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The Temples of Tamil Nadu

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Photo: Frederic Lagrange

I am glad to get back to the air-conditioned hotel and, truth be told, glad to leave Madurai and head northeast for the drier and less smothering April heat of Chettinad. On our way to the village of Karaikudi, we stop at a large commercial flower market where garland makers hawk their wares from metal sheds. It's near noon and the tuberose garlands we buy are already slightly limp. They revive a bit in the cool of the car, though, and are a good deal fresher than we by the time we reach our hotel, the Bangala.

We slip off our shoes at the entry, as one does in most private households, and are led by a staff member to a large, square second-floor bedroom that looks out across a modest garden. We take cold showers and then drink cold beers and commence a brief sojourn that, even as it begins, we do not want to end.

Every so often this happens to the traveler. There is a city or a hostelry that one is hesitant to quit. I feel this way at the Oriental hotel in Bangkok, and in New Delhi at the Taj Mahal, and in Berlin, wherever I happen to stay. Now, at the Bangala, it is easy to imagine many mornings of waking up to a steaming cup of South Indian coffee that, as a houseman with teeth of neon Hollywood whiteness explains, "is decocted drop by drop, then filtered and mixed with milk to become highly good.''

The hotel itself is a collection of simple stucco structures, 13 rooms in a former men's club set on the outskirts of the village and owned by a septuagenarian widow named Meenakshi Meyyappan and her relatives. A dignified woman from an important family, Meyyappan is shrewd and gentle, obviously accustomed to running a fine household. The mottled terrazzo floors of the hotel are immaculate and blessedly free of dust. The paneled rosewood doors are polished to a mirror sheen. The staff, almost all male, are dressed in dhotis and crisply pressed shirts and evince a kind of welcome one rarely encounters in an era of "guest relations'' and computer-programmed amiability.

And there is, of course, the food. One is lucky to eat like a Chettiar, they say in South India, and the members of this old banking and money-lending caste are properly proud of their kitchens and cuisine. To the coconut and rice that are staples in South India, the meat-eating Chettiars add quail and chicken and mutton, and fish and shellfish trucked inland from the Bay of Bengal. At the Bangala, the cooks use grinding stones to pulverize regional spices, deploying them in masalas for dishes like a sinus-clearing black-pepper chicken, sour-scented tamarind crab curry, king prawns flavored with spring onions, and, in a nod to the nursery palates of British memory, Raj-era dishes like mint-and-potato croquettes. Meals there are taken communally at a teak dining table and eaten from banana-leaf plates with one's hands. Afterward finger bowls are brought to the table, and it is a good thing that they are.

We range out from the Bangala by car each day in the relative cool of the mornings, driving to villages with unpronounceable names to snoop around the great Chettiar mansions, then returning at midday to nap. At dusk we venture out again to roam through Karaikudi's lanes of antiques dealers, their stalls brimming with bejeweled Thanjavur paintings, chromolithographs of Krishna, lacquerware still labeled with an image of a shopkeeper from Ava, a river port in Burma from which Chettiar brides traditionally ordered their trousseaux.

Among the least known of India's architectural oddities, the Chettiar mansions are so fanciful and hyperbolic as to rival Disney. Crowded together in dusty villages, each seems to have an even more ornate façade than the next, an even grander pillared portico, a cornice even more heavily populated with guardian statuary depicting variations on the goddess Meenakshi or helmeted British police. Each has its own scores of chambers and acres of tile roofing and miles of marble flooring and doors and pillars made from teak. And each is in some kind of peril, as Mrs. Meyyappan's sister-in-law, the preservationist Visalakshi Ramaswamy, points out. "What we saw in the first year was gone by the third," she says, referring to her research for a book about Chettiar heritage.

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