Meet our friend Mr. N. Jenardhanam
Kind, gentle and keenly interested in the circumstances and welfare of others – these are thoughts that spring to mind when I think of our friend Janardhanam.
Sitting across from him, whether it be for a dosa (rice and lentil batter crepe) breakfast, a mid-morning dose of strong South Indian coffee, a multi-course thali lunch or a late afternoon chai, his eyes, behind gold-rimmed spectacles, sparkle with interest in our conversation. The corners of his mouth—under his well-groomed South Indian male’s de rigueur moustache—seem always ready to turn upwards in a smile. The crisp, perfectly pressed white linens of his shirt and pants contrast the dark chocolate tones of his aged but surprisingly smooth skin. His hands are either folded on the slim walking stick in front of him or raised to greet one of the many employees that he regards as family.
An octogenarian, this local hospitality pioneer was born on August 13, 1937 in the place he still lives, Mamallapuram (also called Mahabalipuram). A 90 minute drive south of Chennai and just off the East Coast Road in Tamil Nadu, Mamallapuram is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most visited towns in all of South India, in no small part due to the work of this man.
In his childhood, Janardhanam recollects, there were about 2000 people—farmers and stonecutters—who lived in the area. There were six large estates and people from the outside viewed the area as a place for “backward people.”
Today, Mamallapuram is a centre for the art of stone carving. Back then, the granite was simply cut to be shipped elsewhere as building materials. The stones were skidded onto bullock carts at the quarry and transported about two kilometres to an intercoastal canal. From there they were loaded onto barges. It took two days with men on board rowing and others pulling ropes on each side of the canal to reach Chennai’s port 56 kilometers north.
A bridge to the peninsula that Mamallapuram sits on, was built in 1955 and adventurers began trickling in to see Mamallapuram’s famous Shore Temple, Pancha Rathas, Descent of Ganges (also known as Arjuna’s Penance) and Krishna’s Butterball. These remarkable examples of Dravidian architecture from the Pallava dynasty of the first millenia are remarkably well preserved and are the reason for the town’s status as a UNESCO site.
“When people started to come here, there was only one Brahman priest who offered them food at his hut, but he could not handle groups. People had to bring their own food. Fresh out of school, this inspired me to create the Mamalla Bhavan Hotel. It was attached to the bus depot and still is. I wanted a place that everyone could afford to eat at and that would serve the common man. For less than one rupee we served a full breakfast – coffee, rice, vegetables and sāmbhar (vegetable lentil stew) We still serve a thali lunch for only 70 rupees (about $1 USD). Coffee is 18 rupees.”
Janardhanam remembered that his father loaned him the money to start the business and that he worked for two years without turning a profit. After that he says, “things were okay.” With one cook, two assistant cooks, a dosa cook and one other helper they served up to 1000 banana leaf thali lunches each day.
Janardhanam married when he was 26 years old in 1963 and had three daughters, one son, and a very happy marriage. “We matched for eight out of 10 elements in astrology. That’s a very strong match.” One daughter died and his wife passed on in 2000. He is very close to his three surviving children.
Janardhanam’s father was in construction and helped build a better road to the area in 1969. In 1979, Janardhanam opened Hotel Mamalla Heritage on the main street in town – East Raja. This hotel was the first to attract foreigners. It still thrives today as a budget beach hotel and has a well-appointed vegetarian restaurant called the Golden Palate where we’ve enjoyed excellence in service and food quality.
By the 1980s, cars were the major mode of transport so he built Motel Mammalla on the East Coast Road. Following in his father’s footsteps, Janardhanam’s son Sethuraman built the luxurious 43 suite Grande Bay Resort and Spa in the new millenia, and today the two manage over 200 employees at the family’s four properties.
Pauli-Ann and I went to the original Hotel Mamalla Bhavan to tour the kitchens, have coffee and watch Janardhanam in action. He still reports each morning before lunch to sit at the cash register and greet his customers. The lunch covers are down to about 150 per day but the quality remains as high as the day he opened.
The servers poured our South Indian coffee from cup to cup in long exaggerated streams to cool it to the perfect sip-able temperature. I took a turn behind the counter to try making a to-go lunch of sambhar rice in a banana leaf wrapper. We went to the kitchens and saw the giant mortar and pestle used for creating perfectly textured dosa batter (it has to be crushed not cut) and the kettles and stoves. We checked out receiving and stores.
Back in the main dining hall Janardhanam took a break from his post to let Pauli-Ann photograph him. We talked business. His principles are simple: pay all taxes and operate with complete honesty. He has refused to deal with any form of corruption. His business model was to put staff first at 20 percent of overhead, food at 13, utilities and maintenance were another 20 percent.
Whoever said, nice guys finish last, never met our friend Janardhanam. Honest, kind and caring, he’s always puts the welfare of, in his words, the common man, as his top priority. His devotion to serving his community first has led him to a deeply personal and true success that few business people can claim.
“Tourists are really important to India but they are not all foreigners now. Before Indian people only saved their money. They had to. Now, this new middle class, they want to come and enjoy their money. I hope we can serve them for years to come.” Watching Sethuramen’s sons help their father at a trade show a short time later, we see the family’s passion for hospitality is being passed on to a new generation. They’ve learned from a legend in Jenardhanam and from a daring innovator in their father Sethuramen. We hope they too, will have the same level and kind of success.
We’d like to thank the Kerala Travel Mart Society and Travel XS for sponsoring our trip to South India and Grande Bay Resort and Spa for their gracious hospitality during our stay in Mamallapuram in 2016.
In the interest of full disclosure: Sethuramen J., the son of Janardhanam and our host at Grande Bay Resort and Spa, is also the owner of Travel XS. He and his team, Raji Menon and P. Charles in particular, did much to make our research trip throughout all of South India possible – not just for their own company or hotel group – but in the interest of their many friends and colleagues and even people they do not know in South India’s tourism industry.
As always, all words and photos are our own and were not shared with our sponsors prior to publication.