Chettinad House Architecture: Shenbaga Vilasam


Shankar Vanavarayar talks to us about the history of Shenbaga Vilasam in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. This heritage mansion is now run as a homestay and provides guests a unique glimpse into the tradition and culture of the region. India Heritage Resort

Shankar Vanavarayar was born into an ancient legacy and the royal household of Samathur. He plays a important role in the cultural preservation of the region and also maintains many family traditions, rituals and institutions.

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Passionate about the heritage of the land, he works for the cause of preservation through INTACH as well as The Vanavarayar Foundation(the latter founded by him to work in the areas of history, architecture, culture and heritage).

He is the founding Co-Convener of INTACH of Thanjavur and other social/environmental organizations. While Shankar heads the one billion dollar Sakthi Group,he also plays a passionate and dynamic role in the management of NIA Educational institutions which has more than 12000 students from school to higher education.

Having received an international exposure in education he is able to bring a modern outlookand is actively involved in strategic visioning process for the institutions. His main focus is to bring about a student centred approach in the institutions. Shankar has also been a part of Young Indians for the past six years playing various roles from chapter to national positions of strategy, communication and events.

In this feature, it is the one thing that is the closest to his heart that he talks about—his ancestral home. Tracing the history of Shenbaga Vilasam, Shankar takes us on a nostalgic trip back in time.

My grandmother, Maruthapushpambal Amman – the last zamindarani of Samathur and Kottampatti was the patron. She built Shenbaga in the early 1930’s as a farm getaway for herself. It was part of a 100 acre estate.

The property was built for the zamindarani as a home. The regal and empowered lady needed to have her own space. Unable to bear children she made arrangements so that her husband and zamindar could marry the junior zamindarani Radhamani Amman.

Thereafter, it became important for to have her own place as the Palace was now home to the second lady of the house.

The zamindar took care to ensure there was balance. He placed his second child (my father) in the care of his first wife. So they spent the holidays in the house. Maruthapushpambal Amman led a life of her own by creating a court of people and way of life.

One of the first things she did was to plant the native and exotic trees all around the house. Today, the property is lush and beautiful as a result of her vision. She had all kinds of livestock, plantation and gardens through which she made the most exotic food which she is famous for.

She was a person renowned for her beauty and fashion. An incredible person with great strength, will and quest for life.

She died 2 years ago at the age of 99 with a lot of passion till the very end.

Living life on her own terms, she managed all affairs—from finances to relations. She only had things to give and never expected anything in return. Even though she did not have children of her own, she ensured many were around her always.

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In the late 1970s, my father, Krishna Raj Vanavarayar, renovated Shenbaga Vilasam focusing on the flooring in places, redoing the rooms, as well as adding some other elements.

More recently,I decided to make some cosmetic changes to the structure. The early years of this century there extensive renovations, after some years of sparing use and care.

I added the large dining, a new kitchen (converting the old one into a bedroom, primarily to aid vasthu) and the colonial style veranda in the rear, in tune with the old style in the front. Some changes have happened as the house also evolved to cater to guests, and I view this as an ongoing process.

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“The original house was elegant in design with nothing elaborate about it. It was built to the zamindarani’s plan and function. The many embellishments that we see now are value-additions. The four beautiful pillars are from the Palace and very old—at least 250-300 years old. The new dining ceiling was salvaged from a heritage home and replaced here. In today’s fast-track world, a visit to Shenbaga Vilaasam is an ideal getaway as it will certainly rejuvenate your senses.”

The puja room is a part of all traditional Indian homes and has a place of prominence.

The divider with brass panel is a famous brass sheet work plate found in Tanjore and Mysore. The craftsmanship is extraordinary.
Set amidst hundreds of acres of picturesque farmland and a magnificent backdrop of beautiful mountains, Shenbaga Vilaasam is eye-catching, true to its royal heritage.

It was only in 2007 that Raja Shankar Vanavarayar of Samanthur decided to open the doors of Shenbaga Vilaasam to welcome guests, and converted this heritage structure into a homestay.

This royal guesthouse has four bedrooms named after the women of the household- Manickam, Maruthapushpam, Radhamani and Jaya.

Each room has been designed with great care and makes for a warm and inviting ambience in addition to being luxurious—ideal for people who want to unwind and relax.

