Tamil Nadu travel guide: Where old India and the new collide

In Thanjavur, I meet Ms Saraswathy. It is 6am and she is standing outside her thatched cottage in a floral-patterned, blood-red sari with a turquoise choli blouse underneath.

I ask Ms Saraswathy if I might take her photograph and she gives a sideways head-shake of assent, assembles her features into a grave cast, and puts a dark veined hand to her chin. I ask her if she might allow me to see her house and she leads me inside. The floors are dusty concrete, the walls too. The dim dwelling is bare but for a plastic chair and a bureau holding a boxy television and a clutter of personal items. On a wall is a calendar celebrating the elephant-headed Ganesha and a clutch of black and white photographs of a little boy. In one, he is a toddler and sits on the bonnet of a vintage Hindustan Motors automobile; in another he is older, stiff and studio-formal in shorts, white socks and lace-up shoes, and stands next to a cloth-covered table on which a vase of flowers sits.

Ms Saraswathy says the boy is her son. He is away working now as a labourer in Dubai. She has not seen him for years. Actually, as my guide translates, Ms Saraswathy is childless and the boy is her sister's son, but in traditional Indian society the bonds are such that she considers him her own. Ms Saraswathy, who is white-haired and 70, lives with her sister here. She works as a servant and sells banana leaves and snacks by the roadside. It is a difficult life, she says.

The sisters live at the intersection of old India and new India. They live in Maharnonbu Chavadi, an old silk-weaving neighbourhood of Thanjavur (the British called it Tanjore), a city of about 300,000 people in the south-eastern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Here, the crack-of-dawn rhythms seem timeless: in streets lined with humble art-deco-era bungalows (in mint and aqua, teal and musk-pink), barefoot sari-wearing women bend outside their front doors and draw sacred geometric "kolams" in rice flour on the ground to bring prosperity, or gather at water pumps and fill urns. Men throng at a corner shack-shop selling bananas and snacks or, dhoti-clad, sit on steps outside their homes and read newspapers.

Nevertheless, in Tamil communities such as this, the new India and the forces of the 21st century are colliding with the old. Sons and daughters depart for larger cities or international labour markets. Tourists arrive. Travel through Tamil Nadu and Western faces are incidental. Yet in July 2016, The Times of India reported that, for the second year in a row, the state received more international and domestic tourists than any other.

After my early-morning walk through Saraswathy Ji's neighbourhood I return to Svatma, my hotel only a few hundred metres away, where the evening before I was greeted with garlands of sweet-scented jasmine and anointed with a vermillion bindi between my eyes. A hundred years ago this was a wealthy family's mansion. Only a few weeks before my visit it had opened as a fine small hotel littered with antiques and vintage photography and boasting a spa, a restaurant serving fabulous southern Indian vegetarian food, and an array of activities.

Choose from Vedic chanting with a man-bunned Brahmin priest before breakfast, an Indian classical music recital before dinner, a visit to the great Chola temple, Brihadeshwara, one of India's largest, or a meal with Babaji Rajah Bhonsle, the senior prince of the Maratha royal family of Thanjavur. Or walk through the neighbourhood to witness the age-old rituals of Tamil life.

Marieke Brugman has brought me to the south of India. For nearly 30 years, the Mornington-Peninsula-based chef and yoga teacher co-ran the acclaimed HowquaDale Gourmet Retreat at Mansfield near Mount Buller in Victoria. Since leaving HowquaDale in 2005, Brugman has run boutique small-group tours to destinations including India and Morocco. Her "Pearls of South India" tour, a 14-day trip through Tamil Nadu and Kerala, is a journey through the India of literature, landscape, antiquity, spirituality and cuisine. But it cannot help but also be a journey through a country in the throes of enormous change.

After my flight from Singapore lands in Chennai just before midnight, I am driven south through the clogged, steamy Tamil capital, bustling with shoppers and eaters. As my driver accelerates through the night beyond the city limits, the new India looms outside in the form of massive luxury apartment buildings under construction.

Later in my room at Vivanta by Taj, Fisherman's Cove, a resort on the Coromandel Coast an hour south of Chennai's city centre, I find a magazine filled with advertising aimed at well-to-do Indians: "7 star resort facilities", including a "musical jogging track" spruiked in one development, a "210 acre neighbourhood of gated communities" in another.

