While there may be bigger and fancier versions of the name around the world, The Ritz Hotel of Coonoor was made special through the grace of one truly lovely lady

I have always been a complete sucker for creepers. There’s something about the greenery creeping up a building, absorbing a manmade structure back into nature that makes me feel like all will be right with the world. I have creepers ad-nauseum at my home in the Nilgiris. Every pillar and wall has a profusion of them. Jasmine winding its way up the columns of the verandah, orchids cascading dramatically around the patio, ivy covering one side of a fence, passion flower drowning out another, and what I call potato flowers spreading out across the roof. I must not forget to mention the poor bougainvillea planted by the front porch eight years ago that is resisting all fertilisers and tender attempts to burst into the perfection that is desired from it. But such is my love for creepers that I refuse to take down the poor brown thing with its straggling blossoms and consign it back to the earth from whence it came.

You see creepers, and lots and lots of them, in the Nilgiris. Crawling up fence-posts, growing up embankments by the side of the road, artistically sprouting from pots in well-manicured gardens, growing wild in the sholas… and somehow the sight of them, at every turn, always brings back memories of a long-gone time and a place that was covered with ivy and bougainvillea and the only place in town that offered the intrepid traveller a place to lay one’s head.

From the album, The Ritz Hotel in the 80s.
From the album, The Ritz Hotel in the 80s.

The Ritz Hotel that was, with its greenery-fronted façade, and home-away-from-home feel had me running into its welcoming reception hall at every opportunity. And the opportunities were many. From wedding receptions, to Republic Day dances, to birthday parties, to the occasional family dinner… The Ritz was an integral part of life in Coonoor. Talk to locals who grew up there and despite the several changes in name and alterations to the building… they still call it The Ritz in proud defiance to the name by which it now goes – Velan Hotel Ritz. The Colonial upstart in me just can’t come to terms with this new, more ethnic prefix.

The Ritz Hotel was run, in all the time I knew it, by one of Coonoor’s favourite families. Vittal and Vasantha Iyanna took it over, running it as a family business, because Vasantha could not bear to be away from her children who were at boarding school, the separation causing much anxiety, so to speak. So they packed in the safety of a job on a tea plantation, and became entrepreneurs and decided to buy and run this lovely hotel in order to be closer to schools. Their two girls became day scholars and Vasantha once again became a happy mommy.

And certainly, Vasantha, or Aunty Iyanna as I knew her, was the most happy person to my young view. She had the most kindly eyes and the most kindly face and the most kindly smile, and she was never seen without it. I should know… I ran in and out of that hotel often enough and anyone less patient would have thrown me out. But 15-year old me only ever experienced the kindliness she radiated, and she allowed me to roam free around the beautiful gardens of this pretty little place. I would wander down from the Club when solitude was needed and knock on her front door… and she would receive me with that beautiful smile of hers that was lit from within, and every now and then she would accompany me around the gardens chatting to me about my school life

These trips inevitably ended with a cup of tea in the dining hall, at the table in the far left corner, that commanded the most spectacular view of the rose-filled gardens. It was large room with a bank of windows that overlooked the gardens, and to be honest, it did not matter where one sat, there was always something pretty to gaze at. Sometimes I would sashay down the flight of stairs into this hall, pretending to be a princess in a palace, oblivious to my scruffy, pudding-bowl hair and ill-fitting clothes which were anything but princess-like.  Sometimes, Aunty would sit with me, but more often her presence was needed in some part of the hotel for she worked hard at making it a home not just for her children. I would sip on that golden-coloured brew brought to me by a smiling waiter, into which I had poured half a bowl of sugar, and stare around me, filled with tea and peace. The country cottage feel of the hotel, the sweetness of Aunty Iyanna’s smile, and her gentle conversations, the creeper-covered walls… all of these went a long way towards soothing the inevitable teenage angst which most of us experience. I was lucky to have my Ritzy refuge.

Some people leave a mark on your life effortlessly. Aunty Iyanna was one of those people. She passed away some years ago, and with that Coonoor lost one of its gentlest souls. But life has a way of carrying on and filling the void. Her elder daughter, Samantha, carries on her legacy… seemingly effortlessly too. Reflecting the grace and kindliness and good sense of her mother in ways she does not even realise. Today, she contributes to the upkeep of the town, managing online and physical groups to preserve the environment, promote the district and keep that Coonoor way of life going, all the while turning into a photographer of some distinction… Like her mother before, she does a lot, quietly and gently, expecting little in the way of praise or reward. I had the chance to catch up with her over a cup of tea recently… and there was something in the expression in her eyes that powerfully reminded me of her lovely mother… and it took my breath away a little.

