As our vehicle crept up the winding pathway navigating the sudden and sharp hairpin bends in the hills with adeptness, the blast of cold air that caressed our faces came as a shock after the pent-up heat of the plains. This was nature’s way of welcoming us to Kodaikanal, the Mecca for honeymooners and nature lovers all over Tamil Nadu.
Catching a glimpse of the Pambar falls while ascending the mountains, I had to agree with the poet who said the “waterfalls hang like garlands,” as they glitter in the flashing beams of sunshine in Kodaikanal. Indeed, it is said that famous poets of the Tamil Sangam were spellbound by the entrancing beauty of Kodaikanal. The sages who composed the 400 classic quatrains of Naladiyar included bits of verse that poignantly describe the lush mountain scenery of Kodaikanal. However, for the common man in days of yore, Kodaikanal was unreachable. I can only imagine the discomfort that travelers to this chilly hill-station had to put up with. On what was little more than a dirty mud path residents had to contend with long and bumpy rides on bullock carts, endangering their lives, to get to this oasis in the hills. It was not everyone who could afford to escape the wrath of the sun.
In the earliest recorded history Lt. Ward, in 1821, was the first to survey the land of the Palanis of which Kodaikanal is an integral part. At this time it was called varaha-giri which, in Sanskrit, means “Pig Mountains.” We found out that the Palanis owed their strange name to a legend. It is said that a renowned yogi once transformed 12 impudent children, who had scoffed at him, into pigs. The children were finally rescued by Lord Shiva himself.
A steady stream of Europeans began frequenting the hill station after Lt. Ward. Most Europeans owned their own riding horses and for those who didn’t, bullock cart wagons were arranged. Children were transported on dolis (palanquins) and women by a chair that was carried by four men. It was a strenuous journey because even the cows had to be transported separately. Despite the threat of wild animals as they ascended the slopes, folks were happy to reach Kodaikanal. The first gold-spangled rays of the sunrise, the glorious view from the summit, a breath of cool clean mountain air made it all worthwhile. One of the first cars to go up the slopes was the Raja of Pudhukotai’s French kerosene “auto.”
Nearly 150 years of transition and technology later, Kodaikanal is a sprawling hillside city, fairly reeking of modernity.
We found that we could browse the Internet with a high-speed local connection and eat our favorite Baskin Robbins ice cream of the legendary 33 flavors. I was happy to discover that there was more to Kodaikanal than metropolitan pleasures. At the heart of the hill station is Kodai Lake, only 3 km from the bus stop. We found that most visitors begin here. There were myriad activities to choose from—boating, fishing (with permission from local authorities), cycling, horseback riding and early morning walking sessions that allow you to admire an unsullied sunrise. I was surprised to learn that the star-shaped Kodai Lake is actually man-made. In 1863 Vera Levinge, a former district collector of Madurai, settled in Kodaikanal after his retirement. Full of creative and dynamic ideas, he used his personal funds and transformed a barren tract of marshy land into a beautiful man-made reservoir. He brought in several boats from Tuticorin and along with it, an influx of tourist traffic. This feat of Levinge’s is particularly ironic when I considered the fact that a man had dared to compete with nature to add to this land’s beauty!
The annual flower show, a much-awaited prestigious horticultural event, is held at Bryant Park in May. It was an opportunity for us to learn about the various revolutionary methods of pruning, budding, grafting, potting, and seed
collections. Indeed gardening and agriculture remain an integral part of the lives of the residents in the valley. Peaches, pears, grapes, plums, and wild strawberries spilled over from baskets of traders at the central market.
Adventurous souls will appreciate the expanse of unexplored trails and tiny boardwalks that crisscross the mountains. The most popular of these is Coaker’s walk. It is a narrow pedestrian path, constructed by Lt. Coaker in 1872. This 1 km mountain road runs along the edge of steep slopes, winding around Mt. Nebo and joining the main road above St. Peter’s Church. It provides a spectacular wide-angle view of the plains. On a clear day we could see sights such as the Dolphin’s Nose, the valley of the Pambar River, and even a bird’s-eye view of Periyakulam and the city of Madurai.
To reach Dolphin’s Nose we had to follow a specific route. There was an old road after crossing Pambar Bridge near Levinge stream. A rough curve rounds the hillside, which leads to a point where a flat rock projects over a yawning chasm of 6,600 feet! The landscape is magical. There are rolling hills with picture-perfect views of the deep valley and the rocky plains beyond.
If one is lucky, you can witness a fascinating phenomenon called the “Brachem Spectre.” At a certain time of the day, when the sun shines directly behind you, you can catch a glimpse of your own shadow reflected off a cloud! It is an awesome sight. However, the swirling mists that descend without warning can shut off any chance of witnessing the Brachem Spectre and that is why it is truly a rare event. Sudden thunderstorms and bouts of bright sunshine make rainbows a fairly common occurrence in Kodaikanal.
We discovered the most popular falls here—Pambar, Thalaiyar, Bear Shola, and the Silver Cascade. Thalaiyar Falls has the widest curtain of water in the state ranging to 13 kms. It also has the distinction of being one of the highest falls in India, with a sheer drop of 975ft! The Bear Shola Falls is within 2 kms of the lake and it is said that bears once used this as a watering hole. The Silver Cascade greets you as you approach Kodaikanal from either the Ghat roads, Dindigul, or Madurai. With its silvery wisps of pure white water, it is truly beautiful. Tourists are forbidden from bathing in the ravines. Though visually tempting, its pristine whiteness is deceptive. Sadly, most waterfalls in Kodaikanal are polluted right from the source.
Another fascinating site were the Kukkal caves that draw tourists by the droves. These caves are actually overhanging slabs of rocks, at an altitude of 1500 m. The caves are historically valuable because they reveal traces of a long-lost civilization of early mountain settlers—the Puliyans and Paliyans. These tribal settlers made the caves their home for centuries. Folklore has it that when a member of the tribe died he was not buried. Instead, his body was left untouched while the tribe relocated to another cave! Overhanging the caves is the Manjampatti valley where we could see bison in plenty. Some descendants of these tribal mountain dwellers still live in the hillside near the Manjampatti Valley.
We also visited a famous picnic spot called the Pillar Rocks. Three granite boulders, each vertically measuring a height of 400 feet, stand shoulder-to-shoulder overlooking a panoramic view of the breathtaking slopes below. In the shadows of the pillars were shady woods full of pinecones, wild flowers, and mist. The chamber between the two pillars is called the Devil’s Kitchen!
The naturalist in me was fascinated to find out about he unique flowering plant “Kurunji,” which blooms once in 12 years, and is nature’s gift to this valley. Every year a particular set of these flowers bursts into bloom, covering the valley with a carpet of velvety violet. Be sure to bury your head in its perfume before you leave this pastoral dream!