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Chittoor Kottaram … Prince's Diary (Part 1)

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The regal approach sets the tone for my stay. An hour’s drive from the Nedumbassery airport in an SUV on smooth roads is of course nothing remarkable but the last leg of my journey, by design, is by private boat. Tableaus of semi-rural Kerala greet us as we putter off from the Varapuzha jetty. A brahminy kite swoops to make a kill. Ferries ship passengers, vehicles and all, across the water. A fishing net, of the Chinese variety, is cast against the evening sky. Then the boat slips into a little canal and a little palace snaps into view. The welcoming party is already at the jetty.

Description: from the Nedumbassery airport

the Nedumbassery airport

It would be a travesty to call Chittoor Kottaram a ‘hotel’. This ‘homestay’ (but without the term’s self-effacing connotations), man-aged so ably by the CGH Earth group these few seasons, is unique in many aspects. One deviation from the norm I’m immediately made aware of, for, before I can enter, I must take off my shoes, and remain barefoot for the rest of my stay. The other USP I already know about: this is a single-key property, all three bedrooms, living areas, sprawling grounds and the boat at my sole disposal for the duration of the visit.

The tika-and-garland routine over I mull over which bed I’m going to grace that night. It’s a no-brainer really and, shortly, the sprawling master bedroom on the first floor has a new occupant. And thus I settle into a relaxed routine: a judicious mix of mammoth meals and village walks to work them off, cultural performances to improve the mind and long siestas to assimilate them.

Description: the Periyar river just north of Kochi

the Periyar river just north of Kochi

The origins of this palace of the Cochin kings, set in Cheranallur - an island in the Periyar river just north of Kochi (now, of course, connected to the city by a bridge) - seem wrapped in the mists of time. Much as I tried, chatting with owner Suresh Namboothiri included (more of which later), I could not pinpoint an exact date for its construction, estimates ranging from four hundred to a hundred years ago. Naturally, this only adds to its aura.

That first evening, I’m treated to some devotional songs (sopanam) performed by Jai and Girish from the temple next door. Sanskrit, the language of religious observance here, is Greek to me, yet the songs are strangely moving. When they end, almost on cue the drummer’s mobile splinters the silence, whisking us back to the twenty-first century. The performers retreat to the temple, the temple that lies at the very heart of this tale. The story goes that a king of Cochin, Rama Varma, was compelled to move his royal seat from Perump-adappu to Thripunithura, following an invasion by the rival Zamorins. This separated the king, a devotee of Lord Krishna, from his beloved Guruvayur temple. To make amends, he built a similar temple in this quiet hamlet and subsequently an adjoining palace so he could visit his temple in the comfort he was accustomed to. This is why all of the food served at Chittoor Kottaram is pure vegetarian.

What they don’t tell you is that it’s pure ambrosia. I start off my dinner with banana flower ‘kababs’ served with peanut chutney, followed by a drumstick and coriander soup. This would normally do the job for me. But there’s only a moment’s respite before a massive silver platter arrives. It’s laden with tribute: pineapple salad, beetroot Chapatis, Rajma Masala, Kadhai vegetables, Palak Pumpkin, Paneer Cashew, breadfruit with coconut, masala papad, sweet pickle and vegetable rice. There is nothing on that plate that has not been kissed by ghee. The spicing is subtle but confident. No one hovers while I commune with the grub. The palada payasam makes for a sweet finish.

 

Description: The temple is in Chittoor district and located at the lower hilly areas

The temple is in Chittoor district and located at the lower hilly areas

After dinner, I take the first of those aforementioned walks, heading out of the eastern entrance, which faces the temple. Even in the late evening, the Chittoorappan temple is buzzing with devotees. There’s a small market, replete with ‘fancy’ stores. Jai and Girish seem to be leading some sort of ceremonial circumambulation of the main shrine. My perambulation over, I head back ‘home’. At night I am cocooned in the darkness, the sky reassuringly studded with stars. In the starlight, a mongoose scurries across the grass. A robust breeze brings coolness from across the water. Temple bells start ringing long before daybreak.

In a ‘product’ like Chittoor Kot-taram, the staff plays a defining role and here, I’m happy to report, all is as it should be and more. There’s Milton, who runs the operation smoothly; Annie, who rustled up that grand meal all by herself (and does so every mealtime, every single day "There is no Stepney," as Mil-ton so evocatively put it); Michael, tender of the garden and custodian of disarming smiles; Antony, who helms the boat; and the force’s junior-most, Junaid, who seems to do a bit of everything.

Description: The modest ‘palace’ with its teracotta-tile roof.

The modest ‘palace’ with its teracotta-tile roof

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