But over the next few days it is old India that our group of 12 will track: the UNESCO World Heritage monuments of Mamallapuram, including the magnificent Descent of the Ganges, a riotous bas relief dating back to the 7th century and depicting the legend of the descent of the sacred river from the heavens to earth; the Indiana-Jones-conjuring Thillai Nataraja Temple at Chidambaram where, in a lamp-lit stone shrine, we join lines of chanting followers of Lord Shiva in a pooja archana (ritual worship); and the French colonial town of Pondicherry (also known as Puducherry).

Durga Singh Ji, a droll fixture and fixer on Brugman's tours, offers a steady interpretation of the unfolding landscape outside our mini-bus windows as it drives south (in Hindi, "Ji" is a conveyance of respect). Someone remarks upon the number of women in black hijab and Singh explains that, once, Muslim women in Tamil Nadu protected their modesty with white fabric, but men returning from working in the Middle East are bringing with them more fundamentalist dictums about dress.

A black goat mounts a wall with its forelegs to reach a tasty shrub and Singh explains why the animals roam everywhere; as an alternative to beef, Indians like goat meat, kid especially, and people who serve lamb are considered misers. I ask why rough stuffed scarecrow-like creations hang outside so many homes we pass; they are "drishti bommai", says Singh, designed to ward off "nazar", the evil eye. "Urban indians, sophisticated Indians, would never have heard of such customs," he says.

Sophisticated India can be found in Pondicherry, or Pondi, a former French colonial settlement of such charm that it has become home to a multinational tribe of idealists connected to Auroville, an earnest experimental community just north of the town. There you'll find a scattering of shops, a vegetarian cafe, and a visitors' centre outlining the story of this "laboratory of evolution", founded in 1968 by "the Mother".

To see the central "Matrimandir" (a gargantuan gold-leafed ball that seems straight from a sci-fi set) and to observe your breath in the Matrimandir's light-rayed inner meditation chamber, requires pre-planning. I am clearly spiritually bereft, because I choose instead to take an auto-rickshaw to Pondicherry's lively fish and produce markets. ("We're not coming back; by lunch-time we'll be on Mars," says a fellow traveller over breakfast of masala dosai and watermelon juice on the rooftop of our elegant mustard-and-white Pondi hotel, the Palais de Mahe on rue Bussy. "It's a Tardis," he tells me afterwards when our group reconvenes for its daily gin-and-tonic convention.)

The French held Pondicherry from the late 17th century until 1954 and, in the past few years, as the Pondicherry Heritage Trail shows, the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage has worked to arrest the ravages of unchecked development. Across the French quarter, or "White town", bamboo scaffolding enfolds crumbling memorials of the past. An administrative building becomes a guest house, a mayor's residence a fine hotel, and new apartments and hotels such as hotel group CGH Earth's potted-palm-strewn Palais de Mahe (one of the few in town with a pool) faithfully reproduce colonial architecture.

Here is a curious blend of colonial French mystique and style and tropical India: clambering bougainvillea branches attempt to escape from lush private gardens behind high stone walls; police officers in khaki and smart red peaked caps loiter outside Raj Nivas, the Lieutenant Governor's grand white residence; Muslim men in white skullcaps take early-morning seaside promenades along Goubert Avenue; on picturesque corners, "Kollywood" film crews descend and depart like flash-mobs. (Kollywood is the nickname for the Tamil film industry. Film directors generally are mad for the town and a computer-massaged version of the down-at-heel Pondicherry botanical gardens featured in the opening sequence of the 2012 film Life of Pi).

In Pondicherry, design and fashion shops are more commonplace than street hawkers.

At the chic Domus on Rue Suffren, I spend an unseemly amount on an allegedly vintage blue enamel tiffin box and some traditional striped cotton gamucha towels. I would have done as well to spend my money on coffee and French toast at the Indian Coffee House on Jawaharlal Nehru Street in the Tamil quarter. "Conversation is easy to come by," wrote Canadian author Yann Martel of the establishment. He too was moved by Pondicherry: Life of Pi the novel starts with a story he was told at the Indian Coffee House.

After three days in Pondicherry, we drive away from the sea. The sweltering land flashes past: rice fields fringed with coconut palms; a woman in a village shop pressing a shirt with a coal-heated iron; groups of school-uniformed little boys in ties; a man milking a cow into a metal bucket; a black goat raising its forelegs up a wall to reach a bush; a temple painted in red and white stripes; oversized mangoes, the symbol of the Tamil PMK party, painted on buildings; an approaching bus with disco lights flashing around its windscreen; tamarind trees arching and meeting over a road...

