On a former coconut farm bordered by streams and tucked away behind a village, you could easily miss Mantra Koodam. A fine, locally made temple bell welcomes new arrivals, the signal that every corner of this carefully devised hotel is infused with the Dravidian culture which has thrived for more than a millennium in Tamil Nadu state, and is still vibrant. Mantra Kookam has a refreshing confidence that frees it from following fashion – it is part of the cgh earth group who have for decades been pioneers for India’s ecological hotels.
Inspiration for the design is the South Indian agraharam: a royal grant of land - with useful royal stipend to go with it - given to Brahmins to make a settlement for their families and maintain nearby temples. Illams (homes) were built in a straight terrace near the temple or in a garland shape around it. Mantra Koodam takes the first option, setting each of its 30 illams on a traditional thinnai, a raised platform where visitors would sit sheltered from the sun’s searing heat and the monsoon rain by a wide awning. Inside each Mantra Cottage, the irandam kattu, or living space, resembles the illam’s bedroom, living and storage area, and leads to a large open-air bathroom evoking the traditional central courtyard used for gatherings, rituals and festivities. It feels calm, simple and ‘just right’. Not rustic, not self-conscious.
Beneath the dappled sunlight of the soaring coconut palms, guests stroll the gardens passing little shrines. Some pause at a garden hut to sip steaming chai (milky sweet tea) after morning yoga or a swim in the pool that feels as if it’s in a forest grove. In the dining hall – modeled on the great Chettiar merchants’ mansions, with Athangudi floor tiles and carved teak doors - the chef delivers local family recipes best enjoyed at least once as his thali feast of 17 different dishes, the ultimate tasting menu.
And yet… the core of Dravidian culture, nurtured in the glory days of Pallava, Chola and Nayak rule, is too close to miss - craftsmen, weavers, bronze-casters, painters, Vedic colleges, astrologers, and more. Above all there are hundreds – no, thousands – of sublime medieval temples, the beating heart of every village. Wikipedia claims to have counted 38,615, so far! The only problem: which one to visit today? Rigorous selection is essential. Of course, I’m here to help!
Must-do wellness experience: 'forest bathing' in the pool shaded by coconut palms
Mantra Koodam buzz phrases: ‘which temple did you visit today?’, ‘Oh, that epic thali!’
Ideas for unpacking your kind of slow-down wellness at Mantra Koodam
Drink the freshest possible tender coconut water at any time, harvested from the garden's palms. Learn about the nutritious leaves, roots, buds and berries nurtured in Mantra Koodam's gardens, then taste their subtle flavours and smell their perfumes in Brahmin recipes sourced from local villagers.
Venture out to nearby Darasuram and have your breath taken away by this tiny detail, just one of hundreds in the sculpture-coated temple, rated no.3 in the top ten of some 38,000 temples dotting the villages and paddy fields in Tamil Nadu's Kaveri River Basin.
Take an adventure to rural Nartamallai. Climb the granite hill infused with shakti (sacred spirit and energy) to find a tiny Pallava period temple, and more.... Nearby, in sacred woods find armies of giant terracotta horses gifted by villagers to the warrior god Ayyanar, their nocturnal protector.
Experience a Periya Melam evening raga in an ancient village temple, then see how the musician's family makes the nagasvaram instrument in their home, just one of many of the crafts specific to the rich Dravidian culture.
Take a day trip to Thanjavur to marvel at the Big Temple, as locals fondly call it. Completed in 1010, this recently restored entrance gate roof gives a clue to the experience of a perfect Chola period temple. Don't miss the city's classy museum, especially the roomful of Shivnataraj bronzes, some of the best anywhere.
Episode 9 visits Evolve Back Hampi, beside Vijayanagar's spectacular ruined city
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.
Dates: October 2021
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 off-beat 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!