The Gift of the Forest

It is January end when my husband and I drive from Munnar to Kodaikanal (162 km) via Madurai.  If it is all about tea plantations in Munnar, the road to Madurai passes coffee, pepper and vast cardamom plantations.  As we go further, we come across coconut groves and fields of sugarcane, interspersed with dense and semi-dense forests.  There are patches of the white Madonna Lilies that add to the appeal of the drive.

We stop at a view point, Dum Dum Rock, on the Batalugundu-Kodaikanal Ghat Road, to glimpse the remote RatTail Falls also known as Thalaiyar Falls, which are Tamil Nadu’s highest and third highest in India, located in the Palani Hills, but alas, at this time of the year the falls are dry!  However the surrounding scenery is enchanting.  The slopes of the low lying, gently rolling, mostly flat topped Palani Hills are covered with scrub forests and some parts are barren.  Soft clouds hover over them.  The Manjalar Dam below is edged by a patchwork of fields in various shades of greens and browns and lush coconut groves.

Nilgiri langur | thalaiyar falls view tamil nadu - Image

Kodaikanal (also known as Kodai) at an altitude of 6,998 ft. is a hill station on a plateau in the upper Palani Hills of Tamil Nadu.  Its name has many meanings in Tamil, one of them being ‘The Gift of the Forest’.  It is also referred to as ‘Princess of Hill Stations’.  Kodaikanal was discovered by Lieutenant B. S. Ward, a British Surveyor, in 1821.  He was looking for a summer get-away from hot

Madurai, for the relief of foreign missionaries working there.  In 1834, the Collector of Madurai built a small bungalow and by the late 1880’s churches and other colonial structures came up gradually.  Although the British discovered Kodaikanal, the credit for its development in 1845 goes to the Americans, the only Indian hill station to be developed by them.  Dr. Fane, a missionary, built the first two houses, Sunnyside and Shelton in 1845.

We head to Kodai – By The Lake, a Sterling Holidays Resort, where we are being hosted.  We are warmly welcomed in the plush lobby with a refreshing cup of tea – with milk or lemon, as per choice.  The room boy shows us to a well appointed, garden facing apartment, with a view of the Kodai Lake beyond the marsh in front.  We arrive in time for lunch and are ushered to a table with a pleasing lake view.  The meal consists of a salad of oranges and olives, tomato shorba, kababs of baby corn and chicken, a dish of spinach and paneer, rice and dal and three deserts – carrot halwa, chum-chum and rasgulla!  All totally lip-smacking!

A Xylo, with chauffeur cum guide, Gopal, is assigned to us for the duration of our stay.

After lunch, we leave for Kodai’s most popular hub – Kodai Lake, where there is plenty to do – boating, horse riding, cycling, walking around the lake and shopping at stalls set up on the 5 km walkway that rings the lake. Items range from clothes to imitation jewellery and toys to homemade chocolates and spices, as also ready to eat food.

Image Credit - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kodaikanal_Lake.jpg

On his retirement, the Collector of Madurai, Sir Vere Henry Levinge, Baronet of Knockdrin Castle, Westmeath, Ireland, settled in Kodaikanal.  In 1863 he dammed three streams flowing into the valley, encircled by the lush slopes wooded by pines and eucalyptus, thus forming the picturesque 60 acre lake, at his own cost.  He filled the lake with local river fish and brought Kodai’s first boat from Tuticorin.  An Irish cross erected by his friends in his memory stands at the lake’s edge.  The Kodai Boat & Rowing Club was formed in 1890. The club and the Tamil Nadu Tourist Development Corporation offer row boats, shikara-like boats and paddle boats adorned with cartoon characters.

We hire a row boat for Rs.90/-, for a couple, for half an hour.  We glide over gleaming bottle-green waters.  The boatman rows the boat under several natural arches formed by the branches of huge trees that edge the lake – a novelty for us!  When we start, the vista in front of us is grand, but by the time we end the mist descends suddenly, shrouding the landscape.

We visit one more lake – the Berijam Lake, the credit for its artificial creation again goes to Sir Vere Henry Levinge.   In 1867, he donated part of his retirement funds for its construction.  He probably did so for the recreation for soldiers, as in 1864, Colonel Hamilton reported that this was the best site in the Palani Hills for a military cantonment, which eventually never happened.

Berijam Lake Kodaikanal Monsoon

Berijam Lake, 20 km from Kodaikanal, is a reservoir that supplies drinking water to the Periyakulam Municipality.   Permission from the Forest Department is required and entry is curtailed to 80 -100 vehicles per day. Permission is given at 8 a.m. daily except on Tuesdays.   There is a restriction on timing too – 9.30 a.m. to 3 p.m.

