I decide to have a Kodaikanal holiday that isn’t ditto my dad’s of 25 years ago. Since then, I hear, honeymooners and rowdy boy gangs have taken over. But surely there must be more to Kodi than a repetitive line of rocks giving different views of blinding white mist. Surely it isn’t already explored out.
If you’re desperate enough for something new in this old place, look behind the rocks the guide is pointing at; demand to turn left when he turns right; look at the little cottages hidden by the mammoth holiday home. It takes a gritty kind of tourist to outfox the local travel guide. But when you manage, you’ll find a door into the Kodi that is only for special guests.
But first, promise you won’t stone the monkeys. Or etch your eternal love or turbulent lust for someone on a tree trunk. All right; now we’re ready.
On the winding drive from Kodaikanal Road Station to Kodi at around 5am, I try not to make a list of things to do. A list means structure, which means asking someone for directions, and that means going where everyone’s been and is still hanging around. Instead, I talk to the driver. “So many tourists spoiling your town, no?” By the end of the three-hour drive, I’m armed with ideas and a determination that will keep me away from anything that has an attached shopping street. Or a bellboy.
I drive to Cinnabar, my home for three days. The man of the house, Bala, has two rooms and his entire home (filled with delicious smells) to offer. After Kodi’s first cold wind, it’s a relief to walk into a room that’s warm, delightfully distant from the overcrowded Kodai Lake area, and only two steps away from the kitchen. Breakfast is wholesome, and reminds me of something that definitely only happens at home — being cajoled to eat more because it’s good for you. After, I’m packed off with a bottle of water to go find my own Kodi.
If you look lost around Kodai Lake, you’ll have at least four people walking up to you chanting names of ‘points’, ‘sights’ and ‘treks’. I say I don’t want to see touristy places, only a certain Guna Cave. Shock, awe, disappointment: It’s a place that’s been fenced with barbwire ever since 12 boys decided to go too deep into the caves five years ago and didn’t come back. The crowd disperses, except one man. Selvam is a driver-cum-guide, and once I’m in his Ambassador, he fishes out a little book of 28 must-see sights. Published in 1975.
Guna Caves is the local name for Devil’s Kitchen, a deep bat-infested chamber between three imposing boulders (Pillar Rocks), a sight listed in Selvam’s book. It was dubbed Guna Caves after it was turned into a romantic kidnapper’s lair for a Tamil movie. Loud teenagers stand outside the fencing around the cave, screaming angstful “Abiramiiiii!”s (name of kidnapped in said movie). Selvam and I go around the base of the pillar rock. Me petrified about being the potential 13th ghost in the cave, and Selvam, looking for a certain hallucinogenic ‘magic mushroom’ that gets him a good price from “Keralites and foreigners”.
We find an entry, veiled by bramble. “It’s a path only some of us know about,” says Selvam. The rocks are loose and wobbly, the fluorescent green moss making everything slippery. Bats are shrieking from somewhere south, and we, er… are heading in the same direction. Inside Devil’s Kitchen, the air is muggy, the walls smooth, with little shelves that look perfect for a perch. Selvam chucks a pebble that’s instantly swallowed by the darkness. We hear the plonk only after about 10 seconds, and a crash of wings flapping. This is the kind of place that teaches you the importance of firm footing.
It’s almost 4pm, and Selvam goes off for a trippy omelette garnished with chopped magic mushroom. I grab a muffin and a hot chocolate at Pastry Corner, where you can hobnob with Kodi’s old and famous. Prasanna and his sister have run this cosy little bakery for years, dishing out heavenly chikoo ice cream, pizza, and whatever else you see.
The streets near Kodai Lake are unusually deserted. Either it’s naptime, or the punctual afternoon rain has driven everyone indoors. I find The Art Gallery that’s spot on for penniless idlers. A dramatic lotus theme quilt hangs on one of the walls. Variously sized canvases fill the two small rooms. Adam Khan, Cristina, J. Nath, Richard Pike. Not very local sounding, but the creator of every piece has a home in Kodi, and each work of art is a sketch of the everyday life of the town.
