmen. We decide to brave it and drive down.
The Scorpio’s air-conditioning is really what I would be praising sky-high if this were an auto journal. But there’s a second compensation. As you drive deeper into the paddy belt of Tamil Nadu, watered by the Cauvery, it is bright emerald green as far as the eye can see, filling you with a sense of freshness after the harsh city sun. The highway is lined periodically with boys and women selling tender coconut, cucumber, guavas, jackfruit and cashew (both dried and the fresh red fruit).
After I have knowledgeably named every river and passing stream as the Cauvery, the famed river finally comes by and we are very close to Kumbakonam, my dad’s birthplace and our summer pilgrim spot as kids. Here, the Man from the Resort will come by and escort us to tiny Veppathur, which you reach by way of a narrow road, across a narrow bridge, and then a mud-track that cuts through lush woods on either side.
I had expected Mantra to be a small bungalow of sorts. What I see is a vast mock village spread across 15 acres of green. An oasis of luxury in the heart of nowhere country. We gratefully disembark to a traditional welcome of aarti and paanagam (cool jaggery water). Our cottage is a traditional Tamil affair with kolam on the steps, hand fans on the veranda, no TV and a superb outdoor shower where water gushes out of one of those stone mouths you see in temples. Little touches that add to the charm of the place.
Without these, Paramasivam Pandian, the Chennai-based founder whose dream heritage project this is, would have found it hard to persuade people this deep into the state. But the homework shows — there’s a large swimming pool and a spa is in the making. Mantra, in fact, plans to soon focus on Ayurvedic treatments, along with taking advantage of being bang in the middle of Chola temple country — the Big Three of Thanjavur, Gangaikondacholapuram and Darasuram are all merely a day-trip away.
And then, of course, there’s the chef. That’s really Mantra’s killer app. It’s scary to tell guests that you serve only vegetarian food, but Mantra does so proudly. Chef Marudavanan packs a punch with his super-traditional TamBrahm cuisine — a real challenge because the best TamBrahm food is just not available outside the home. That first day, lunch was a king-size thali — with a delicious drumstick soup, ladyfinger mor kozhambu, rasam and appalam. Plus sambar, raw banana vegetable, kootu and tiny keerai vadais...the list was endless, ending with jackfruit halwa and the best paayasam I have tasted in a while. We staggered back to our cottage and slept till 6pm, then headed straight for the pool. Soon, it was time for dinner, when we went through an old-fashioned rice upma, chutneys and fresh fruit juice, along with some masala chapati, in case we were still peckish.
Next morning at 7.30, we headed with the friendly Subbu into a nearby hamlet of sari weavers. Along the streets, families had started setting up frames and unravelling the threads. We walked past old Tamil houses, with the thinai (outside seat) and mitham (internal open courtyard), the mango leaf-hung thresholds, the milkman with aluminium milk-cans, the old men kneading tobacco, as the women sprinkled water on doorsteps before drawing the kolams. Then on, past village boys and cows and an old temple where a blacksmith honed a chisel as his wife worked the bellows.
Breakfast back at the resort was fresh kozhakattais, fruit and kuzhi paniyaram. We spend the day temple-hopping. First, the marvellous Kumbeswaran temple, where we fed the elephant and wandered through an elaborate temple market. Then on to Darasuram, the magnificent World Heritage Site, before heading back at dusk to the softly lit-up resort. Early next morning, we take a walk through the woods nearby, spotting birds and the occasional rabbit till, of course, it’s time to head back for another mega breakfast.
Tastefully laid out and with its distinct South Indian flavours, Mantra could well turn out to be another excellent reason to brave interior Tamil Nadu.
Location: Sri Sailapathipuram village, Veppathur, Tamil Nadu. Veppathur is 6km short of Kumbakonam en route to Thanjavur/370km from Chennai
Accommodation: 24 twin-sharing cottages; 4 deluxe cottages and 2 luxury suites
Activities: Village/nature walks, indoor games, South Indian folk music and dance, bullock cart ride, Navagraha temple tour
Contact: 9841288000, www.mantraveppathur.com