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Visalam

Deep in the heart of Southern India is a secluded land of gracious mansions, dating back a half century and more. And a culture of vigour and trade, rooted in the soil, yet open to the four winds of the world. Welcome to a rare encounter.

Southern India’s ancient tapestry hides many threads quite unknown to the casual visitor. Deep in the interior, away from the beaten track, are unimagined cultural treasure-troves - ways of life you’d never discover on a regular itinerary, yet all the more rewarding, because they are so removed from the commonplace.

In Visalam, it’s as if we found an old lamp, waiting to be burnished and relit.

And today, it illuminates for the discerning visitor, not just a land, but also a community and a way of life. The Chettiars were -and are - prosperous traders with a far-flung diaspora, stretching away even to Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia. But their roots are here, in this ancient dust of Chettinad, deep in the Tamil Nadu interior. As good trading communities do, the Chettiars prospered. And Visalam is typical of the fine mid-century mansions they built in celebration.

K.V.A.L.M. Ramanathan Chettiar, a respected pillar of the pre-independence Chettiar community, built Visalam for his eldest daughter. Fate decreed that the house was never used, except for occasional family weddings. Yet the family saw to its preservation with loving care.

Thus, when we set about the task of restoring Visalam, we were fortunate to inherit a fine canvas. The challenge was to paint in the details to perfection.

Our approach was one of minimum intervention. The fine Art Deco-influenced facades were not touched, but the inner halls were partitioned to create 15 spacious rooms, with en-suite baths. The old floors were relaid, using material from the same source as a half century prior.

Finally, the walls were redone with a traditional 
finish using hand-ground seashell , lime, palm jaggery and egg white. This remarkable plastering, once de rigeur in Southern India’s gracious homes, has all but vanished now, due to the trouble and labour involved. At Visalam however, you can still experience its tactile, opalescent beauty first-hand.

The Visalam experience blends old world grace with expansive modern comfort. A way, one might say, to enjoy the timeless from a 21st Century perspective.

The three meals of the day are taken in separate spaces – The Breakfast Lounge, The Lunch Room and in the evening, the lamplit warmth of the Terrace Deck.

The caress of airconditioning does little to interfere with the authenticity of the rooms and their furnishings - we added to some fine pieces that came with the house, by scouring the old antique markets of the region.

And should you choose to browse for antiques yourself, you’ll find the swimming pool a welcome respite, after a warm day’s outing in the bazaars and stately homes of Chettinad.