A heart cooler for the heat

Some people have called it a ‘heart attack in a glass’. They are terribly unkind. I prefer to think of it as ‘heaven in a glass’. How else would you describe a concoction that has almond resin, Sarsaparilla syrup, cold milk, sugar, finely chopped dried fruit and nuts, and all of this topped with a generous scoop of ice cream.

One summer morning in the temple town of Madurai in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, I headed out with a friend. The plan was to have a street-side breakfast of idli (steamed rice and lentil cakes), accompanied by a piquant chutney of coconut and chilli. And chase it down with jigarthanda. After all, I couldn’t really visit Madurai and not have this “heart cooler” (literal meaning of jigarthanda). Nobody can.

While jigarthanda is today considered a local Madurai beverage, it has an interesting history. Thanks to its name, a combination of two Hindi words (the language of state is Tamil and not Hindi), it is believed to have been brought into India by the Mughal rulers several centuries ago, and slowly made its way down to Madurai.

In this swelteringly hot city, it is so strongly associated with cooling properties that it has come to be known as jil jil jigarthanda in the more popular outlets (jil being a local corruption of the word chill).

While jigarthanda is popular in these parts, it is relatively more under the radar than its famous north Indian cousin, falooda (which food historians claim started life at Mughal emperor Jehangir’s court).

My plate of idlis was delightful, fittingly known to be as soft as Madurai’s famous jasmine (flowers). And then the jigarthanda, the man behind the counter filling up glasses with practised ease. Somewhere between vanilla and light chocolatey in colour, thick and inviting, the jigarthanda beckoned to me.

I took a tentative sip. And my world immediately turned into a happier place.

In other words, this was an explosion of tastes and textures – the sweetness of the syrup and ice cream, the crunchiness of the nuts and the chewiness of the jelly-like almond resin. My friend and I drank this in almost one gulp. Then we looked at each other. Another one?

By the time I gestured to the shop assistant, he had already prepared two more glasses for us. A second round seemed to be par for the course at the shop. This time, I sipped slowly, savouring the flavours, and feeling much like a kid in a candy shop. I knew I was going to have to skip lunch that day, but who was complaining?

Tip: although several places in Madurai claim to have the best jigarthanda, foodies know that Famous Jigarthanda is the real McCoy.

Published in Roads & Kingdoms

The Bungalow on the Beach

Dusk

A few months ago, we went on a road trip through Thanjavur and Kumbakonam, then going up north towards Tranquebar, before finally fetching up at Pondicherry. By the time we – we were tired of the hectic temple visits in and around Thanjavur. And all we wanted to do was put our feet up and listen to the song of the waves.

And Tranquebar is really the perfect place to do, given that there is really nothing much to do there except enjoy the rhythm of the sea, explore the Dansborg fort and walk aimlessly around its neatly laid lanes.

Fort

Steets

Boats

What made our visit special was our stay at the 17th century bungalow of the British Collector, now a “non hotel” from Neemrana – The Bungalow On The Beach. This property is just that – a lovely bungalow right by the beach, overlooking the Danish fort on one side and the Shiva temple on the other. With its graceful white facade, tall white columns and arches, cheery bougainvillea trees and bright, airy rooms, this property alone makes a Tranquebar visit worth it.

Panorama

View

We were staying on a room on the first floor and spent most of our time on the cane chairs on the wide verandah outside our room. There are only eight rooms in all, each named after a Danish ship that docked at this port in the centuries past; our room was the very regal Queen Anna Sophia.

Verandah

The room itself was a throwback to the past: four poster beds, high ceilings, a planter’s chair and elegant wooden fixtures. We found the staff particularly friendly and helpful, one of them even taking us on a tour of the village after showing us Neemrana’s other property there, The Gatehouse.

If The Bungalow On The Beach had a European, colonial feel about it, then The Gatehouse was entirely a Tamil mansion renovated, showcasing that way of life. The decor and accents were all typically Tamilian, again redolent of a past era.

Gatehouse1

Gatehouse2

True to its location, the seafood at the Bungalow is supposed to be excellent, but the two of us vegetarians stuck to the dosa and vegetable stews, with endless cups of tea to battle the rains. Just remember to ask for extra spice (or masala!) to suit your Indian palates. We could not use the swimming pool but really, who felt like swimming in all that rain?

Pool

In all, Tranquebar plus The Bungalow On The Beach is the perfect combination for a totally chilled, battery recharging holiday. What are you waiting for?

