Tea House oF the August Moon
Shrouded by age-old trees in the exclusive heritage area of Fort Cochin is a hideaway steeped in history. Maria Louis enjoys a whiff of the past within the newly-restored Tea Bungalow.
Lounging on a garden chair in the dappled shade of jackfruit, breadfruit and cinnamon trees with a refreshing cup of tea for company, you can be transported in the wink of an eye to an era when the pace of life was leisurely.
Built in 1912, the bungalow at Fort Cochin functioned as the workshop and office of a UK company called United Carpets, engaged in the manufacture and export of coir and spices.
In 1956, it was bought over by Brook Bond & Company and christened Brook Bond Bungalow. The top management of the tea company was housed there, and dignitaries visited for important meetings.
Filled with memories of tea and spice, the colonial structure is now simply called the Tea Bungalow. Owned by Vivek Dempo from Goa, the resort is managed by Marg Hotels and Resorts – headed by Vijay Cherian, who has 35 years of experience in the hospitality industry and manages seven other hotels in Kerala.
With wide verandahs furnished with broad armchairs, a multi-cuisine restaurant and ten large en suite rooms, each named after a port involved in spice and tea trading from lands around the Indian Ocean, this is a perfect getaway when you want to be far from the madding crowd.
Echoes of the past may resound here, but the interiors are brand new, for it was in a rundown state when Vivek Dempo bought the bungalow. There were ad hoc additions made to the main building, with asbestos sheets clamped on all sides.
“It was a hotchpotch with rooms added on and a kitchen tucked at the back,” recalls architect Rajesh George of Paushtika Architecture Design Consultancy. “The charm of the building had died, but you could see from the skeleton that it was still beautiful inside.”
Confronted with the task of restoring the bungalow, the first thing George did was to get everything measured. “We wanted to identify what was old, make sure we kept and highlighted it.
The toughest thing was to document the work done because, being an old building, there were no right angles and the walls don’t fit together perfectly. Frankly, there was no structure. Of course, the beams of the roof were strong… but everything was falling apart.
The floor on the upper level (where we’re sitting) wasn’t there, so we had to walk on the rafters. We couldn’t walk on the wooden floor because the floorboards were rotten.
If you didn’t step carefully, you would be on the ground floor before you knew it!” Over the years, the hall had been subdivided – and it was quite evident where it was done.
“The old structure had a huge central hall with rooms opening out on all sides, like in any typical British house,” maintains George.
“Over the years, each director had partitioned the main halls. There was a little verandah front room, a little boxy brown room, and a little boxy dining room at the back. Some rooms had wooden room dividers, but downstairs the partitions were built with brick. None of this was part of the original structure. But since the walls are made from laterite stone, they remained strong.”
Rather than blindly go back to the old plan, the architect took down a few more inner walls than were necessary in order to get a feeling of expanse as you walk into the main bungalow. “We didn’t want to just recreate the old building, that’s not conservation,” maintains George. “Instead, we wanted to actually think in the same way an architect of those times would have thought today.”
The arches are a charming architectural detail; but while some of them are original, most are new. The windows were not in the exact same spots either.
The doors to the rooms had to be moved too, as they were not suitably positioned for the arrangement of furniture. “When we moved the doors, we measured one arch, got the proportions right and copied it,” discloses George.
The verandah in the front, which is the cynosure of all eyes today thanks to the old pillars from Sri Lanka, did not even exist. Instead, there was a glazed door with a piece of asbestos above – which was barely enough to keep out the rain.
Transporting himself back in time and keeping in mind the old British bungalows in Mussoorie and Ooty, the architect figured out that the glazed door must have been the main garden door of the house, and so he just put back the garden.
Earlier one drove in right from the centre of the compound, but George decided to shift the gate to the right.
“The gate was right in the middle, and you would drive in and face the big glass wall before parking under an asbestos sheet at the side,” he recalls. Surprisingly, when the compound wall was broken to fit the gatepost, they found an old gatepost already there!
The wooden flooring in the main house is actually a second structural floor. “The original floor is about seven inches under this one,” points out George.
“It’s called Madras floor. We made joints on top of the old floor and packed the space with acoustic wood before placing the new floor. Otherwise, when you walk here, a person downstairs would hear you.” Teakwood from the original floor was used for fixing up the furniture. Since the flooring downstairs was in stone, the architect used Jaisalmer there.
Apart from repairing the structure, extensive changes had to be made to the back of the building. In the “good old days”, one could look down into a garden from the verandah at the back while the kitchen was in an outhouse.
Later, a pantry was attached at the back to make it convenient to bring food in during the rains. “Basically, when you walked out, there was no verandah anymore,” exclaims George. “Instead, you saw the wall of the extension right in front of you. So we tore it down.”
In place of the old kitchen you will now find the pool, and the extension made provision for an additional suite upstairs along with a verandah leading to it.
Comfortable seating urges you to stop and feast your eyes on the old pillars from South Travancore, which were bought at Fort Kochi.
“They are granite pillars that have weathered beautifully. It’s actually a grey-brown stone, but the light on the pillars makes them look yellow,” explains George. The pillars came without the carved top, so his carpenter insisted on doing the carving himself. While the rooms have a false ceiling, the beams are exposed in the main hall.
For the new structure, the architect tried to replicate the colonial style of the old building by way of the form and proportions.
Of course, the materials used are different. Jaisalmer stone is used for the floor on both levels, while the black painted steel staircase frame supports wooden stairs that are polished cherry red.
“There was very little space, so the rooms had to be small and the staircase even smaller. To give a feeling of lightness, we created a cantilevered staircase that’s like a skeleton,” he discloses.
Kenneth Fernandez of Magic Potion has done a fabulous job of the interior design and planning, and he seems to excel at designing bathrooms and making furniture.
Using Italian marble, rustic-finish tiles and exclusive fittings, he has created refreshing retreats. The teakwood beds sport an antique-finish polish that reinforces the old-world look, which is complemented by antique-look Hunter fans from the UK.
The suites, named Cochin, Zanzibar, Galle, Mombasa, Muscat, Malacca, Mauritius, Cambay, Goa and Calicut, display paintings inspired by each port they represent.
Designed to exude warmth, comfort and an ineffable sense of quiet luxury, they hold beds with 8-inch mattresses that you can literally sink into. The ornate carving you see in the Cochin suite is a perfect foil to the simple elegance of the room.
The highlight of the resort is the high-ceilinged hall that has been turned into a multi-cuisine restaurant called Café du Mahe. Here, you can spend hours gazing at the garden through the glass doors in front or chilling out in the al fresco area adjoining the pool at the back.
The best way to pass your time, though, is with a refreshing cup of tea in the front garden. After all, at the Tea Bungalow, anytime is tea time.