We are in Chettinad region now, home of the Nattukottai Chettiars, historically wealthy merchants who, through the late 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, built magnificent homes for themselves and their extended clans in village clusters. Sometimes the mansions had 100 rooms or more. Teak for towering columns was shipped from Burma, marble from Italy. Some took architectural inspiration from Victoriana. As in Thanjavur, some are discordant relics of the art deco era. Others are glorious architectural mash-ups: cupids and a lotus-seated Lakshmi mingle in an ornate stone entrance to one property; the arched windows of another seem transported from some far-flung duomo.

Once, there were nearly a hundred such mansion villages, but as families have shrunk or moved elsewhere or lost their money, change has come to these communities too. Only 74 of the village clusters are said to be left – in many, mansions lie empty – and 11 of the villages are under consideration for a UNESCO World Heritage listing. In the village of Kanadukathan we take forays out into the heat and dust to explore this thrilling ghost territory, before returning in haste to our dusky chilled rooms at Visalam, a former Chettiar mansion that CGH Earth converted into an elegant hotel in 2007.

Kanadukathan is a 20-minute drive from Karaikudi, the nominal Chettinad capital and the best place to sample the Chettiars' other grand legacy – food. At The Bangala, a small heritage hotel in a fine old family bungalow, the open-sided dining room serves what may be the best Tamil food outside private homes. At a cooking demonstration before lunch, we meet the formidable owner, Meenakshi Meyyappan, who explains the essential elements of Chettinad food, which include hand-pounded spices such as coriander seed, black pepper and star anise, and the ubiquitous fresh curry leaves.

As we walk to lunch, Mrs Meyyappan tells me that her family owned coffee, spice and rubber plantations. "My mother always had a good table," she says. "For the Chettiars, every meal is a big meal." And so this one is. A banana leaf is placed before each of us and then, one by one, small dollops of exquisitely flavoured dishes are lined up on the leaves: cooked mango with jaggery (like a chutney), snake gourd with yoghurt (like a raita), chowchow (choko) with spices, tomato rice, curries of prawns and chicken, and more. I am transported by dessert: almond and saffron halva with the exquisite Bangala ice cream (based on condensed milk). "Because it's been made out of a home kitchen it's 100 per cent authentically lovely," Durga helpfully contributes.

He is helpful too in assuaging my gluttony-induced guilt. Hindus are able to reconcile their spiritual beliefs with acts of pleasure, he says. If you like good food, he says, the act of buying and serving food takes on meaning. "Your own wish for good food becomes devotion." I am happy with this; after this meal then, I am anything but spiritually bereft.

We roll out of Bangala into the heat of a Tamil afternoon. Some of us are determined to shop for Indian antiques and Durga leads us to Karaikudi's antique area in Muneeswaran Koil (Temple) Lane. If anything speaks of India's old and new worlds, it is this: dusty shops selling vintage goods and chattels from old Chettinad houses to well-heeled 21st century tourists. From a motley collection of old kitchenware, lanterns, enamel tiffin boxes and bronze statues of Hindi gods, I claim my prize – a rusty red Bears' Elephant cigarette box.

Stephanie Wood was a guest of Marieke's Art of Living and the CGH Earth hotel group.

TRIP NOTES

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TOUR

Marieke Brugman offers escorted cultural and culinary tours of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, as well as other areas in India, through her company, Marieke's Art of Living. She will also set up itineraries for independent travellers. Marieke's next 15-day Pearls of South India tour will run from August 14-28, 2017. $US8300 per person on twin share basis.

FLY

Singapore Airlines offers 135 weekly flights from Australian cities, including Melbourne and Sydney, to Singapore. Daily Singapore Airlines flights to Chennai depart Singapore at 20:20 and arrive at Chennai at 22:00. Singaporeair.com (SilkAir, the regional wing of Singapore Airlines, flies to Chennai from Singapore on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Malaysia Airlines also offers flights from Sydney and Melbourne to Chennai.)

STAY

The eco-sensitive CGH Hotel group has hotels in Pondicherry and Kanadukathan in Tamil Nadu. In Kerala, the group owns Coconut Lagoon, Spice Village and Spice Coast Cruises, which takes travellers out on the Kerala backwaters. In Cochin, the group's four-star hotel the Brunton Boatyard is a splendid property by the seaside. cghearth.com

FIVE THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT SOUTH INDIAN FOOD

BANANA LEAF MEALS In Tamil Nadu, a meal (called sappadu) is typically a range of dishes served on banana leaves. (In the neighbouring state of Kerala, the Malayalam word for "banquet", sadhya, is used.)

