A 150-year-old house and a curated stay that includes bronze casting and Vedic chanting—just a hint of what boutique hotel, Svatma, has to offer.
It’s the little things that strike me as the car weaves through Thanjavur’s narrow streets—old houses standing cheek-by-jowl with the new, the vimanam of the mighty Brihadeeswarar peeking over its fort-like ramparts, and children playing in the street with the cheerily bulbous Thanjavur dolls. I am tempted to stop, savour and Instagram. But I desist, deciding to first check into my weekend getaway hotel—the six-month-old boutique property, Svatma. As I enter the gates, I realise the town’s sensibility has been carried forward into the 45,000 sq ft luxury space.
Housed in an acre of lush green, it seamlessly blends a 150-year-old colonial home with high-vaulted ceilings—with distinct Tamil architecture, like the beautiful pillars lining the verandahs—and a new Millennium Wing. The latter is marked by a fun twist to history, like lift doors with digital prints of gopurams and a pool that looks like it’s being filled by waters from the garbhagriha (sanctum).
As I walk to my room, after a welcome fit for a queen—an arati for good luck, jasmine for my wrists and an angavastram around my neck—I realise the light dims in stages, with my suite being the dimmest. A conscious effort, I realise later, to mimic how people move from the bright exteriors of the temple to its cool, dark interiors. And such attention to detail abounds in the hotel, designed and developed by Krithika and Sumanth Subramaniam, of property developers Sumanth & Company. Krithika, who feels strongly about the government not preserving our heritage, says, “A town like this would’ve been beautifully restored had it been in the West. Here, there are just monuments being mismanaged and 1,000 biryani kadais.” So with her company’s debut venture into the hospitality industry, she felt she had to celebrate our culture. “I want people to come here, eat our food, see our dance, listen to our music and experience our beauty,” she adds.
The heritage wing is where you need to be. While the spacious hall downstairs hosts chamber music concerts and Vedic chanting sessions conducted by a temple priest, upstairs, the bedrooms hark back to a sepia era—with old wooden four poster beds from nearby Chettinad, throw cushions made from old saris, and Thanjavur rugs. You can see Krithika’s eye for detail in the terracotta toys that form a simple centrepiece, the old uruli that’s been converted into a wash basin, and the quotes from the Thevaram (Tamil texts of devotional poetry) inscribed on the walls.
When not at Saukyam, their well-appointed spa, quick stops at Palaharam—for their coffee and local snacks—and Nila, their rooftop bar—which serves a great martini and an unparalleled view of the town—take up my time. In fact, if not for the promise of curated tours to visit traditional craftsmen, nothing could have enticed me to step out.
Rooms from Rs 16,000. Details: svatma.in
By the stove
I must confess I spent a bit too much time at Aaharam, their all-day fine-dining restaurant, where the chefs serve up organic vegetarian food. Continental and Maratha cuisine (a lesser-known remnant of their rule) also find a presence. My favourites are the thali with 14 scrumptious dishes and the thayir sadam that resembles a baked Alaska. But the highlight: learning how to make kadubu idlis (steamed in jackfruit leaves) as part of their complimentary cooking demonstration.
Out about town
Temples tour: Svatma has nine curated experiences—like Thanjavur doll making and visits to a weaving unit. But you can’t be in the capital of the Cholas and not visit their majestic temples. Wait until evening (unless you enjoy blazing hot afternoons) and Arunmali—a guide well-versed in history and architecture (who also speaks French)—will tell you why Kailasa is depicted on the vimanam and how the carvings are so intricate, you can thread a string through some of them. Rs 1,500 plus tax
Bronze casting: Arunmali also accompanies us to the house of Kathirvel, a bronze caster who learnt the art from his parents and grandparents. It’s fascinating to watch him dexterously shape a beeswax-and-resin mould in his backyard, encase it in mud, heat it till the wax melts, and then carefully pour in molten panchaloha (a mix of brass, copper, silver, lead and gold). The finished product is then polished and sold for anything between Rs 1,000 and a few lakhs. Rs 1,500 plus tax
Veena making: The making of the Saraswati veena (or Thanjavur veena) is almost a dying artform. Only a handful of families still make it the traditional way. R Kausalya, the former principal of Thiruvaiyaru’s music college (and, incidentally, the granddaughter of the house Svatma is based in) will accompany you, as you explore the lumber yard where jackfruit trees are chopped into shape, and visit M Narayanan, whose family has been making veenas for generations (each takes at least 25 days to make).
Rs 1,500 plus tax
Maratha Palace: A visit is a must, though the graffiti and lack of upkeep is saddening. While a gallery displays bronze and stone sculptures from the Chola period, the Indo-Saracenic architecture—incorporating European, Indian and Mughal styles—is stunning. The paintings on the ceilings date back to the 17th century, and are as fresh as the day they were made using natural colours. Drop by the Saraswati Mahal Library, which houses over 30,000 Indian and European manuscripts. Entry at Rs 50
The swing vote
With many private jet-setters flying in from Europe and elsewhere (much of their clientele till date), a little touch of drama and tradition is warranted. So what better than renewing your wedding vows? The hotel’s staff will help you slip into a madisar (nine yard sari), as a garland maker puts the finishing touches on the flower swathes. A temple priest will take you through the ceremony, as you sit on a traditional wooden swing. And going by the French couple with Cheshire grins, whom I saw renewing their vows, it’s well worth doing.
—Surya Praphulla Kumar
The writer was in Thanjavur on invitation by Svatma