It’s an ancient city that’s reinventing itself from a multilayered past. Madurai, representative of Tamil Nadu’s culture, evokes, as its name suggests, a golden age when drops of nectar flowed from the locks of Shiva as he looked over the carved towers of the city. Even now the visitors who flock to the famous Meenakshi Temple at its centre like to imagine that the structure takes the form of a lotus around which the town has developed. To others, Madurai, the third largest city in Tamil Nadu, is a boom town that reeks equally of diesel fumes and progress. The Madurai airport, set amid fields of jasmine and paddy, is being expanded to meet these demands.
It is these contrasts that make Madurai an interesting place to visit. It’s the reason “Heritance Madurai”, a venture of Chennai-based hospitality group ETL Hospitality Services (a subsidiary of ETL Infrastructure Services Ltd) and the Aitken Spence Hotels (Sri Lanka) has pulled out all the stops in renovating an old property that once used to be a part of the British-owned Madura Mills, later Madura Coats and now Coats Vyella.
Madura Mills was the leader in the manufacture of yarn in the south. It also supplied tyre cord to Dunlop. For several generations, women were known for their embroidery threads. These were sold in neat rectangular cardboard boxes; each hank of thread folded just so, colour-coded and held in place by two shiny paper tubes embossed in gold on black with the company’s name.
“We want to create what we would like to describe as an urban resort,” explains S. Thiagarajan, CEO, ETL Hospitality Services . The hotel is set on 17 acres that is as crammed with ancient trees as it is with history. “It will have the character of a world-class resort, but it will also reflect the strong identity of local crafts, whether it is the stone craft for which the region is famous, vibrant textiles or the brass and terracotta items that have been made by the villagers through the centuries,” adds Thiagarajan.
In a way, Thiagarajan’s brief to his Sri Lankan partners reflects the plans that were made when the Madura Coats Club was redesigned in the early 1970s by Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa (1917-2003). He was invited by Martin Henry, the general manager of Madura Coats, to transform the character of the clubhouse. The original bungalow had been built in1926 in Kochadai, a suburb of Madurai. The clubhouse was for the Indian staff of Madura Coats. The British staff had their own club.
Martin Henry’s first request to Bawa was to integrate all the staff members into the Kochadai Club premises. His second was a stranger one. He hoped, he is reported as saying, that Bawa would make use of the materials that he would find within a 10km radius. This is partly the reason Bawa made extensive use of a patchwork of stone slabs from disused mills, dressed stone pillars and rough-cut ones from derelict houses nearby and other artefacts that he was able to rescue.
For dramatic effect, Bawa insisted on raiding the fabled houses of the Nattukottai Chettiars further south, and picked up a couple of carved Burma teak doors, wooden pillars, and a temple chariot that is still the focal point of an indoor courtyard, with water flowing from it into a pool. For the actual buildings, Bawa created a series of long, low bungalows with tiled roofs, large wood-framed windows and pillared verandas that looked out on to the garden. As he has often explained, for him it was not the material aspect of a building that mattered, but the movement of light and air, the sudden drama of artificially created “vistas” that would remind a person that he or she was a part of the dynamics of the place.
In much the same way, Vinod Jayasinghe, a young Sri Lankan architect, has taken his cues from Bawa, but left his own stamp on this project, still in the process of being finished. His major contribution is a large reception area open on all sides, with a high timbered roof that overlooks a marvellously designed pool in granite. It is his homage to the stepped bathing pools and temple tanks of the south.
It is a motif that runs through most of the individual rooms and suites that have their own plunge pools and interior courtyards framed by glass windows that lead from the bedrooms to the bath and toilet areas.
The decor is simple. The accents are on wood, with the wooden window frames, flooring and furniture reflecting some of the ancestry of Thiagarajan’s own Chettinad roots. There are dramatic swathes of textiles spread over the white king-size beds, blinds at the wood-framed windows, cotton rugs on the floor and brass lamps and accessories.
“It has been a challenge; I have always been a great admirer of Bawa,” says Jayasinghe. “I don’t think you can call this a Sri Lankan style, our borders are so porous we share many of the same traditions in the south.”
Aitken Spence group, under the management of Malin, general manageer, Hapugoda, will run the hotel. The palace of Pudukottai, an erstwhile princely state has been identified as an additional option for guests. From a historical point of view, it is worth noted that when two rival factions were warring for the throne in Madurai in the late 12th century, the Sri Lankan general Lankapura Dandanatha forced one of the claimants, Kulasekhara, to flee to Pudukottai and put Vira Pandya on the throne. Now, of course, guests will just have to hire a taxi.
As Thiagarajan says, “Madurai is the gateway not only to the south but to Kerala as well, and many tour groups in Europe have shown a great deal of interest in the project.” Heritance Madurai hopes to open its doors by July.
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