A slice of Shangri-La

zac o?yeah | Updated on July 12, 2019 Published on July 12, 2019

A feast for the senses: The rich green landscape around Dvara Resort in Siruvani   -  IMAGES: ZAC O’YEAH

Tamil Nadu’s Siruvani Valley is not unlike the harmonious, utopian sanctuary described in James Hilton’s bestselling novel Lost Horizon

I am in the interiors of Tamil Nadu — in a valley surrounded by the majestic Western Ghats, with the highest visible peak reaching 7,000 ft into the sky. The valley is full of luscious banana plantations, as well as wild elephants and tigers that, I’m told, don’t harm tourists. Anyway, the only wildlife I see are kingfishers and peacocks.

The place greatly brings to mind James Hilton’s bestselling 1933 novel Lost Horizon, about a mysterious, harmonious, utopian Asian valley called Shangri-La, whose spiritual inhabitants have attained semi-eternal happiness. I used to wonder if places like that really existed. Although supposedly located in Tibet or maybe in Kashmir, it is China that recently laid claim to the fictional valley in order to boost tourism to its Yunnan province.

But to me, the Siruvani Valley seems like it might well fit the bill — the watchful Wikipedia, which has something to say on everything, points out that the water of Siruvani River is the second tastiest in the world, among other noteworthy things. Instead of a lamasery, which ruled the fictional Shangri-La, here one has Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev’s wildly popular Isha Ashram, which is a huge tourist attraction with burger stalls, ice-cream parlours and bullock cart joyrides.

Floating about in my Shangri-La mindset, I’m content to spend hours in my bungalow garden at Dvara Resort, either lazing in the private plunge pool or sipping tea under the shady badam tree full of plump almonds, and listening to the jazzy bebop of birds. In keeping with the nature theme, the resort’s bungalows are named after local flowers, so a visit becomes like a crash course in Tamil botany. Mine is called Mullai. I try to spot some in the gardens, but not knowing what to look for I imagine mullai to sport white beards and quote chaste Urdu couplets. Plants and I are surely not made for each other even if one of my countrymen, Carolus Linnaeus, is credited with having invented the naming system for everything that grows on the planet. Unfortunately, all Swedes are not equally bright, so if you’d ask me to tell a coconut from a papaya, I’d hesitate.

The spa at Dvara is businesslike with no faux-ritualistic flowery footbath that signature spas tend to enforce on clients. Instead, the masseuses get right down to brass tacks and fix everything that’s kaput inside me. Weirdly, despite my ethnicity, it’s only here that I understand the essential difference between a Swedish massage, the classic rubdown for muscular relaxation developed by a gymnastics expert in Stockholm in the 1800s, and deep-tissue ditto, which is somewhat similar but tougher. The Swedish rattles my lard, which is psychologically soothing for a foodie trying to lose weight, while deep-tissue reaches about an inch deeper under the skin to rearrange sinews, tensors and various bones. By the time the ladies finish, my body is more or less repaired to factory pre-set values.

With its limited number of bungalows (meaning very few other guests to disturb one’s peace), Dvara is an ideal getaway kind of a hideaway.

Furnished in the old Chettinad style, my bungalow is full of antiques sourced from the town of Karaikudi. At the resort’s dining hall, homesick guests can order north Indian or Continental — such as a truly comforting bacon-potato-onion salad with creamy mustard dressing. It is essentially an inspired take on the traditional Germanic kartoffelsalat, which I am sure Linnaeus would have loved to anatomise. That detour into foreign flavours apart, I focus on the menu’s Chettinad treats. Their lunch thali is an exhilarating exploration into the universe of bucolic flavours: Among the many tasty dishes there’s a sophisticated brinjal sambar, a marvellous mutton milagu kuzhambu, a gentle cabbage poriyal and a tray of titillating ‘powders’ — ground curry leaves, dry coconut and roasted lentils touched up with condiments — that are to be sprinkled on the rice and then drizzled with molten ghee from a jug.

A local mutton curry, named after Pollachi, a nearby town


There are no other eateries within easy walking distance of the resort, but it doesn’t matter since the Dvara restaurant is on top of its game. With everything on the menu in the ₹200-400 range, one doesn’t really feel any need to look far and wide for value-for-money sustenance. Highlights of the à la carte fare include a cinnamon-cardamom peppery mutton curry done Pollachi-style (named after a nearby town), which, interestingly, is cooked with drumsticks; ennai kathirikkai kuzhambu (coconut and tomato-curried aubergine), and muttai paniyara (an eggy dumpling in a mustard-tomato gravy).

On my last evening, I have a poolside barbecue party at my bungalow with only myself as the guest. I spoil myself with meat and veggie skewers marinated by the chefs. You might find it tragic that I’m alone and you’re not invited, but, as it turns out, I’m truly bad at grilling so you should count yourself lucky you weren’t there. But it gives me a chance to connect with myself in the balmy night, the grill smelling of charcoal and meaty juices, and I wish this Shangri-La moment lasts forever.


Zac O’Yeah is a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist;

Email: zacnet@email.com

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Published on July 12, 2019
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