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The Temples of Tamil Nadu

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Photo: Frederic Lagrange

In few places is this collapse of the past into the present more vivid than at Tiruchirappalli (its other name, Trichy, is a British improvisation on the Tamil tongue-twister). Thirty-five miles from Thanjavur, this place once called the City of the Three-Headed Demon is famous for its Rock Fort Temple, built around a dizzyingly high citadel—fought over by the Pallavas, the Cholas, and the Pandyas—and the Ranganathaswamy Vishnu temple complex, one of the largest in India.

Because time is short and the April heat brutal, we restrict ourselves to a short walk through the temple city's seven concentric perimeter walls, each traditionally inhabited by a separate caste, and come away with a blur of mostly superficial impressions of the "hall of 1,000 pillars" (there are actually 953). Seemingly hundreds of thousands of pilgrims pray and process and sleep and eat in these rooms adorned with sculptures of snarling tigers and men on rearing horses and bosomy devadasi, or temple maidens, preparing themselves for divine seduction. Unquestionably Trichy would reward a longer visit, perhaps during the 21-day Vaikunta Ekadasi festival, which takes place around Christmastime. But we are eager to return to Chennai, where the season's first mangoes are due to appear at vendors' stalls.

Before taking off from the Taj Coromandel in Chennai, I had obtained a pledge from the chef at the hotel's fine restaurant, Southern Spice, to prepare us a thali surveying the range of Tamil cuisine. This he does over the course of a long and indulgent evening, which begins with motchaikottai soup, a vegetable broth flavored with lablab beans, and moves on to preparations like nandu koduku chettinadu, a dry-marinated crab claw cooked Chettiar style; broccoli and banana flower with lentils; another delicate dish made with a vegetable called lady's finger; quails fried and tossed in a spice mixture typical of coastal Cuddalore; and side dishes of sambar, rasam, and appam, paper-thin pancakes from a batter of fermented rice flour, prepared at the table by a sous-chef with the quick hands of a dealer in Vegas.

As is true of many Indian feasts, the recitation of these delicacies sounds indulgent. And it is. We eat well, if cautious of gorging, because we know what is in store. On the way from the airport to the hotel in Chennai, the driver we hired had taken us to a market known for the quality and variety of its produce. Wandering amid the stalls where merchants had stacked their wares in neat pyramids, we went a little overboard.

For much of the year, mangoes are unavailable in India, and their arrival tends to produce a certain consumer frenzy in the beginning. The highly prized Alphonso, grown around Mumbai, is considered the king of mangoes, but there are others as fine-fleshed and as sweet. We bought smallish green Himsagar mangoes, grown in Bengal, and the tangy Langra variety, trucked in from West Bengal. We bought small football-shaped Ratnagiri mangoes, green and orange tinted, from Maharashtra, and the Banganapalli kind from nearby Andhra Pradesh. All told, we delivered eight varieties to the hotel kitchen. The chef promised an ambrosial conclusion to our evening meal.

To suggest that when the moment of truth comes we are not disappointed at first would be less than truthful. Where imagination had conjured up mango mousse and foam and ice cream, reality delivers a platter of sliced fruit. Sensing our confusion, I suppose, the chef appears at the waiter's shoulder and says he has actually given much thought to dessert. Concepts like regional cooking and Slow Food are not theoretical abstractions in Tamil Nadu, he explains. In increasingly Westernized Mumbai, perhaps, a fine dinner might require a confectionary exclamation point. But in Chennai, where cultural tradition remains strong, and people are less susceptible to that error of judgment that mistakes complexity for luxury, instinct told the chef that a perfect ripe mango required no improvement. Simplicity is wealth, he suggests. We lift our forks and are rich.

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