Meenakashi is one of India’s living national treasures. As the trailblazer for reinvigorating her own cobwebbed culture in the Chettinad district of Tamil Nadu - where international Chettiar merchants and their extended families once lived in high-end, eclectic-styled, multi-courtyard mansions - she saved a forgotten culture before it was lost. While international antiques dealers were ravaging the magnificent mansions to sell piecemeal back home, Meenakshi encouraged those who inherited or bought the stunning survivors to restore them. She also created a hotel, revived the Chettiar cuisine (gathering them into a globally praised cookbook), and kickstarted the documentation and revival of the area’s quality crafts from basketry and cotton-weaving to tile-making.
Her hosting is legendary. At The Bangala, she transformed and enlarged the former local club into one of South India’s most congenial, most refined boutique hotels. Here she greets weary travelers with fresh lime sodas and tea in delicate china cups, attends to their comfort in the high-ceilinged guest rooms, and oversees banquet-sized lunches (a recovery siesta is essential). Her dinners showcase up to twenty Chettinad dishes a time – and cocktail hour includes intriguing cooking demonstrations.
She and her team of women efficiently yet unobtrusively see to each guest’s daily amusements. Tour a few of the great mansions whose densely-carved Burma teak doorways lead to multiple internal courtyards, visit the local weavers and vegetable market, delve into woods to find animistic temples, or visit craftsmen - you can even make your own floor tile.
If there is a family gathering, she is likely to sweep up her guests into a Chettinad traditional wedding when 200 or more close and not-so-close family members return to their roots from Delhi, London and Canada to bring a mansion back to life for a week.
Must-do wellness experience: Take a guiltless siesta after lunch, perhaps poolside
The Bangala buzz phrases: Meenakshi, would you sign your cookbook?
Ideas for unpacking your kind of slow-down wellness at The Bangala
Retail therapy may be limited but the cottons are irresistible, and you can meet the weaver. A favourite Chettinad kandaangi (sari) has checks and stripes mixing apricot, raspberry, lemon and fiery sunset. More subtle are the fine pinstripes of moss greens, dusty blues and sludgy mauves - as worn by Meenakshi and sold a tempting five-minute walk away.
Gorge guiltlessly on Meenakshi's Chettiar dishes. Healthy and mild thanks to family trading throughout Asia, you will find little is fried, coriander is plentiful but chilli scarce, pickles are soused in brine not oil, vegetables win over meat. Beware: the dishes are served in a specific order, there's no returning to one you liked earlier to have a bit more!
Take a trip to Athangudi village to see sand tiles being made over a glass surface, another idea brought back by the Chettiar traders. Then try your hand and perhaps create something wild like this, or simple yet original. Tempting to put in an order...
There is no corner of India too small for a game of cricket - no paddy field, no mosque courtyard, no riverbank. Indian kids, teens and adults are up for a game at any time, and you asking to play is the excuse they seek.
Episode 12 - The Rajbari, Bawali, West Bengal
Good news! There is 'vaccine light' shining into our Covid lives! Is it now time to start planning your Unpacking Wellness experience?
As we emerge into a more cautious world, I have designed some slow-travel Unpacking Wellness experiences that can be enjoyed privately or in a small group. They are suffused in wellness, interaction is controlled, crowds are avoided. You pick and mix your selection from four week-long, in-depth visits to South Indian spots I especially love - on plateau, coast, forest and delta. Do one, two, three or all four.
If you have not traveled with me before ....
Please know that we experience great sights in the best possible way, with lots of add-on encounters and visits to offbeat places.
We meet conservationists, curators, craftsmen and musicians, we walk with naturalists, we cook with local chefs.
In sum, we imbibe the essence of each area thanks to my four decades of studying and visiting India - and making great friends who I share with you.
For private travel ....
I work with you to create your tailor-made trip to any corner of India, to any budget, for all interests and special needs, for families and parties of friends, for business groups and for honeymoon couples - India is ideal for everyone!