Sunday, November 30, 2003

Haven in the Palni hills
In Kodaikanal, the southern hill-station, you can still get away from the crowds, writes
Partha S. Banerjee

Forested ridges and tall trees are like delicate brushstrokes and the scenery seems like an exquisite Japanese painting
Forested ridges and tall trees are like delicate brushstrokes and the scenery seems like an exquisite Japanese painting

As we prepared for a trip to Kodaikanal last April, I was drawn to a news item on the death of Adam Osborne, the inventor of the portable computer. Possibly the first IT millionaire, Osborneís 10.5 kg "suitcase computer", the precursor of todayís laptops, was a runaway success in 1981. 

By 1990, he was a pauper after his company went bankrupt and the revolutionary "paperback" software he next innovated got him into legal and financial problems.

Crestfallen, he moved to India and settled down in Kodaikanal where, over a decade later, he breathed his last on March 26 this year. It was in the salubrious environs of Kodaikanal, the newspaper report said, that the broken man found solace in the autumn of his life.

If you are looking for peace of mind, there couldnít indeed be a better place than this south Indian mountain resort. Several southern celebrities, from film stars to industrialists, have getaway retreats here in the hill station, a tranquil haven 6,500 ft. above sea level (and 120 km west of Madurai) with long, leafy walks and a shimmering lake in the middle.

Less than a decade ago, before the tourist boom, Kodaikanal, the second-most popular hill station of the South after Ooty, was an even quieter place with its English-style stone-and-wood cottages tucked deep within vast flower-filled gardens. 

Even today, despite hotels choc-a-bloc with vacationers during season, you donít get the feeling, as one does in some other holiday resorts, that the place is overrun with tourists.

In Kodai you can still get away from the crowds: take one of the walks around town, winding through deep woods of shola, eucalyptus or conifer trees, and it would seem as though you were in the lap of nature, your solitude inviolate.

The walk Kodaikanal is most famous for, however, is predictably very crowded but the views from it are spectacular. Called Coakerís Walk (after Lt. Coaker who cut it from the steep south-eastern hillside in 1867), it is a must for every visitor. Essentially a paved footpath with an iron railing on the edge, Coakerís Walk looks down 5,000 ft to the plains below, offering a panoramic vista of wooded hills, terraced slopes and the plains beyond. In the distance towers Perumal Malai, the hulking 8,000 ft. peak that dominates the landscape.

Standing on the edge of Coakerís Walk, I felt for one vainglorious moment that the world lay at my feet. And what a beautiful world it was. As mists embraced the lower hills, silhouetting the forested ridges, their tall trees delicate brushstrokes against a cloudy white backdrop, the scenery seemed like an exquisite Japanese painting. But the mists cleared soon and the bright sun tinted the hills in so many shades of green, and the view now seemed like a lovingly composed landscape photograph.

Coakerís Walk isnít the only place in Kodaikanal with dramatic birdís-eye views. Thanks to the sudden steep rise of the Palni hill, the range atop which sprawls the resort town, Kodai offers panoramic top-of-the-world vistas from several points: the plains of South

Paddling or rowing at the boat club can be very relaxing
Paddling or rowing at the boat club can be very relaxing 

India and the lower hills look from that height like precision 3D relief maps. From one vantage point, we could even trace portions of the winding Laws Ghat road that had brought us up from Kodaikanal road railway station. The road, climbing rapidly from the plains, zigzags through dense hill forests and the occasional waterfall, the most famous of which is the Silver Cascade.

Driving six km further up from Silver Cascade brought us to the fringes of Kodaikanal. 

Our hotel, Kodai International, was on the outskirts itself, on a side street off Laws Ghat road. Sprawling over 10 acres of green, with landscaped gardens, a tree house and even a rabbit enclosure (plus gym and health club), the hotel sets the tone for a relaxed holiday. 

There were independent "cottage" suites and less expensive standard rooms in the main building; we opted for the latter, and after a late breakfast (our train from Madras reached Kodai road at dawn and the drive up to Kodaikanal took three hours), set out to see the sights.

First stop: the squat brownstone Christ the King Church near Coakerís Walk. This Protestant church was built by Americans, who interestingly were rather more involved than the British in establishing Kodaikanal, back in the 1840s.

Missionaries from the American Madura Mission, set up in Madurai in 1834, moved to the cooler climes of Kodai after several of them died from cholera. 

The British came later, and as the place grew in importance, a few decided to settle down in the new hill station. Among the most notable, Sir Vere Henry Levinge, baronet of Knockdrine Castle, Ireland, who preferred Kodai to his Irish castle after retiring from the Madras Civil Service. 

Collector of Madurai district in the 1860s, he had earlier done much to develop the hill station, introducing new species of flora and even damming a stream to create the lake.

The lake, spread over 60 acres, is today the focal point of Kodaikanal. At the Boat Club on its edge, visitors can hire boats for paddling or rowing. Doing a round of the 5 km road that fringes the amoeba-shaped lake is very rewarding (walk, ride a hired bicycle or take a horse ride); you can spot rare birds, enjoy the scenery and take a peek at the some of the bungalows (including the new mayorís residence) and old English cottages built around the lake. Kodaikanal, in fact, is full of beautiful old stone houses, but thanks to their vast encircling gardens, few are visible to visitors. What they see instead are the ugly new buildings that have come up across the hill station making the resort seem, at first glance, appear more like a bazaar town transplanted on to the hills.

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Itís when you get away from the town centre that the hill station appears to live up to its promise. We took the Upper Lake Road, which overlooks the lake, then drove down the Observatory Road which led to Kodaiís highest point, some 850 ft above the bazaar and 4 km away, and home to Indiaís oldest astrophysical observatory (1898). 

Devoted largely to the study of the sun, the observatoryís twin metallic domes (with slit openings) house giant telescopes; tourists however can only visit a small astronomical museum (that is open just two hours each week, between 10 am and noon every Friday) and savour the natural beauty of the quiet, forested environs.

More forests, mainly of deciduous shola trees, but also eucalyptus and conifers, came our way as we took the south-western road to the Golf Course reaching a point called Green Valley View, another of Kodaikanalís great viewpoints. Proceeding further, we reached yet another viewpoint, not to look down now at the plains below but marvel instead at the Pillar Rocks, three 400-ft tall granite cliffs rising sheer out of the jungles. A cave between the pillars is called Devilís Kitchen, made famous by the Kamal Hasan film Guna which was shot there. You can approach the Devilís Kitchen by a footpath but entrance into the cave is now not allowed because of the danger of precipitous falls.

The ban came into effect after the son of a Kerala MLA fell 500 ft to his death three years ago.

Kodaikanal has some wonderful parks, most notably the Bryantís Park, laid out in 1908 close to the lake. In the north-eastern part of the town is the well-tended Chettiyar Park, with sculpted hedges, and a steep path. 

The unusual pale-blue Kurunji flowers, which blossom once every 12 years (the next flowering season is 2006), grow in the slopes above and a temple to the Tamil god Murugan, associated with the flower, stands here. The place again has a superb viewpoint.

We rounded off our three-day stay at Kodai with a visit to the white-and-blue Lady of La Salette (Catholic) church Ė a striking Gothic edifice atop a hill Ė followed by a drive down Laws Ghat Road to the Jesuit apostolic Sacred Heart College in Shembaganoor village. 

The college campus houses a small flora and fauna museum, displaying mostly stuffed animals and also shards from a prehistoric excavation site, all collected by Jesuit priests with interests beyond theology. From Shembaganoor, trekking paths lead to nearby hills and valleys and one can even hike up to the summit of Perumal Malai. We didnít however have the time for that.