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I still remember my first meal at the Bangala on the outskirts of Karaikudi, the largest town in the Chettinad region of Tamil Nadu. It was the mid 2000s, a time when Chettinad wasn’t high on any traveller wish lists. Tucked away in an arid belt in southern Tamil Nadu (a two-hour drive from Madurai) are the 70-odd villages that make up Chettinad.
Meenakshi Meyappan can certainly take some credit for Chettinad’s emergence as a niche tourist and culinary destination. She’s part of the M.S.M.M. family of the Nattukottai Chettiar community, an enterprising trading community that established an influential trading network across South East Asia in the 19th century.
A lot of their wealth went into construction of palatial homes between the 1880s and 1940s – a testimony to the community’s international business success. Socio-political changes forced many Chettiars to return home and many of these homes slipped into decay, eventually becoming a magnet for antique hunters.
Most people slip into retirement mode in their 60s. Not Meenakshi Meyappan. She was in her mid-60s when Bangala was launched.
This charming mansion served as a clubhouse for the male members of her family and by the late 1990s it was beginning to crumble. Meenakshi Meyappan, in a sense, stormed a male bastion when she convinced the family that there was potential to transform this clubhouse into a boutique hotel with a strong culinary offering.
Meenakshi Meyappan Managed a Hotel in Her 60s
I’ve visited the Bangala at least five times over the last decade and a half, and I always go back impressed with the amazing attention to small details. It could be the fact that Meenakshi Meyappan – who is in her mid-80s now – is still actively involved in the day to day running of the Bangala. Or the fact that the operations team – dominated by women – have imbibed the same values.
Hospitality and an eye for the fine things comes naturally to Meenakshi Meyappan. She grew up coached by an Irish governess in Colombo where her father served as a Deputy Mayor.
When Meyappan launched the Bangala in 1999, it was considered a bold decision. Here she was, a woman in her mid-60s with no experience managing a hotel, trying to put a whole new destination on a tourist map with the odds stacked heavily against her.
The weather around Chettinad is oppressively hot for almost nine months a year and it was in the middle of nowhere. ‘Experiential travel’ may be a buzzword now but Meenakshi Meyappan had realised the value of curating experiences back when it wasn’t.
The Bangala became a gold standard for Chettinad cuisine. The region’s cuisine is not just one of the most evolved cuisines in India but has also been influenced by the community’s global connections – for instance, star aniseed is a recurring ingredient.
The Bangala’s banana leaf lunch is a big draw and has stayed consistent to Chettinad traditions. The head cook – Karuppiah, who once worked for her family has been in charge of the kitchen for years.
What She Means to Her Community
Meenakshi Meyappan has become an ambassador for the community. She has co-authored two coffee table books – The Bangala Table, flavours and recipes from Chettinad and The Mansions of Chettinad that puts the spotlight on the region’s architectural history.
She still makes time to interact with guests and diners – always offering fascinating insights on the region’s cuisine and culture. The Bangala is full of personal touches like old photographs and traditional Chettinad architectural elements; I’ve always felt that it was more like visiting a home than a hotel. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery – and The Bangala has also inspired quite a few similar boutique hotels in the region.
It’s not just other entrepreneurs that have sought inspiration from Meenakshi Meyappan though. Each time I speak to her female staff members, they can’t stop gushing about how she continues to motivate them. They take great strength from the fact that she succeeded in what was once a male bastion and that at 84, her energy shows no signs of waning.
(Ashwin Rajagopalan enjoys communicating across boundaries in his three distinct roles as a widely published lifestyle writer, a Consultant and one of India’s only cross cultural trainers. Ashwin writes extensively on travel, food, technology and trends.)
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