***
Also read: my piece on Tranquebar for Mint’s Weekend Vacations column – A slice of Danish history

Why you should visit Tamil Nadu in 2016

Mahabs

My home state of Tamil Nadu has found a place in the NY Times’ list of must-do destinations for 2016 – rightly described as a gateway to India’s cultural core. From the temples of Rameshwaram to the hills of Ooty, the music concerts of Chennai to the jallikattu of Madurai, the spicy kaara kuzhambu of Chettinadu to the fragrant filter kapi of Kumbakonam, the silks of Kanjeevaram to the bobble-head dolls of Thanjavur, there is something for everyone in the state.

See which of these reasons will compel you to pack your bags and head down south right away (and remember, this is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg)…

History

If there is one immediate association with the state, then it is the magnificent temples that have withstood the test of time for several centuries – there are the blockbuster deities like Brihadeeswara at Thanjavur, Meenakshi at Madurai, Nataraja at Chidambaram and then the dozens and dozens of smaller temples, each with an interesting story and history. Then there are the palaces and mansions, like the magnificent ones at Chettinadu, with Burma teak, Italian marble and Belgian chandeliers; the shore temples and rock-cut caves of Mahabalipuram; the Danish fort at Tranquebar and the 16th century Gingee fort; the art gallery at Thanjavur palace with its hundreds of Chola age bronze statues…

Thanjavur

Night falls on the Brihadeeswara temple at Thanjavur

Madurai

The magic of sunlight inside the Madurai Meenakshi temple

Chettinadu

Outside the magnificent Kanadukathan Palace

Culture

Tamil Nadu is the cradle of classical dance and music in the country; think Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music. Drop by at the wonderful Kalakshetra Foundation for a whiff of the state’s most popular dance form or base yourself in Chennai during the famous “kutcheri” (concert) season every December – January, where hundreds of free music and dance performances take place at venues across the city, attracting both locals and NRI aficionados. Folk art forms also live on across the state, with forms like poi-kaal kudirai, kolattam and karagam still performed on festivals and occasions.

Bharatnatyam

If music be the food of love…

Arts and crafts

The Thanjavur painting style has flourished for over three centuries now, still finding admirers as far away as Australia and the USA – walk into any artist’s home in the town to see this art form come to life. Or very simply, walk through the streets of any town early in the morning to watch women draw intricate kolam patterns freehand, the designs elegant and sophisticated enough to beat any complex painting style. Head to Kanjeevaram (also known as Kanchipuram) to see weaving at its best, where rich colours play with striking patterns to create mini masterpieces in silk.

Dolls

Keep nodding, thalai aati bommai

Painting

Thanjavur paintings usually carry images of gods and goddesses

Food

A tumbler of degree kapi anyone? Or, what about a tall glass of jil jil jigarthanda? It is now time for you to think beyond – way beyond dosa and idli – when it comes to Tamil Nadu food. Every region has its own specialties, from the well known piquant meats of Chettinadu to the lesser known and more subtle flavours of Thanjavur vegetarian cooking. You will also have several pleasant discoveries like the melt-in-the-mouth macaroons of Tuticorin and the gooey Thirunelveli halwa. Go ahead, chart out a culinary exploration course for yourself – and believe me, you will not be disappointed.

Food

A traditional Tamil vegetarian meal

Nature

Living in Bangalore, I find myself heading for the gorgeous hills of Ooty ever so often, or the verdant tea plantations of Coonoor – and for those looking for quieter options, there is Kodaikanal (esp offseason), Yercaud, Pollachi. Walk on the world’s second longest beach at Marina and see the confluence of three seas at Kanyakumari. Get drenched under the Kutralam waterfalls to beat the heat or take a coracle ride in Hogenakkal. Go wildlife spotting in the forests of Mudumalai or bird-watching in the marshes of Vedanthangal. And above all don’t miss the fascinating mangroves at Pichavaram, a complex network of canals and inlets, counted among the largest in the world.

Ooty

The hills of Ooty seen through the train window

Hogenakkal

Hogenakkal, or smoking rocks

Pichavaram

The green-blue mangroves of Pichavaram

So, have you travelled in Tamil Nadu at all? Do drop a comment on your experience…

Conservation, at what cost?

A quick glimpse at a couple of small temples, to continue my series on the recent Tamil Nadu road trip. Our host at the Swamimalai resort, knowing our interest, had recommended them highly for their architectural details (temple carvings mainly). So that evening, we headed to the Pullamangai temple near Ayyampettai, half an hour’s drive from Kumbakonam – and what a delight that was. Predating the Thanjavur Big Temple, Pullamangai has one of the most exquisite statues of Parvati (as Mahishasuramardhini) I have ever seen. Beautiful, confident, sexy.

