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Shenbaga Vilaasam, a palace for peace

“We’ll soon be meeting Shankar Vanavarayar, the zamindar of Samathur who breeds Kangeyam bulls,” said historian Pradeep Chakravarthy, as our coach on the Mystical Palmyra heritage tour cruised through the lush greenery of rain-washed Pollachi villages. “He is proud of his herd and what he doesn’t know about game bulls isn’t worth knowing.”

Ah, now Shankar fitted perfectly into our movie/TV-serial idea of a zamindar — a burly man stomping through rice fields with machete-wielding henchmen in tow. The man who received us at zamin Samathur was an antithesis. It took the gentle, unassuming young Vanavarayar just a few minutes to make our group of 30 feel at home.

Shenbaga Vilaasam, a palace for peace

At Shenbaga Vilaasam, his family-home-turned-resort, Shankar took us on a tour of the mansion, served us traditional snacks and treated us to an impressive dance performance by male dancers from the village. He then gathered us in the front verandah to tell us how his home became a tourist destination.

The history

“Shenbaga Vilaasam, as it is known today, was a modest structure-turned-farm-getaway outside the Samathur village. Our history is centuries-old. When power changed hands, my grandfather couldn’t cope with it. Luckily his two wives, my grandmothers, were progressive, and kept things going. Then came the Land Ceiling Act — when land-holding was reduced to a few acres. My grandmother managed the estate well, she simplified her lifestyle, paid back loans. We were taught money should be held as a trust; we were custodians, not owners. My ‘senior’ grandmother was an extraordinary lady, fabled for her beauty, strength and command. She married her first cousin, but the couple had no children. When children were born post the second marriage, she moved to Shenbaga Vilaasam built in the early 1930s.

Shenbaga Vilaasam, a palace for peace

Kattu Bangala, as it was originally known, became her paradise for about two decades. Relatives who lived there shared her passion for farming, cultural activities, animal breeding and gardening. My father, who was the second-born, was given away to her to raise, so she would never feel the void. He did not know who his biological mother was till the age of 15. Shenbaga Vilaasam was rather modest for a lady born in a splendid palace and married into another. But my grandmother added her own aura to it. When everything was changing around her, she was in total control. She planted a variety of of trees that make it a wonder to live in. Eventually, she moved to Coonoor to a small estate, lived there for 20-30 years and passed away seven years ago. She left a bank account solely for her funeral.

In the late 70s, my father took over the property, refurbished it to fit with the times, and made it his home when not attending to business in Coimbatore. I spent a year there. Time went by, we all moved out.

The heritage resort

One day, some 15 years ago, the staff gave me a bill for ₹48,000 for termite treatment. We were not living here, so it felt like an expense. I felt terrible that I thought of it as expense, not conservation. I have a lot of interest in architecture, design and art, so I decided to do up this place. Then the press started coming. Someone said I want to come and stay for a week. When people come, it is celebration; the house also responds with its aura, and that’s what happened over a period of time.

Once a wonderful Italian-American couple — friends of my friend — stayed for a week and loved it. I was travelling around the country and had discovered the joy of homestays, and the idea of opening the bungalow came up. My mother was not for it at all, but I went ahead. Once my mother happened to spot a French visitor in the temple and was impressed by the lady’s respect for the rituals. I rechristened the bungalow ‘Shenbaga Vilaasam’, invoking the presiding deity of the village. We retained all our art, customs and festivals, opened the home to welcome people to live like us. We serve simple Kongunadu/Indian fusion food. It is vegetarian, cooked in-house, and the only intoxication comes from the environs and the artefacts. We have not gone overly commercial; our guests — mostly from the West — trickle in a few times a month.

Shenbaga Vilaasam, a palace for peace

Most of what you see in Shenbaga Vilaasam was collected by me. You’ll also see family heirlooms and memorabilia — all well cared for. The guests learn about the heritage and ancestry of my legacy. They visit the farm and heritage sites. We held a cattle show for the third year in a row and the response was amazing — nearly 45,000 people participated. People said I should have done this before. There are roles we can get into, without struggle or extraordinary effort. We have the technology, the social media for marketing, and anything that is ‘culture/rural/tradition’ is welcome. But what we do should fit into this eco-system. It is easy to inherit something, but difficult to keep it going. I always say I am from Samathur (not Coimbatore), because that is what my identity is.

People just walk around, see the pond, look at the fields, do bird-watching — basically all the simple things that you can do in a village. Pongal is a grand celebration. The performers dance because they love it; I tell them not to treat it as a profession. The boy in the troupe scored 1000+ in his Class XII exams and has joined engineering, but practises dance. Our family was always known for its culture, philanthropy, religion, hospitality.”

Little-known facts

* The Vanavarayars are one of the 72 Palayakarar/Poligar (regional rulers).

* They became zamindars under the British rule and were given 18 villages to administer.

* The Samathur Shivan temple has inscriptions dating back 700 years.

How to get there: Shenbaga Vilaasam is on Pethanaickanur Road, Samathur, Pollachi, Tamil Nadu. It is located seven kilometres from Pollachi on Valparai Main Road.

For details, visit www.shenbagavilaasam.in

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Printable version | Nov 23, 2020 3:19:12 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/travel/shenbaga-vilaasam-a-palace-for-peace/article22963024.ece

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