On the way to Berijam I spot Rhododendron trees with just a few showy red blooms.  These bring back happy childhood memories of Darjeeling where these flowers are seen in all their glory so we stop while I photograph these!

Stopping at Upper Lake View, we sight the pristine Berijam Lake amidst the Upper Palani shoal forest.  We are soon at the lake itself.  We expect to drive through the forest, and with luck, spot some wildlife.  A rare species of a free floating plant, the carnivorous bladderwort, which captures small organisms in its bladder-like trap is found here.  We are disappointed when Gopal drops us off at the entrance and points to a path leading to the lake, which he says we must walk through.

It is a short pleasant walk lined with majestic pines heavily laden with cones.  A chirpy Pied Bushchat eyes us unperturbed from his perch.  The path comes to an abrupt end as further entry is restricted.  A small gap in the wire meshing leads down to the lake.  Although it is supposed to be a plastic free zone, there is plenty of it strewn around!  The lake is both scenic and eerie as the mist rises over it like a see-through veil.  The forest is reflected in its clear blue waters and marsh grasses of various colours grow in it.  A couple of swallows strut around on the banks.  In the middle of the distant green forest is a patch of crimson, perhaps of flowering trees, which breaks the monotony of green.

On our way back, we encounter a pair of black Nilgiri Langurs in the trees. They flee as soon as they see us!  Hunted for their meat, they are wary of humans.  Clumps of large, unusually long, wild helix shaped flowers, purplish-pink at the base and green at the top arrest our attention – these may belong to the creeping willow family.  Never having seen them before, I photograph these too.

At a distance of 5.6 kms from Kodai Lake is the fascinating Shenbagnur Museum of Natural History, established in 1895, which is maintained by the Sacred Heart College.  ‘Shenbagam’ is a tree found in the South Indian hill forests.  Shenbagnur means the ‘village of the shenbagam’.  Entry is Rs.10/- per head.  It is closed on Tuesdays. At the entrance are two large papier mache maps, one showcasing the entire Palani Range and the other the town of Kodai.

The distant past of Kodai and the ancient Palaiyar Tribes, the descendants of which still inhabit the hills, is revived by wooden models of dolmens of the megalithic Stone Age (5000-2000 BC) and Iron Age (700BC-100AD).  Burial urns and tombs found in the Palani Hills are displayed.  The accompanying explanation says that whereas some of the urns had human bones, others were filled with stones, vessels, pottery and copper beads.  Tombs were built like dolmen chambers and in these too copper bangles, beads and vases were found.

Another interesting presentation is that of the teeth of huge fish dating back to 140 million years and that of an elephant’s gigantic tooth!  There are skeletons of domestic and wild animals.  Skins and heads of animals are mounted on the walls as are human and animal skulls.

The taxidermy collection consists of more than 500 species of animals, birds and insects.  The insects are shown from the tiniest to the largest of their species.  The moth collection is exciting, as I see Atlas Moths, the largest in the world, for the first time.  They are so named for the intricate map-like patterns on their wings.  In Cantonese they are known as ‘snake’s head moths’ as the tips of their forewings resemble snake heads.

Several items have been preserved in jars of formaldehyde ranging from snakes to fetuses of animals and humans.  The formation of the human fetus is shown from the first to the eighth month!

A jungle scene with animals and birds has been recreated.

There is a collection of coins and shells from all over the world.

This museum is a naturalist’s delight!

The Sacred Heart College boasts of an orchid garden with 300 exotic species and is advertised in all tourist literature as a ‘must see’.  The orchidorium is closed to visitors.  The college is an Eco Sanctuary, training students in ecology. Students are allowed into the garden.  We walk around the college and admire its archaic architecture.

On the premises is a tiny and quaint octagonal-shaped post office, which is believed to be Kodai’s oldest.  It functions for just three hours daily.

Equally arresting is the Wax World museum.  A figure of flamboyant Superman welcomes visitors.  We are not sure if this is a wax figure too!  Though small, this museum is worth visiting.  Bangalore based artist, Mr. Bhaskaran has executed his art with finesse.

Themes vary from the saintly Mahatma Gandhi to that of the vile forest brigand, Veerapan.  Spiritual personalities, Shirdi Sai Baba and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, sit in their classic poses.  St Francis Xavier is shown looking up at a crucifix which he holds aloft.  Religious scenes include the Nativity which is pleasing, but the Last Supper is outstanding.  The work depicting Radha – Krishna is richly detailed.  A band of musicians is shown with a Sardarji playing a dhol, while an Arab has a tambourine, another musician is with the drum, while yet another has his hands on a pair of tablas!  Some statues have social messages – one of which is of a debauched drug addict – the message says ‘say no to drugs’.

