If this Chennai hotel were compared to a sequence in an action-packed Indi-Western, this would be where
If this Chennai hotel were compared to a sequence in an action-packed Indi-Western, this would be wherethe good guys ride into town and — bang-bang! — drop the competition dead.
Not that it aspires to anything so crude, of course.
Yes, it’s riding on the back of a famous South Indian dynasty, the tenth-century Cholas. And just in case you haven’t heard of the Cholas — they who sent armadas to the islands of Southeast Asia; who brought the waters of the Ganges from the north to appropriate the sacred Ganga Devi; who dotted the countryside with fabulous stone temples, most famously at Thanjavur, Darasuram and Gangaikondacholapuram, and built stepped water reservoirs — the ITC Grand Chola has revived the best of Chola art and architecture in its grand design.
In their time, the Cholas believed that bigger is better. In our time, the ITC Grand Chola has created a multi-faceted, multi-tiered, elaborately articulated series of mansions in the opulent style of the nineteenth-century maharajas, with Chola motifs. There is extravagant use of marble, granite and stone carving (sixty-eight different textures, by one count), sourced from Italy, Turkey and India, polished, chiselled, inlaid and patterned by thousands of craftspersons into one seemingly seamless creation.
What’s interesting is the way they have integrated these elements with state-of-the-art power systems, electronically controlled and monitored by teams of trained personnel working two floors below ground level. They call it ‘Responsible Luxury’ and back it up with systems that recycle, reuse and conserve as much as is technologically possible in an environment that demands excessive consumption of the luxurious kind. The closest analogy for the inner workings of such a project would be a floating city — the country’s largest hotel is built on more than 1.5 million square feet.
Just as a medieval city had four points of entry, four unique entrances service the Grand Chola. The most exquisite of these is reserved for special guests, heads of state perhaps, with a reception area decorated in what might be called ‘Chola Baroque’, named the Raja Raja Lounge. It has elaborately carved and curlicued furniture that might have found favour with the nineteenth-century merchant bankers of southern Tamil Nadu, the Nattukottai Chettiars. Named ‘Valavan’, this entrance leads up to the Grand Presidential Suite named after Raja Raja Chola, the Presidential Suite and ITC One rooms.
The second entrance, ‘Sembiyan’ (an honorific for the Chola queens), will eventually lead to a shopper’s paradise of luxury brands, the Grand Luxe Street. The third entrance, ‘Killi’ (a title for kings), will lead to serviced apartments. As may be inferred, all these areas are segregated from the hoi polloi.
We enter by circling all three sides in an elaborate pradakshina, a ritual circumambulation as in a temple, with stops along the way. Electronic sensors check our car — or is it ‘chariot’? — until we are finally deposited at the most lavish entrance of all. The Chola Entrance has a marvellous kolam, or floral design, embedded in the ground. Many such motifs swirl and loop on the stone floors of the hotel, we discover, and are etched on the glass-fronted panels and screens in other areas.
“I think they just want to show off their property,” I hear another guest murmur behind me. We are processed through more mandatory checks and screenings. The moment we step into the lobby, however, our reservations melt away. A marvellous sweep of creamy beige stone, carved with motifs, curves up a grand staircase, which opens up its arms to grab you in silken luxury. Wherever you look, surfaces have been impressed with repeating floral patterns with starry, starry lights twinkling among them. There are pinpoint LEDs, massed domes in tight formations and elaborate petalled confections hanging down from tiered ceilings to create a soft, pearly light that floods the vast corridors, the seating areas on either side of the lobby, the pastry shop on one side and ramps of escalators to the first floor, where some of the restaurants are.
If the outside is a bit forbidding due to its size, the interiors are softly feminine and welcoming. Since we are to occupy the Towers section of the Grand Chola, we are provided with a lady butler. She is smartly dressed in a penguin suit, with white tie, hair cut blunt to shoulder length and the smile of a regal Naga maiden as befits her home state. More to the point, she decodes the ‘guest orientation’ iPad that allows me to turn off my lights, switch TV channels, check who is at the front door of my room and even open it for me at the press of an icon. Short of reminding me to brush my teeth, the iPad does everything.
Tower rooms are accented in subdued chartreuse and champagne gold, with white the predominant shade of luxury. Moss-green curtains huddle against picture windows. Outside, the bumper-to-bumper traffic on the busy highway to the city’s southern suburbs and airport seems to exist in another dimension. They do, however, remind you that it’s not the best of locations for a hotel of this style. Perhaps that is why it needs the state’s largest spa, at 23,000 square feet, plus three each of swimming pools and gyms.
We spend the rest of our stay checking out restaurants. Most of these are well-known ITC Welcomgroup brands — Café Mercara Express is the all-day coffee shop; Madras Pavilion is a regional – international buffet restaurant lavish in its double floor-to-ceiling height; the Peshawri is the Northwest Frontier stalwart; and Ottimo a charming Italian with open kitchen where the chef tosses his pasta along with his ponytail to create extravagant platings supported by a grappa bar. At Café Mercara Express, for a tasting menu, we enjoy dishes from the four southern states — a creamy coconut-rich fish from Kerala, a wonderful tomato dal from Andhra with fiery lamb, a Mangalore chicken curry with soft steamed rice dumplings and a fragrant Tamil biryani. Desserts are coconut creme brûlée, badam halwa and tender coconut payasam, chased by a cup of Mercara coffee.
Since it is still early days, we arrive at the Cheroot and Tranquebar — the first a cigar lounge, the second a bar with a barrel-vaulted wood ceiling — just as they are raising a toast to their liquor licence. It’s like an old-fashioned club with leather wingchairs and humidors. You half expect Sherlock Holmes to emerge from its depths and murmur lazily, “Responsible luxury, Watson. It’s a capital idea.”
Location 63, Mount Road, Guindy/8km from Chennai airport
Accommodation 295 Executive Club rooms, 31 Eva suites for women, 132 Tower rooms with exclusive club and lounge, 48 allergen-free ITC One ‘Pure Rooms’, 14 luxury Chola Suites, a Karaikalan Presidential Suite and a Raja Raja Chola Grand Presidential Suite. Also 78 ITC Grand Chola Residences (service apartments)
Contact 044-22200000, itchotels.in/itcgrandchola