Reimagining Tamil Traditions At Svatma, Tanjavur

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Loss of diversity, especially in the urban milieu, is inevitable in a globalised world. Pizza will often replace paniyaram. Or cappuccino, filter kaapi. But what does one do when one’s native cultural symbols begin to feel inadequate? Unsophisticated?

The Subrahmaniam’s – Chennai based dancer/architect Krithika, and her developer husband, Sumant’s – response to their young son’s disenchantment with things Indian, was to find a way to reintroduce him to his rich legacy. So they came up with the concept of a ‘heritage in residence’ in the very heart of Dravidian culture: Tanjavur (Tanjore).

And they christened it Svatma: ‘One’s Own Soul’ (Sva + Atma). An inspired name for the promise of a personal, sensory and emotional exploration of Tamil traditions, and the region’s extraordinary architectural heritage.

The exquisite refuge is a showcase for Krithika’s design skills. A painstakingly restored century old mansion, former family home of the Carnatic musician Rama Kausalya, forms the core of Svatma, and houses its seven stunning premium suites and rooms.

The feel of being in a home rather than a hotel is enhanced by the absence of a formal reception. The beautiful entrance foyer, open on all sides and flanked by water bodies, bridges the old and the new. The extension that respects the character of the original without sacrificing modern comforts, hosts thirty one atmospheric rooms as well as Divyam (the divine), the 250 seater hall that opens onto patios and garden spaces.

Wide airy verandahs and secluded seating areas complement the relaxation theme, along with a well equipped gym and yoga centre, a luxury spa, and the beautiful pool and jacuzzi off the main dining space.

The spirit of Tanjavur pervades the property. The Chola bronzes and musical instruments in the heritage wing, the murals and architectural drawings and stencilled verses of devotional poetry across walls, the freshly applied kolam designs on the floor, the heady scent of jasmine and incense, the daily chanting of vedas at dusk, all express what it means to be Tamil.

Cuisine is strictly organic vegetarian, served in the casual Palaharam (Tamil for ‘snack’) and the more formal (and air conditioned) Aaharam (food or meal). The focus is on regional thalis incorporating the fusion of Tamil and Maratha flavours, but they offer a fair mix of cuisines, including Indo-continental! And while the view of the Big Temple from the roof top, underwhelms, Nila (Moon), the lovely and well equipped open air bar, is a welcome surprise.

Tanjavur is the perfect base to explore Tamilnadu’s temple circuit. The town’s own, 1006 year old, Brihadeeswarar (Peria Kovil or Big Temple) along with the Airavateshawara near Kumbakonam (1hr by road)) and Ganagaikonda Chlolapuram (2 hrs), constitutes the UNESCO ensemble of ‘Great Living Chola Temples’. Srirangam is another massive complex, closer to Trichy. Scores more beautiful temples reflecting Tamil supremacy over South Asia in the early 8th – 11th centuries, dot the surrounding landscape and are easily doable as day trips. 

Svatma reiterates, however, that Tanjavur isn’t just about history or celebrated religious architecture. Their eight signature experiences do include guided temple walks, but they also highlight a range of activities that generate a meaningful engagement with the place, its performing arts and its intangible traditions.

Getting there: Tanjavur is well connected by road and train. The closest airport is Tiruchirappalli, commonly referred to as Trichy. (58 km. Approx. 60 min. by road)

Many thanks to Svatma for hosting me. All views and opinions are, as always, my own.