The royal ancestry of the family is evident in every nook and corner. From the royal insignia to the giant pillars and the beautifully patterned Chettinad tiles, the rich heritage is quite apparent.

The tiled roof, ceiling with beams and open courtyard— all add to the beauty of the architecture which is a unique blend of South Indian styles. Lovely inlay work furniture, Tanjore paintings and other art, huge urns and figurines—all make this guesthouse a treasure trove of antiques and family heirlooms.

There are plenty of activities at Shenbaga Vilaasam. A bullock cart ride through the quaint village of Samanthur, as well as a visit to a local craftsman’s home to witness stone sculpture, basket-weaving, saree-making, terracotta and pottery. Guests also have an opportunity to interact with the simple farm worker and see farming of coconut, paddy, vanilla, tea, coffee, and then trek to a nearby wildlife reserve.

For the spiritually inclined, a visit to the 700 year old shrine of Lord Choleshwara and Goddess Shenbagavalli in the village of Samanthur is arranged on request. From yoga to an Indian shopping spree to buy spices, jewellery, local natural medicines and even fabric- requests by the guests— all are catered for as a part of the experience.

For those interested in learning about South Indian cuisine— an opportunity to wield the ladle is arranged as well. Folk dance (Kollattam) and music to entertain the guests, a day trip to the Palakkad Fort of Tippu Sultan, ayurvedic treatments and even astrology are some of the other activities that are in store for guests.

Those who wish to enjoy the natural beauty at a leisurely pace and soak in the warmth and the hospitality of Shenbaga Vilaasam could do so as there is no fixed itinerary.

 

“The cuisine at Shenbaga Vilaasam is a specialty of the place! We have inherited a rich legacy in gastronomics from the Zamindarani.”

“We serve only vegetarian cuisine to guests in adherence with the practices of the family now. It is a mix of traditional, fusion and global styles with ingredients that are regional and sometimes from the farm. Served on a leaf true to the Tamil style.”

The Itinerary during your visit to Shenbaga

On arrival guests are received at The Vinayagar Temple where there is a brief pooja thanking the Lord. Thereafter, guests can stroll towards the house, where they are given information about the property along with the suggested program/schedule for their stay. They are then taken around the house to experience the history, architecture and ethos of the family and the property.

After lunch, and a brief time to rest, the guests are taken for a walk to the two large ponds “Elavukarai Tank” or water bodies that provide water to hundreds of acres of farm land. The ponds are situated in a picturesque setting.

The ponds are man-made and the history goes that a legendary woman from the royal family had commissioned it to provide water for the area and agriculture over 200 years ago. It has always been a habitat for migratory birds. All around the ponds one can experience the various crops cultivated around like coconut, betel leaf, maize and vegetables.

Thereafter, guests often visit the China Aranmanai which is a small structure that is about 300 years old. It is one of the 6 minor palaces belonging to the Samathur Royal family. This structure is where a family member lived till about 80 years ago. The central structure was restored and preserved by the family as an example of domestic architecture. Not many such buildings of antiquity remain untouched by modernity today.

Post evening tea, guests can visit the Samathur Sivan Temple – Lord Choleshwara and Goddess Shenbaga Valli Temple. The temple is 700 hundred years old. It is dedicated to Lord Shiva and his consort Shenbaga Valli. The temple is built in granite stone and has intricate carvings.

Guests are also taken for a visit to the house of a traditional handloom weaver. Weaving by handloom has been a tradition in this region since Roman times. There is documented proof that cotton cloth was exported to Rome from this region. This tradition of producing cotton cloth continues even today.

The inlay wall panels in the dining room are rosewood wall cabinets in colonial/french styles, mostly from the Pondicherry region.

The big framed art in the dining room is a ceremonial stole worn by the Zamindars and Rajas in the past. It is a rich design with complete gold thread work.

The central part the ceiling in the dining room is of satin wood and ebony inlay and the side is ply wood finished to complement the central part.

The woven cane and wood furniture are part of the original furniture in the house, some others have been collected over time. They are the best companions to a traditional house.

The four rooms named after the royal ladies of the household are decorated in distinct styles with memorabilia, collections of the family and also the antiques. Pictures relating to the family are displayed in each rooms. The colours in which they are decorated are blue, red, green and brown.

The horse-shoe shaped carved panel in the bedroom is a Prabhavalli—the decorative arch around the deities in temples, these wooden ones were part of the Vahanas.