Madurai Heritage – a treasure house of stories

Sipping my hot cup of filter coffee from the traditional brass tumbler and davara – the Tamil equivalent of the cup and saucer, I dip my feet playfully in the private pool outside my villa in Heritage Resort Madurai , one of the top resorts in Madurai and lose myself in the sounds of the morning. The trees form a green canopy over my head and as they sway to the morning breeze, a couple of leaves fall into the pool and gently float in the waters. The turquoise pool is compact and private and except for the birds and squirrels, there is no one around me. It is my little secret haunt in Heritage Madurai, one of the best hotels in Madurai. The water is perfect for a little dip and as I contemplate the same, I hear a friendly knock. I wonder if there is someone on the door but I am surprised to find a flameback knocking on the branches of a tree above my head. I don’t know why this species of woodpecker is called the lesser golden back because right now it’s golden brown feathers are glistening in the sun. The red crown is a sharp contrast to the black throat and rump. In a moment, however, he just decided to take flight and escape into the woods. And that is a cue for me to plunge right into the pool.

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I am in Madurai, lost amidst 17 acres of woodland in a luxury resort that is a treasure house of stories. Heritage Madurai cannot be more aptly titled. Be it an ornately carved door or an ancient majestic banyan tree, there is history in every nook and corner of the resort. But there is something beyond just a tale at this Heritage Resort Madurai.

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It almost feels like a living museum, where every hallway tells a tale. Heritage Madurai itself is a precious treasure tucked away in the busy lanes of Madurai and it almost feels like a perfect antidote to the bustling city. No wonder Heritage Resort Madurai is one of the top resorts in Madurai sought after by all celebrities from corporates to film stars.

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Madurai Heritage – Layers of history

The moment I enter Heritage Resort Madurai, I can feel the calm descending upon me. The trees gently sway to the rhythm of the breeze and the sun vanishes behind the dense canopy. I feel like a time traveller, unfolding layers of history. Set amidst verdant greenery, Heritage Madurai is one of the last vestiges of the colonial era.  It was a private club and a residence for the officers and the senior management of Madura Mills before becoming one of the top hotels in Madurai.

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However, in the 1970s it became the Old Madurai Club or the British Madura Club. Post colonialism the club continued to function, entertaining several employees of Madura Coats, which  included many Indians as well. Besides rooms, they also had a bar and a restaurant to cater to their guests.

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The bar has been redesigned  but it retains the original colonial touch to it. And even today, there is a reunion of the former employees of the Madura Mills and it has become a storehouse of memories.

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The Design Story

The real story, however, lies in its design and architecture of Heritage Resort Madurai. The main clubhouse was designed by the late Srilankan architect Geoffrey Bawa, who was known for his signature style called “Tropical Modernism.” He blended the internal and the external elements, integrated nature and highlighted the local landscapes and the environment in his design.

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He created a unique fusion of Asian and European styles and formed his own contemporary design which was both striking and yet subtle in its own way. While most of Geoffrey Bawa’s work is seen in the luxury hotels, bungalows and other public monuments in Srilanka, he did design a few properties in India as well. And the old Madurai Club was one of them. The Geoffrey Bawa block stands even today,  as a testimony to his genius. And this makes it one of the best resorts of Madurai.

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The property was eventually was bought over by the promoters of the Indian Green Grid Group who started the Grand Luxe Hotels who rechristened it as Heritage Madurai. The historical and architectural heritage has been preserved here and it eventually became one of the best luxury resorts in Madurai.  The entire property was restored with the help of another Srilankan architect, a protege of Geoffrey Bawa called Vinod Jayasinghe.

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Walking around the luxury resort,  I was told that he ensured that the essence of Geoffrey Bawa’s design and style remained. Natural elements from the local environment were used to recreate the magic of the past.

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Buildings were created around ancient trees as they became part of the architecture.  Nature was not just a part of the landscape – it becomes the landscape literally. An ancient 300-year-old banyan tree still remains at the heart of the resort and another block of eight rooms has been built around an old tree.

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Influences of temple architecture

My day at Heritage Resort Madurai begins with a tour of the luxury resort. It is a pleasant day and the sun has mercifully toned down his warmth. There is a festive atmosphere in the property and a  bus load of foreign tourists enter the portals.  I choose to walk around instead of taking the buggy.