Durga

At first sight, the temple was not very promising, with the outer gate painted in “modern” colours and a priest who could only be called to the temple with a special appointment over phone. The interior of this Shiva temple was dark and dank, the smell of lamp oil and years of neglect hanging in the air. The husband and I exchanged puzzled looks: were we at the right place? what was so special about this temple?

It was only when we walked around this diminutive temple that its beauty became apparent – rich carvings from Ramanyana, Shiva Puranam and Vishnu Puranam on every inch of space on the outer walls, and finally, around the corner, the Durga statue we had come to see.

Pullamangai

Nataraja

A total worthwhile excursion.

In contrast, the second one, the Nageswaran temple inside Kumbakonam was a serious disappointment. While Pullamangai was not maintained well and did not attract hundreds of devotees, there was still a sense of history and (dare I say it?) piety there. Nageswaran temple, built in the shape of a chariot, does have its regular worshippers but any history or beauty had been coloured into a senseless and garish mass. All in the name of conservation.

What a sad state, when the trustees of such temples cannot recognise the inherent beauty of the brown stone and detailed architecture.

Kumbakonam

Memories from the road trip

It’s just over a week since we returned, but the eight day road trip in Tamil Nadu is already a distant memory. It was a whirlwind (but great) tour with a bit of everything: starting with the temple circuit of Thanjavur and Kumbakonam, a beachy time at Tranquebar, a bit of wildlife at Point Calimere, nature like nothing else in the form of mangroves at Pichavaram and finally, the French Connection at Pondicherry.

Since the husband and I kept putting up regular updates on social media, this was an itinerary that interested a lot of friends. I am going to be blogging about each leg of the journey in detail, but here, as a starting point, a snapshot (or several snapshots, really) of our trip.

Have a look at the highlights of our road trip and do let me know in the comments if there is any part of it that is particularly interesting to you or you would like more information on.

Happy travelling with us!

Our first stop was Thanjavur (Tanjore, to the more anglicised among us), an easy seven hour drive from Bangalore. Several pitstops later, we pulled up at Svatma, a spanking new heritage hotel close to the big temple. Svatma was a delight in many ways, but the highlight was the food, easily among the best I have eaten at any hotel.

Tanjore1

This is from an evening at the Brihadeeswara Temple, known locally as Periya Kovil (or the Big Temple) – all decked up for the occasion of it’s builder, Raja Raja Cholan’s 1030th birthday.

Tanjore2

One of the most amazing discoveries in Thanjavur was the area around the palace, especially the art gallery – what I expected to be a modest display of paintings turned out to be a stunning collection of bronze and stone idols, all the way from the 3rd century on. There was a special Nataraja gallery, filled with beautiful bronzes of the “dancing god.”

Tanjore3

Then, the two other points in this Chola triangle – Gangaikondacholapuram (built by the son, similar to the Thanjavur temple but smaller in scale) and the diminutive but exquisite Darasuram (built by a later day Chola, and my favourite among the three).

GKC

Darasuram

Another surprise discovery came in the form of the Pullamangai temple near Kumbakonam. We had never heard of it before (nor have any of our friends or family) but this was recommended by someone at the resort we were staying in. And I am glad we made the long detour to Ayyampettai. At first glance, it looks like any modern day temple with garish colours, but the inside was another story, especially the carvings along the outer walls. This statue of Parvati – in the form of Mahishasuramardhini (the demon slayer) – was one of the most beautiful, graceful I have ever seen.

Tanjore4

After the serious bout of temple hopping, it was time to chill out by the beach at Tranquebar. We stayed at the 17th century The Bungalow On The Beach (which was literally that), the Neemrana property there. Hours and hours of sitting on the balcony outside our room, feeling the cool breeze on our faces, watching the waves crashing against the shore, seeing the fishermen venture out into the sea, wondering what brought the Danes all the way here…

Tranquebar1

Tranquebar2

From here, a side trip to Kodikkarai, also known as Point Calimere, a lesser known habitat for the blackbuck. This being the beginning of the migratory season, we were also lucky enough to see dozens of flamingos, cranes and other such avian fauna in Kodikkarai.

Kodikarai

Leaving Tranquebar with a heavy heart, we made our way up the coast to Pondicherry, stopping for an hour long boat ride at Pichavaram. After the Sunderbans, it is the second largest mangrove forest in the world, a surreal experience in a maze of narrow canals and arches created by water plants.

Pichavaram1

Finally, the last stop on our trip – Pondicherry of the colourful buildings, with its filter kapi and French pressed coffee sitting side by side.

Pondy1

Pondy2

Alas, all good things must come to an end; on our way back to Bangalore, we stopped for idli and coffee at Vasantha Bhavan and found it offering paw bachi and thai poori too.

Road1

Road2

So, until the next post, ta!

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