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Tamil Culture Thriving in Easygoing Madras

May 07, 1989|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY | Beyer and Rabey are Los Angeles travel writers .

MADRAS, India — A few days here in the most Indian of all the country's major cities introduces you to a leisurely life style and gentle traditions.

Madras and its state of Tamil Nadu on the Bay of Bengal, founded by Dravidians more than 5,000 years ago, have preserved their Tamil culture and language, remaining largely unaffected by Aryan invaders who diluted the literature, cuisine, architecture and arts of ancient India in the north.

The British presence from 1639 until India's independence in 1947 left superficial marks and memories of the Raj era, with such anomalies as the Ice House, a building near the beach where ice was delivered by clipper ships from New England to cool the tall drinks favored by colonials in India's torrid climate.

The self-assured and easygoing Tamils weathered the transient indignities of foreign rule, considering them mere slights in their long and colorful history.

India's south has 75% of the nation's temples, and Tamil Nadu has them sprinkled from one end to the other in great profusion. The Dravidian temples are unlike those of the north, having a distinct architectural style and riotous colors that have caused some to liken them to "an Indian Disneyland."

Getting here: British Airways flies to Madras with a London stop. Pan Am flies to Bombay with two stops, then on to Madras via Indian Airlines.

How long/how much? Madras requires three days, including two for day trips to the temple towns of Mamallapuram and Kanchipuram. You'll find lodging and dining costs moderate for a big city.

A few fast facts: India's rupee recently traded at about 15 to the dollar, or .066 each. Madras is warm year-round, April and May being the hottest months. Its coolest season is the same as our winter, with monsoons playing havoc from June through September.

You'll need a visa. Malaria pills should be taken before, during and after your trip. Always slake your thirst with mineral water, pop, beer or fresh lime with soda.

Getting settled in: Enchanting Connemara (Binny Road; $53 double), Madras' oldest luxury hotel, has been a home away from home for very pukka Britons since it opened in 1904. Now a member of the Taj Group, it combines the large rooms and brisk service of yesteryear's hotel, yet boasts the latest amenities, including a beautiful pool/courtyard area at the center.

Taj Coromandel (17 Nungambakkam High Road; $70 double) is considered the city's finest, another Taj Group hotel with comfortable rooms, hair dryers in bathrooms, a pool and several fine restaurants, including the Szechuan Golden Dragon.

Savera (69 Dr. Radhakrishnan Road; $46) is a touch of luxury at a budget price, a modern hotel in the city center with fine bedrooms having views of the pool area and city. There's a great bar with beautiful wicker furniture and a choice of Indian, Moghlai, Chinese and continental dining.

Temple Bay Ashok Beach Resort (Mamallapuram; $39 double) is another bargain, even with the $10 cab ride from town. It's a handsome resort near the temple town, giving you a choice of a room in the main building or your own thatch-roof cottage on a piling, the Bay of Bengal beach at the foot of your stairs. There's a private beach, pool and a truly lovely dining room with views of Mamallapuram temples in the distance.

Regional food and drink: Southern India is the original home of the thali , a Tamil meal of from four to eight dishes or pots placed on either a metal tray or banana leaf. Orthodox Tamils are vegetarians, so your thali will usually have rice at the center, surrounded by pots of dhal (lentils) and other curried vegetables such as cauliflower, eggplant and peas. There's often a thin soup, sometimes a sweet dessert, and the hot rice keeps coming.

Dosas of thin bread made of lentils-and-rice flour are also a Tamil specialty, served with coconut chutney and other spicy sauces or filled with a masala mixture of curried vegetable for breakfast; it's a great way to start the day.

The British lay claim to mulligatawny, a thick pepper-and-lentils soup, but Tamils tell us it was here long before the British arrived. Madras is the place to go for marvelous curried prawn, shrimp and fish.

Good dining: Rain Tree (Connemara Hotel) is a garden restaurant so romantic and beautiful that you hate to leave its tinkling fountain and lush foliage. A sod-roof gazebo serves as a bar-buffet counter, an ancient rain tree at the center and the Chettinad cuisine of South India.

Try the nandu kara kuzhambu , crab cooked in a spiced gravy of the Chettinad region. Or have the prawns, fish or mutton in the same gravy. There are also seafood, lamb and vegetables prepared with kurmah gravy, made from subtle spices thickened with coconut milk. With Indian music and dance every evening, the Rain Tree is indeed a small spot of Eden.

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