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The melange of influences fascinate me. The design while being true to Geoffrey Bawa’s style also has elements of Madurai in it. The swimming pool for instance is designed like the temple tank of the iconic Meenakshi Amman Temple.

The heady fragrance of Madurai Malli, the variety of jasmine that grows here wafts around in the lobby as a skilful flower seller weaves the flowers into a garland. As I walk around I discover little nooks that give a peek into the lives of craftsmen and potters, There are local villages that resemble hamlets of neighbouring Chettinadu created in the corner of the Heritage Resort Madurai.

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Arts and crafts workshops are conducted in these huts as street food is served here. I stumble upon shrines in the resort dedicated to local deities including Guardian Gods. Sculptures and figurines adorn the gardens.

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Soothing classical music greets me as I enter the lobby of Heritage Madurai. The design takes you into the architectural style of the Meenakshi Amman Temple. Besides the pool designed like a temple tank, the pillared corridor reminds you of the markets around the temple. There are also costumes of folk performers and other features from temple architecture displayed.

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The coffee shop here is inspired by the design of a Mandapa or a temple hall. All the natural elements, be it wood or stone used here are taken from a radius of 15-20 kms, giving it the local touch.

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The Royal Portal

But amidst the various features, a striking stone door in the lobby catches my attention. Intricately designed it has two peacocks carved on it . The story goes that this door, aptly titled Mayur Dwar  is a royal door from a palace in Odisha and it dates back to the 1700s. When the royal families eventually migrated and the palaces crumbled, the door founds its way to Madurai . The peacocks carved on the doors were a metaphor to invite the guests with floral bouquets and dances . And they even today ensure a warm welcome to the guests.

 

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The Banyan Restaurant

Finally I am hungry after a lovely tour and head to the restaurant aptly titled The Banyan. It overlooks the majestic banyan tree which literally extends from one end of the resort to the other. Archaic doors greet me here as well but it is the idyllic paintings of nature that fascinate me. I am told that they are a form of tribute to the banyan tree and the paintings depict the natural landscape in the yester years.

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I sit by the window and gaze at the age-old banyan tree spreading its branches around, creating a massive world in itself. The food arrives and I am treated to a sumptuous Madurai vegetarian thaali. Although the restaurant specialises in local meat and chicken dishes, it offers a delicious variety of traditional and local vegetarian fare.

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And besides South Indian cuisine, there are also North Indian dishes as well. And for the international tourists, there is a variety of European and Asian dishes on the menu as well. I down my meal with a glass of Jigar Thanda, which is the beverage of Madurai as the chef whips up his special version with cream.

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Private Villas and Rooms

Finally I head back to my room at Heritage Madurai to catch some sleep before heading for a tour of Madurai and a visit to the Meenakshi Amman temple. The wooden panels and the artistic corners add to the charming decor. There are over 73 rooms in different blocks in the property with 34 villas . There are personal courtyards and private plunge pools and am told that this is the only hotel in Madurai. The luxury pool villa is so tastefully designed with carvings.

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Spacious and spread over 1000 sq kms, rays of light stream into the room giving it a bright and airy look. The Deluxe Club Rooms may be smaller at 600 sq feet but they are equally comfortable. With traditional red tiles and terracotta flooring, teak wood furniture and lattice work on the windows, they take you into a bygone era. But if you are looking for a touch of nostalgia with a blend of elegance and luxury, then you must opt to stay in the Geoffrey Bawa room which takes you back to the 1920s.

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A rickshaw ride 

A little snooze and I am back in the lobby, treating myself to hot filter coffee before heading to explore the city. While the iconic Madurai Meenakshi Amman temple and the Thirumalai Nayak Palace are just a short drive away, there are other attractions close by like Jain Caves as well. But the best experience is a complimentary rickshaw ride gifted by the hotel to all the guests. While this is ideal in the morning, the ride takes you from the palace to the temple as you explore colourful markets and soak in the atmosphere of Madurai.

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Madurai is steeped in antiquity and is filled with lores and legends and it would probably take an eternity for me to explore this eternal city. But at Heritage Resort Madurai, I got a glimpse of its eclectic cultures as I listened to the stories. I lost myself in the timelessness and floated away into the dreams of the past. Heritage Madurai is not just a luxury resort, it is an experience that brings you the very flavour of Madurai.

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I was invited by Heritage Madurai and I got to experience the hospitality.

News Reporter

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