On the way from the museum towards the Kodai Lake we stop to marvel at a 500 year old Jamun tree, its massive trunk gnarled with age.  Fruit vendors sit at the site.  Monkeys cannot resist the temptation of helping themselves to the fruit.  It is amusing to see the women adept at using catapults to chase them away.

We are keen on capturing the colonial life style of Kodai’s past.  Gopal knows the caretaker of a bungalow, the date 1845 inscribed on its front door, one of Kodai’s earliest residences.  The owners stay abroad and come once in a while to check the place.  Gopal requests the caretaker to let us have a ‘look see’.  The caretaker obliges.  We are enthralled to find ourselves in a well kept and appealing home, which transports us back in time, for the past has been preserved in every nook and cranny!  The sloping roof, edged by eaves is tiled.  The sun-porch leads out into a huge garden with well kept lawns and flowering shrubs.

We enter through the kitchen stacked with China blue and white crockery, which was common those days.  All the furnishings and items are antique.  Oil lamps hang from the ceiling and a few are placed on old fashioned wooden tables and chests of drawers, which still maintain their polished sheen.   A straw mat covers the floor.  There are cane and wooden chairs including a high chair for a toddler and a very comfortable looking rocking chair.  The wooden trunk covered with leather and reinforced with wood strips, is the envy of an antique collector.  The old metal black stove, the pipe of which is fitted into the wall, has a blackened kettle standing on it.  On either side of the stove are containers with wooden logs, fuel for the stove.  The grilled metal fireplace, also black, is stacked with logs. This is once in a life time experience to be cherished.

A resident of Kodai, Kevin Mclloyd, recommends a visit to Kodaikanal Missionaries Union (KMU) Library housed in the Kodaikanal International School (KIS) campus.  He advises us to meet Mrs. Jayshree Kumar the librarian.  The library is small but striking.  The stone structure has a fully glassed front, framed in green, which blends well with the surroundings.  The library is open to the public from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Wednesdays and Saturdays.  On these two days anyone can make use of the library, but books are loaned to members only, who pay an annual fee of Rs.100/-!  We are lucky to visit on a Saturday, when the members are having a chit-chat session.  When Mrs. Kumar introduces us, so small is the world that one of the ladies is an old acquaintance!  Another member we are introduced to is the celebrated author of Syrian Christian recipe books, Mrs. Lathika George.

Mrs. Kumar has a wealth of information to impart.  She narrates that the KMU was formed in 1890 for missionaries to meet socially.  The clubhouse was built for events, with tennis courts, reading rooms and other facilities.  As missionary activities dwindled, the KMU was disbanded in 1980 and KIS took charge of the property.  However, the single room library maintained by the KIS continues to function.  The library has an invaluable collection of over 7000 books, some dating from 1890!  Some books are bought but most are donated by missionaries, members of the library and KIS.  This library completes a century in another six years!

Kodai’s historical Solar Observatory, is another old edifice.  The observatory is one of the three oldest in the world, the others being at Meudon in Paris and at Mount Wilson in the USA.  Established in 1899 at the highest point in Kodai at 7700 ft, observations began in 1901.  It is equipped for research in meteorology and solar physics.

British astronomer John Evershed, a former assistant director of the observatory, discovered the occurrence of radial motion in sunspots in 1909, now known as the Evershed effect from here.  A six-inch telescope photographs sunspots daily, the images of which provide data to astronomers throughout the world.

During off season visitors are entertained only on Fridays.  Sadly, for us it is Saturday!

Several attractive churches are scattered around town.   We opt to see the oldest church, Our Lady of La Salette.  Our Lady of La Salette is an apparition of a weeping Mary who on 19 September 1846 appeared to two children grazing cattle near Grenoble in France.  She told them that she was distressed as Sabbath, a day of prayer, was not observed.  She warned of punishing the people, if they did not repent, by making food, especially potatoes scarce.  Having given the warning, she vanished.  This threat came to pass, when Europe experienced a severe famine in the winter of 1846-47.  France and Ireland were the worst affected.

mother salette church - mother salette festival

The foundation of the church was laid in 1866.  One legend says that the construction of the church was funded by a Belgian lady as a thanksgiving to the divinity for the cure of her daughter.  Another says that a missionary saint, Father Ceer, built the church as he was cured of his ailment after praying to the Mother.