VEGETABLES RULE Most Hindus in South India are vegetarian. Rice and dhals (dried pulses such as lentils and mung beans) are staples, and vegetables such as eggplants, fibrous "drumsticks" (murungakkai), and a range of gourds appear in curries, chutneys and sambars (a thin, lentil-based dish). Green chillies are a constant ingredient and garnish, and yoghurt, often home-made, is used in dishes as a souring agent, in side dishes, and in drinks such as lassi. Desserts favour ingredients such as jaggery sugar, milk and almond milk, coconut, ginger, and spices such as saffron and cardamom.

SERVANT CUISINE Some have observed that South Indian cuisine is one in need of servants. Spices such as asafoetida, cardamom, mustard seeds and cloves are stone-ground to make fresh masalas; fresh coconuts must be husked, broken and the flesh grated on a coconut scraper; and piles of onion and garlic need to be ground into pastes.

PANCAKE PLEASURE Fermented rice is used to make a range of fabulous pancake-like items, including the thin dosai or thosai (fermented rice and dhal pancakes often eaten at breakfast); the spongy idli (fermented and steamed savoury rice and dal dumplings); and appam (fermented rice pancakes, known as "hoppers" in Sri Lanka).

TYPICAL DISHES Typical Tamil Nadu dishes include masala vadai (spicy lentil fritters); tomato lentil rasam (a rasam is a thin soup based on tamarind water, which is said to have medicinal qualities); masala dosai, a microscopically thin pancake fried in ghee and wrapped around a filling such as spicy potato; and vegetable sambar, a thin lentil-based dish with vegetables such as pumpkin, gourd, drumstick, eggplants and onions.

FIVE THINGS TO DO IN PONDICHERRY

CHIC SHOPPING In the French quarter, you'll find a scattering of chic boutiques and homewares shops. Look for Anokhi, for hand block printed home linen and women's and men's clothing (1 Caserne Street); Lal – Livingart Lifestyles, for hand-crafted homewares (14, rue du Bazar-Saint-Laurent); Domus, for homewares, clothing and carefully curated vintage wares (56, rue Suffren); and Play Clan, for a minimalistic collection of stylish clothing, accessories and stationery (6, rue Surcouf). In the Tamil Quarter, Fab India is worth a visit for Indian cotton kurtas, tunics, dresses and palazzo pants (223, Mission Street).

DIG FOR TREASURE Get lost in Kathiravan Furniture, a dim and dusty rabbit warren of rooms cluttered with allegedly antique furniture and knick-knacks, including curious old Hindu temple statues and other embellishments. If you're lucky, the owner will turn the lights on or give you a torch (2, 4 rue Mahe de Labourdannais Street).

A CULTURAL EXPEDITION In a blue-shuttered, white colonial building, Pondicherry museum is small and dilapidated but worth an hour or so of your time, especially to see the exquisitely detailed Chola dynasty bronzes, including a bulbous-breasted statue of the rain goddess Mariamman; relics dating back to the 1st century BC and retrieved from the Arikkamedi archaeological site just outside Pondicherry; and, upstairs, a "transport gallery" featuring a palanquin used by a wealthy local in the 18th century.

THE GRAND BAZAAR For those with a strong constitution, the fish market section of the bazaar is fascinating: a cacophony of chopping and chattering as cross-legged sari-clad women scatter scales and fish bits. Wander further for household items, tables of scented flowers, and fruit and vegetables.

AN ASHRAM VISIT Calcutta-born Sri Aurobindo studied for the Indian civil service at King's College, Cambridge, became a revolutionary nationalist on his return to India in 1893, then turned to the realm of the spiritual. His collaborator, Mirra Richard ("The Mother" of the experimental Auroville community outside Pondicherry), founded the Sri Aurobindo ashram (spiritual centre) in Pondicherry in 1926. A small number of guest rooms are available for those wanting to stay and immerse themselves in Sri Aurobindo's vision. There are daily guided tours of the ashram, which has a bookshop and a meditative environment. See sriaurobindoashram.org

About the writer

Stephanie Wood is a senior writer for Fairfax Media's Good Weekend magazine and a former editor of The Age Good Food Guide. She first visited India in 2002, taking the well-worn tourist route from Delhi to Agra to see the Taj Mahal and then on to Jaipur. The vivid images of the trip are seared in her mind. "It was simultaneously confronting and exhilarating: I'll never forget the colour, the people, the architecture and, sadly, the terrible poverty. I've been wanting to return ever since." For our cover story, she found a very different India in the bewitching state of Tamil Nadu.

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