Sitting here in the dank, cold winter that Northern Europe inevitably brings always makes me think of sunshine, and Coonoor and those visits to The Ritz. I remember a time when it was taken over by Mithun Chakraborty – an actor who I quite adored in one of my many ill-considered adolescent phases. I had my picture taken with him at the launch party and I remember the lights in the garden and the music that flowed through the dining hall and the throngs of people who came to toast this new chapter in the life of the hotel we all knew and loved. I remember the Austrian guests who I took to tea there and how much they loved it. I remember I wore my first saree to a dance at the Ritz with that fashion no-no – a woollen blouse – to ward off the winter cold. But mostly I remember the warmth of Aunty Iyanna’s smile. I remember a lady that always made time for me, never minded my teenage rambles around her hotel, who patiently answered my endless questions about her garden, and who never once ever charged me for the many, many cups of tea I drank there at the Ritz Hotel, where began my love affair with creepers all those many years ago.

Featured photograph by Greaves Henriksen

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  1. Another lovely sorry capturing the sense of the Nilgiris and one of its institutions, and the people that ran it. Tea is the thread that holds it all together.

    • Sangeetha Shinde Reply

      Thanks, David. Please keep reading and keep the encouragement coming.

  2. Sherry Lee Reply

    Lovely, vivid depiction of life in the hills. Brought back many memories.

    • Sangeetha Shinde Reply

      Thanks Sherry. Teabox curates great stories and we owe much to the feedback we get from readers like yourself.

  3. a lovely read,adds to the nostalgia of growing up in the Nilgiris.Keep them coming

    • Sangeetha Shinde Reply

      Growing up in the Nilgiris was special. It’s a shared connection that unites us all who spent time there.

  4. Prema Muthanna Reply

    “Vasantha was all you described,a truely,Very Very,Special person,who radiated warmth & kindness.
    She was a dear friend “

    • Sangeetha Shinde Reply

      Thank you. I’m glad you have lovely memories of this wonderful lady. Thank you for writing in. X

  5. Don’t know what you’re doing living where you are? You really need to be back in Coonoor. Plenty of ‘different’ teas which we churn out to be shared while I listen to your fascinating stories.

    • Sangeetha Shinde Reply

      Indi… You and I are long overdue for a chai and a very long catch up. Thank you for your support of teabox, my scribblings and those of my colleagues. We are so very appreciative. X

  6. Lovely note. Brought back a lot of memories from my childhood and into focus what I have been missing since. I really liked your writing style – could visualize Aunty Iyanna and her smile. Made a mental note to visit Velan Ritz when I’m in Conoor next.

    • Sangeetha Shinde Reply

      Thanks so much, Lalit. Means so much that you wrote in. Means even more that you read the piece. Keep visiting teabox. They do great stories… 🙂

  7. An enthralling read, perceptively depicting Coonoor’s nature as an idyllic backdrop to tea at The Ritz, and a heartfelt tribute to Vasantha.

    • Sangeetha Shinde Reply

      Thank you Taraneh, vasantha was a special person in a special place. Grateful that you read the piece. Thank you for visiting teabox… I hope you will keep coming back. X

  8. Cyril REVEL Reply

    Thank you once again Sangeetha for another nice story of Coonoor. As a child in the 60’s I prefered going to the colonial hotel then called Hampton Hotel , now known as the Taj on Church street to play with the owner’s (Adigé ?) children as well as have tea with my mum. I found its old warm rustique style more apealing than the then very modern architecture of the Ritz.

    • Sangeetha Shinde Reply

      Hi Cyril, I remember Hampton Court well and the owner I remember was Mrs Days… Though my memory is fading with old age. The new taj is not a patch on that graceful old place. But I did love the Ritz and aunty Iyanna.. We’re lucky to have these memories… X

  9. P. Yesuthasen Reply

    In my school days Knew this hotel as Hillgrove Hotel, charmingly colonial and crumbling. Then someone called Kapoor an NRI who lived in London bought it, renovated and remodeled it completely and christened it the Ritz.

  10. Sreeram Viswanath Reply

    This story is an ode to beloved Aunty Iyyana. Coonoor is home to a lot of unique people, as you have mentioned in your book about this beautiful place.Will surely drop into the Ritz for a cup of tea, immersed in thoughts with this story, it’s characters, and it’s nostalgia as you have transferred some of it to the readers.

    • Sangeetha Shinde Reply

      Thanks you Sreeram, I hope to run into you on one of my trips down memory lane when I return home. Thank you for reading. Do keep coming back. 🙂

  11. Linda Wilpshaar Reply

    Beautifully written and a joy to read. Thank you Sangeetha!

  12. Benjamin Gale Reply

    Lovely story and beautifully written. Wonderful description and imagery.

    • Sangeetha Shinde Reply

      Many thanks, Benjamin. I hope you will be a regular visitor to Teabox.com

  13. Sangeetha Shinde Reply

    Thank you for your kind words, Nira. Do read the other Teabox stories as well – they’re all quite wonderful. 🙂

  14. Sangeetha Shinde Reply

    Hi Nira, Thank you for visiting Teabox and reading our stories. Please keep coming back. 🙂

  15. Manikandan Reply

    Hi Sangeetha,

    It was interesting to know about RITZ. I wish if you can shed some light on Hotel Blue Hills and Taj Coonoor.

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