As we climb the steps to the entrance, illustrations on either side narrate the story of Christ’s crucifixion.  Outside the church is the grotto of Our Lady.  The blue and white church is simple, yet fetching.  The interior too is in the same colour scheme.  The main altar has an imposing statue of Our Lady of La Salette, with a much smaller one of the crucified Christ under it.  Biblical scenes surround the statues.  The stained glasses are not ornate, but pleasing.  The arched ceiling has an elegant chandelier hanging from it.

Tourists visiting Kodai in August take part in the nine day Mother Salette festival, which ends on 15 August.  Special masses are held in the church for nine days.  On the last day the statue of Our Lady is taken in a procession through the streets of Kodai, accompanied by music bands.

The Kurinji Andavar Temple which is named for the Kurinji flower which blooms only once every 12 years is on our ‘see list’.  The deity here is called Sri Kurinji Easwaran another name for Lord Murugan to whom the temple is dedicated.  In Tamil ‘kurnji’ means ‘hilly region’ and ‘andavar’ means ‘God’, therefore Murugan is God of the Hills.  This temple is unusual because it was built by a European lady in 1936. She converted to Hinduism, took the name of Leelavathi, and married a Mr. Ponnambalam Ramanathan.  The gopuram (ornate gateway) leading to the mandapam (hall) is colourfully carved.  The mandapam has pillars with etchings of elephants.

On the left of the temple is a view point which offers a spectacular panorama of hills terraced for cultivation and villages nestling in them.

Kodai’s two botanical gardens, Chettiar Park and Bryant’s Park have nothing to offer in January.

Chettiar Park is a favourite for film shoots, but we do not see a single bud!

Entry to Bryant’s Park is Rs.30/- per head.  Bryant’s Park was conceived and designed by forest officer, H. D. Bryant, from Madurai in 1908.  The park has 325 species of trees, shrubs and cacti.  740 varieties of roses bloom in this park.  However, the park is almost bereft of flowers.   We see a deep pink rose in solitary splendour.  The hot house has some begonias and cacti.  It boasts of an 1857 eucalyptus tree, but there are no pointers to this exhibit!  The highlight of our visit is spotting a White Eye in the beautifully blossoming Plum Tree.

Bryant Park in Kodaikanal

On a clear morning, we set off early with Gopal to see the valley views, hoping to beat the mist and fog of winter.  Our first stop is Green Valley View, formerly known as Suicide Point.  By the time we reach, the race is lost.  The valley, 5000 ft below, is covered by a snow-white cloud.  The drama unfolding before us is captivating.  Initially we see the tree tops, against a bright blue sky, but gradually the cloud becomes a slate grey, as it rises, until all is hidden.

Kodaikanal Suicide Point fog

We are luckier when we reach the point from which the Pillar Rocks are visible.  These are three massive rocks, 500 ft high, with sheer cliffs.  The Agamalai and Cardamom Hills can be seen from here, but the hills are already clouded over.  The rocks are visible but the cloud at the base creeps up steadily.  Below and between these rocks are several bat-infested caves, previously called Devil’s Kitchen, but now renamed after the popular Tamil movie, Guna shot here.  We climb up a wooded tract and are atop one of the Pillar Rocks, where some caves are located, but these are now closed.

On the way to Moir Point we drive by a pine forest.  In 1906 H. D. Bryant started the Kodaikanal pine plantations.  We stop for a short walk through this silent, bewitching, forest with enormous trees, feeling very small in comparison.  Horses are available for those who wish to ride through the forest.

Moir Point is crowded with humans as well as monkeys!  Sadly, here too the cloud obscures the view!  This point is dedicated, with a memorial pillar to Sir Thomas Moir, who, according to the plaque, ‘cut the first sod’ of the Goschen Road (Forty Mile Road) on 6 June 1929, whereby the construction of the road leading to the villages of Poombarai, Kukkal and beyond began.

An excursion to a farming village, Mannavanur, 40 km from Kodai, is exhilarating.  The drive meanders through pine forests, and terraced fields of English vegetables – carrots, garlic, potatoes and turnips – to name a few.  There are pear and plum orchards too.

On the way we turn off for Poombarai, a tribal village, awash in brilliant shades of green, blue and pink of the houses, snuggling in the heart of the Palani’s terraced hill slopes, 18 kms from Kodaikanal. Poombarai is famous for its Poondu (garlic).

poombarai village in kodaikanal

A rather large dwelling compared to the others and jazzier than the rest, we are informed is the home of the President of the Panchayat.

A vibrant bazaar caters to the needs of the villagers.