Back at Cinnabar, Bala introduces me to more family — Vasu, the lady of the house, and Vidya, their 17-year-old daughter. We sink into sofas in the fireplace-defrosted living room, and agree with lethargy-softened passion that city life is for slaves. Why doesn’t everyone move to the hills? We proceed to the Middle Eastern dinner, in which every vegetable, exotic or not, is plucked from the garden. And dessert, too, an affable cheesecake, is thanks to a cow milked on Bala’s farm, and cheese made in Cinnabar’s kitchen. Seriously, it’s like a Ukrainian folk tale.
The next morning, after another solid breakfast, I’m off again with a bottle of water. Today’s Kodi is one of the fugitives; people who ran away from the belittling enormity of cities to lend their paintbrushes some colour. People who found a town that gave them enough room to breathe.
J. Nath is a sprightly Punjabi artist who gave up Bombay 25 years ago for Kodi’s unpaved roads and potato farms. The plot next to his, Senora Garden, is a failed attempt at tempting the city-weary into a cottage on the hills. It has to be done right, like J. Nath’s home. Full of daylight shining in through large windows, the ceiling low enough to touch. Brushes and palettes strewn about; canvases at different stages of completion. And two little cushioned chairs. One for the white-bearded storyteller (him) and one for the enamoured (me). Nath tells snaking stories of travel; getting lost in the characters memory throws up.
Nath doesn’t waste paint on anything sad. Nothing can make him paint a tear, or the violence of rage. “Why not just brighten our walls and our lives?” His pointillist style and vigorous colour scheme adorns every wall in the famous Carlton Hotel of Kodaikanal. For superb tales about old charming Kodi, changing Kodi, and masala tea, Nath is the man to meet. He won’t care if you don’t even look at his artwork, but you won’t be able to help it.
Just a few minutes away from Nath’s home is Bharat Bakery, the place for incredible ginger biscuits. I munch them on the way to the ‘quilt lady’ — Jayshree. The architect of the lotus motif quilt in The Art Gallery. In a house next to hers, five women work with needle and thread, carefully sewing each puppy, jungle scene and butterfly into the intricately designed quilts. They came to Jayshree from broken homes, and now they’ve together built their lives around the income and warmth the quilts bring.
Jayshree learnt quilting in London, before she, too, came away for a quieter life. Many visiting Kodi step into Jayshree’s little factory to learn a little quilting, and to sew personality into an otherwise ordinary rug.
The rain’s back again, and so is my excuse to laze. The chai chat with Bala roams around the valleys of Kodi, and stops at Joey. That man’s address could say: A. Joey, No. 1, Kodaikanal Shola forest. Joey has grown up bathing in waterfalls, watching elephants saunter by watering holes and panthers slumber in his farm. Before the rural road connectivity project half a decade ago, Joey trekked up 20km to buy his month’s supply of rice. Today, he’s a family man with a Maruti Omni. And anyone’s welcome to his wild home.
Bala takes me to Joey’s early next morning. The 45-minute drive ends in an unbelievable house right in the Uthama-palayam range. Joey waves, and immediately wants to show off his backyard: the jungle. Throughout the intense four-hour trek, not once does the 51-year-old sit to rest. He instructs us to not lose it if we see an elephant, to do exactly what he does — scramble up a tree.
“You can climb a tree, right?” he asks, and I’m not sure he’s joking. Joey enjoys the forest and its details. “Look, rosewood tree.” “You have a wound? This herb is a coagulant.” “A bear’s been at this beehive.” “Smell this. Wild lemon.” A fat bison runs noisily across a stream and Joey’s after it in a second. “Come, come! Bison!” The elephant valley, however, is Joey’s forte. Trees they’ve rubbed up against, the age and contents of the dung, the herd’s mud bath locations. Niceties only love and a long relationship can teach.
When we return (several kilos lighter, I’m sure) to his home, there’s a hunter-gatherer lunch. Papaya, beans, drumstick. “Oh, it was just growing in my backyard.”
