House of Illusion

House of Illusion

People come and go but Maya is a permanent resident of Heritance Madurai. The mistress of illusion wields her magic wand over everything. Outside lies the noisy city of Madurai. Inside the gates of the 17-acre property, the serene shawl of silence is drawn. Sounds, if any, are restricted to the scampering of squirrels, the murmur of leaves, the sleepy lapping of water in pools.

The large swimming pool that is the centerpiece of the public spaces conforms to the modern dictat of being no more than 4 ft deep and has a state-of-the-art ozonizer controlling water quality. But its look is age-old, inspired by the temple tank at Thirumayam temple near Pudukottai. A-shimmer in white, it appears to be carved out of marble. In reality, it’s hand-crafted out of rough granite from Madurai’s famous quarries.

It’s an open world at Heritance Madurai, with no artificial segregation of the outside and inside. A family of ancient banyan trees is better spotlit than the dining room. Courtyards, verandahs, walkways, all inhabit dual worlds. Walls are missing in action. The lobby is linked to the dining area by a long corridor where stone pillars stand as sentinels. To the right is the majestic pool, to the left, a sequence of space and sky.

It’s the architecture of Heritance that makes the property achingly special. For this was once the Officers’ Club of Madura Coats, one of the rare buildings in India to be designed by the brilliant if eccentric Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa. It’s an interesting story.

As promised, almost all the material came from the neighbourhood. ‘Almost all’, because, on a trip to Karaikudi, neither Bawa nor Henry was able to resist the purchase of two old Chettinad doors, four old carved stone columns and a miniature temple cart. They all sat proudly in the new clubhouse.

Back in 1970, Martin Henry, then general manager of Madurai Mills, asked Bawa to create a new club for the company on the site of an old one, using only materials found within 10 km of the site. Bawa rose to the challenge and decided that the structural columns would be made of honey-coloured stone quarried from the local Nagamalai Hill and that stone slabs from an old mill nearby would be used for the floors. The completed building opened in January 1975.

As promised, almost all the material came from the neighbourhood. ‘Almost all’, because, on a trip to Karaikudi, neither Bawa nor Henry was able to resist the purchase of two old Chettinad doors, four old carved stone columns and a miniature temple cart. They all sat proudly in the new clubhouse.

Thirty years later, the story got a new twist. In the process of winding down its operations, Madura Coats was set to sell off the club. One of the people it approached was S. Thiagarajan of Chennai-based Indian Green Grid Group. Cognizant of the property’s historical and architectural value and reluctant to have it torn down by a developer, Thiagarajan decided to take it on and turn it into a luxury hotel.

Like Martin Henry, he too resolved to use only local material and labour for the restoration, and keep the new bits as true to the original as possible. He called upon another Sri Lankan architect for the task: Vinod Jayasinghe, an associate of Bawa’s.

Armed with the old drawings and all the folklore, the Jayasinghe-Thiagarajan team began work. It was decided to turn the old club house into a public section housing the dining room, bar, library and eight guest rooms. The key elements of the Bawa club house, such as the stone pillars, flooring and roof, were repaired. Where needed, the original stone of the pillars and flooring was replaced with granite of the same colour.

A new reception and lobby building was created in line with the look and feel of the old club house. Like Bawa, the restorers too went to Karaikudi to acquire old Chettinad columns, to run across the new buildings. They also rummaged through Thiagarajan’s personal collection of antique furniture, and chose a giant doorway from Mayurbhanj that’s intricately carved out of a single piece of wood. This was installed as the backdrop to the reception.

In addition to the clubhouse, Heritage now has 72 guest rooms. Thirty-five of these are suites created out of the large colonial bungalows of the original property. In a trademark Bawa move, all the suites—each containing an expansive living room, bedroom and bathroom— turn their backs on the outside world and gaze at a courtyard-enclosed plunge pool.  Frangipani trees, laden with blossoms, linger over each pool. Shallow steps lead down invitingly, while recliners wait alongside. West Virginia may be almost heaven; Heritance Madurai is nirvana country.

Other features that delight? Interestingly-designed  floor-mounted fans in the lobby, a little mandapam that’s open to the sky, the large windows created by Bawa that’re set in stone jambs and are mysteriously devoid of screws or nails. Almost all the light fittings across the property involve a transformation of some kind. If one was once a lantern, another was a carriage light; the third an old diya.

And then, there’s the urli at the entrance. Now, urlis with floating flowers are par for the course in every heritage hotel.  Only here, the flowers are never the regulation marigold or jasmine. Nor is thepalette restricted to a clichéd red or saffron. The young housekeeping boys on night duty do the flowers before going off for the day, and their colours of choice are delightfully unpredictable. From pale pink to violet, cream, even lemon pops up here. You almost wait for morning to break just to see the shades and motif of the day.

And unlike what the menu indicates (remember this is a house of illusion), the food is great here. Sri Lankan delicacies abound as do south Indian ones, both vegetarian and otherwise. All you need to do is put aside the menu, call the chef and tell him the food groups you like. Then sit back and wait: for an endless procession of dishes, accessorised with attentive service and huge smiles. If you think you’re overdoing the pleasures, drown the thought. Reality is merely an illusion at Heritance Madurai.

Courtesy: India Today Spice (First published in November 2009)  

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