Royalty for a night in Kerala

At a former prince’s palace on the Kerala backwaters, you will be welcomed, fed and pampered like royalty in your own private residence, writes Tamara Thiessen


With barely the time to duck under the crumbling stone gateway of Chittoor Kottaram and onto a candlelit pathway, I am ordained Queen of Kochi.Lights unfurl like a red carpet to the entry of the former prince’s residence – which glows like a firefly in the walled grounds.The white stone and teak palace was built in the 18th century as a country retreat for the ruling Rajah of Kochi.

Nudging the Chittoor temple, legend has it that the palace was built to host the king during his visits to pray.In former times, the palace could only be reached by boat.Today, it is a few kilometres by boat or car east of the port city of Kochi in a sleepy, peaceful nook of the Kerala backwaters.The tiled-roof palace, which has one master bedroom, two bedrooms and a living room, accommodates up to six people.

On arrival, a small beaming man in a white kurta tunic greets me and accompanies me to the main door. Mr Milton is the caretaker and butler at the palace.From the front porch of the homestead I can see through the open door to the lights dancing on the backwaters.The vast network of rivers, canals and lakes spreads its tentacles for hundreds of kilometres along Kerala’s Malabar coast.

By night, the balmy atmosphere is mesmerising and almost hypnotic. The palace’s Portuguese-style white antique balustrades are all lit up. Stained-glass decorations of elephants and lotus goddesses shimmer over the lawns.All of a sudden, Milton pronounces in a majestic manner: “You are my Thampuraty.” Thampuraty he explains – with a big mustachioed grin – is the local word for rani or queen.Guests at Chittoor not only have the palace to themselves – but they are treated like royalty.

“This is a one-key hotel,” says Milton. “We want people to enjoy it in a princely manner. So you can use the house, the grounds, the boat as your own. And I am here at your service, as well as one lady cook.”What he is actually saying – his hands poised graciously in praying position – is “your every wish is my command”. A mere mention of aching feet and Milton is kneeling at my side, rubbing my feet in hot salty water.

Every guest at Chittoor is given an initiation into the principles of Ayurveda – India’s ancient, holistic approach to healing and spirituality. “This is non-side effect medicine,” Milton says delightfully. “It is the gods who tell us that.” “I will now hand over this property to you and you can settle in. If you need anything just call out ‘Mr Milton’. Choose any room you like.”

In the main room – WELCOME THAMPURAN & THAMPURATY – is scrawled in shiny red “lucky seeds” over the carpet. The beads from the red sandalwood tree are used across Kerala and much of southern India as a dye, in incense and decorative powder. Two swans sculptured from towels serenade each other on the white linen bed covers. The setting is romantic and luxurious more in spirit than form. A palace maybe, but the bucolic abode is remarkably humble in scale and natural in style. There are no marble-slathered bathrooms or gold taps here – no jacuzzis, TVs or iPod docks either. The palace is run by CGH Earth – a local group that believes true luxury lies in local experience and earth-loving stays.

As it says: “. . . A far cry from ornate royal canopies, the thatch umbrellas in the gardens reflect the modest ways of the travancore royalty who ruled over this part of Kerala. The simple earthy furnishings are the same as those in an upper-class home of the era. “This is luxury mostly in the sense that you have it to yourself. You arrive either by personal chauffeur or boat from Kochi – just at the king did – and like him you will come here seeking solitude and peace . . . That today is considered the greatest luxury by some.”

Stressed-out Asian entrepreneurs and Singaporean millionaires are among those lured here, says Milton. “They come for a digital detox at the same time as reviving body and soul.” The breezy upper-floor veranda overlooks the river and gardens. The grounds are filled with tamarinds, papaya, pomegranate, coconuts, cashews, curry leaves and pepper. Soon after check-in, I am treated to a private performance of Keralan music and dance in the “royal court” – actually the main palace foyer with its terracotta-tiled floors. Two men chant, beat drums and wave their heads and bellies about with a lulling rhythm known in southern India as Carnatic music. Their faces and bodies bear bright tiger-like stripes and spots.

In the garden dining quarters, guests find themselves seated with the Rajah. A painting of him hangs on the chalky white stonewalls above the table. The food at Chittoor is as memorable as every other aspect of the stay. Annie the cook prepares me a banquet of spicy vegetables and rice, curried okra, lentils, pineapple, Vattayappam steamed rice cake and a melt-in-the-mouth coconut pudding, karikku. All the dishes are served in small brass pots and antiquated silver. Soon I am ready for a sound sleep in my palace, removed from the hustle and bustle of the city. But it’s not to be . . .The village is in the grips of the annual festival at the local temple. The celebration continues well past midnight. Mega crackers shake the old walls to such an extent that Milton has to dust down my royal bed the next morning.

The whole episode lends another bout of thrilling authenticity to the stay. “The prince’s ancestors built his home so they could be close to the week-long Sri Krishna festivities at the temple, rather than boat back to the city palace every night,” Milton explains. Like all good royals, I stroll out of my palace and mix with the people.

Flotillas of colourful costumes and mystical music greet us at the 800-year-old Hindu temple. In the afternoon, we embark on a sunset tour of the backwaters. By royal charter of course. From the old wood-carved boat, I get a close-up look at local fishing practice. Fishermen here still use a centuries-old method with bamboo Chinese fishing nets. The cantilevered Cheenavala towers which dot the Kerala coast look like rickety dinosaurs. Back at the palace I find a little package and note on my bed addressed to “My Thampuraty Tamara”. Inside is a kohl eye pencil and two packets of brightly bejewelled bindi. I had mentioned to Milton I didn’t want to leave without purchasing these alluring Indian eye candy.

Now I can also play Thampuraty back home. An overnight stay at the palace, which sleeps six, begins at 35,000 rupees (€495) for one or two people including transfers and full board, or from 61,400 rupees (€870) for a party of six.

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