I did what I set out to do after all. I found the Kodaikanal I wasn’t looking for.
AIR: The closest airports to Kodaikanal are Madurai (120km) and Coimbatore (175km). RAIL: From Chennai, take the Nagarcoil Express from Egmore station to Kodaikanal Road Station, or the daily Pandian Express. From Delhi, take the Navyug Express.
Kodaikanal Road Station is 2hr/80km from Kodaikanal. A bus from the station to Kodaikanal takes 3hr 30min.
Where to stay
The Carlton Hotel is on the lake, and has great views (Rs 5,000; 04542-240057). Hotel Garden Manor offers regular rooms, good service and terrace gardens (Rs 1,500; 240463). The bungalow-style Hotel Valley View Inn is behind the bus stand, on Post Office Road (Rs 3,000; 240181-84). Or try Cinnabar, a bed-and-breakfast run by a delightful family. It has two great rooms, and mostly European food, all home-grown in their organic farm (Rs 2,500; 240220, 9842145220, www.cinnabar.in). Elephant Valley is a stylish place with funky cottages with a sense of humour. It’s great for elephant spotting, best in April-September (Rs 2,000-5,500; 230399/ 655751, www.elephantvalleyhotel.chobs.in). Bison Wells, a two-hour drive from Kodaikanal, is perfect for wildlife enthusiasts. You will insult the inn-keepers if you mention TV or electricity. Ideal for treks and bison-spotting (Rs 1,500; 240566, www.wilderness-explorer.in)
Where to eat
Stop at Daily Bread Pastry Corner near Seven Roads junction for the most delicious brownies, puffs, and pizza. Wash it down with hot chocolate or coffee. The chikoo and peach ice-cream is fantastic.
At Bharat Bakery near Presentation Convent, you can see just-perfect ginger biscuits being made. Buy a lot. You’ll find two Tibetan restaurants near the Seven Roads junction. Almost same quality chocolates will be sold everywhere in the town. For tea break, there’s a man with a scooter-cum-snack store near Dolphin’s Nose. He waves a catapult above his head at all times to keep away the monkeys — great ginger tea and entertainment. Don’t leave without sampling some of the sweeter pleasures like strawberries, plums, pears, cherries, butter-fruit, jamuns, apples, peaches and malai pazham, a variety of banana only available in Kodaikanal.
What to see & do
Sit around and watch people sculling at Kodai Lake. Hire a bicycle and ride 6km around the lake.
Head to Pillar Rocks — three boulders naturally arranged to resemble three majestic pillars.
Coaker’s Walk is a hill-edged boulevard for a panoramic view of Dolphin’s Nose, Pambar River, and a bird’s eye view of Madurai city.
Kurinji Andavar Temple is named after the kurinji flower, which blossoms once in 12 years. Don’t pluck, or you’ll suddenly find yourself confronted by a local Save Kurinji campaigner.
Shenbaganur Museum has relics and artefacts of the Paliyan tribes who once lived in these hills.
The Astrophysical Observatory stands on the highest point in the area and houses a small museum.
You need a permit from the Forest Department 24hrs in advance to visit Berijam Lake, which is great for quiet picnicking.
The DFO’s office sells a pamphlet called Sholas For Survival that describes 17 local treks ranging from leisurely walks to full-fledged treks.
Devil’s Kitchen is at the base of Pillar Rocks. It’s fenced to tourists, but if you’re going to be careful, there’s a hidden entry round the back. Look out for bats.
Spend a day learning quilting from Jayshree. You could also buy some of the handmade quilts, priced around Rs 11,000 (full size). Jaysh Quilts, (240921, 9894246401).
The Potter’s Shed (243968) has a shop near the Seven Roads junction. Go spin the wheel at their workshop.
The Art Gallery displays artwork of local artists. You can get contact numbers of artists from here and visit them at their studios. A great place to start is at J. Nath’s (240923) or Adam Khan (240019).