The simple 3000 year old Kuzhanthai Velappar Temple of the village is dedicated to Lord Muruga.  The idol is made of Navabashanam (an alloy of nine minerals).  The gopuram is intricately carved and multi-hued.  Every year the Thiruvisha (chariot festival) for Lord Murga is celebrated.  We are there on the eve of the festival.  The entire village is animated with hectic preparation.  The eye-catching chariot on the road is being spruced up.  The temple, with all the idols put out in the open, is being thoroughly cleaned.  The enthusiasm among the children is palpable as they pose with various idols, urging us to photograph them.  It is a unique experience.

We continue to Mannavanur.  We approach our destination amidst a carpet of rolling grasslands and meadows.  We visit the Mannavanur Sheep Station, with prior permission, where scientists work on sheep and rabbit development programmes.  These animals are bred for wool and meat. The sheep are out to pasture.  The rabbit sheds have a variety of caged rabbits – the Giant Chinchilla, the Angoras, the White Giants and other breeds. The rabbits grey, white and brown, eye us, nose twitching and ears erect, but continue with their lunch.  Some of these giants are the size of Cocker Spaniels!

The Giant Chinchilla Rabbit is a breed created in America.  Americans call it The Million Dollar Rabbit since it grows fast and provides quick meat.  Chinchillas are rodents, natives of the Andes.  The rabbits are not related to them.

The Angora Rabbit is bred for its long, silky soft wool, besides meat.  The Angora originated in Ankara (earlier known as Angora) in Turkey.

The Merino sheep bred here have their origins in Turkey and central Spain.  These sheep are famed for their fine soft wool.

We amble along this tranquil meadow with butterflies flitting around till we come to the Mannavanur Lake, the crystal waters backed by a forest of eucalyptus, an idyllic spot for a picnic.  Benches are provided and we snatch a few blissful moments before returning to the madding crowd!

Kodai offers many gratifying walks, the most well known being Coaker’s Walk.  Lt. Coaker of the Royal Engineers cut a 1 km pedestrian path running along the edge of the steep slopes on the southern side of Kodai in 1872.  This path is named in his honour.  He is credited with preparing the most detailed map of Kodai.

On this walk we are elated to discover that the clouds have been kind!  We finally set our eyes on some scintillating views of Kodai town and the valley.  The hillside is pretty, covered with lantana.  Roadside stalls sell local handicrafts.  In the afternoon a rare and unusual occurrence called the Brocken Spectre might be visible, when a person sees his shadow on the clouds.  For this to happen the sun must be behind the person and the cloud should be in front.

Enjoy a walk around Kodai Lake at sunset.  Sathya Sai Baba’s summer residence “Sai Shruti” ashram cannot be missed.  What is distinctive about the entrance is that symbols of all religions find a place here.  The sun sinks behind the hills and cannot be seen, but the radiance of the setting sun sets the sky ablaze, with flaming orange, and the gently rippling water glints with specks of gold!

Saunter in the vicinity of Kodai – By The Lake on a dew laden morning.  Feel the cold breeze. Inhale the fragrance of eucalyptus and pine. Watch plump spotted doves feeding in the grass.  Listen to the Pied Bushchats, the black and white Mr. and the brown Mrs. chatter unabashedly in the marshy scrub.  Spot a Long-tailed Shrike sitting contentedly on an overhead cable.  Look up a tree and see a Red-vented Bulbul enjoying a breakfast of berries.  Expect a murder of crows to shatter the serenity with their raucous cawing.  Watch a squirrel scamper away.

Observe the cow tenderly nursing her calf.  This walk is a sure therapy for jangled city nerves!

PT Road (near seven roads junction) has engaging shops.  Kiki Bookshop, besides selling books also sells a variety of locally made cheese.

The Potter’s Shed outlet is well known for its sparkling array of handmade stoneware pottery, crockery and artifacts in blue, brown and green.  All products are microwave friendly and can be washed in dishwashers.  The profits of the sales are used for the education and health needs of rural children from economically disadvantaged families.  This enterprise managed by a trust, accepts donations to sustain its good work.

The story behind this venture is absorbing.  A teacher from KIS happened to see Subramaniam, a teenaged village potter, at work.  Impressed by the way the boy deftly shaped the clay on his wheel, he wanted to hone his talent further.  He requested master potters in Puducherry to train Subramaniam to make glazed stoneware.  Four years later Subramaniam was ready to impart this knowledge to other potters, who now live in dignity and are no longer poor.

We wish to visit the factory but cannot for lack of time.  A guided tour of the factory can be had from Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 1.30 p.m. and 2.30 p.m. to 4 p.m.  To arrange for this, Mr. Subramaniam can be contacted on mobile:  9942931289.

Our last day of stay is Republic day.  The resort is festooned with balloons and streamers of orange, green and white – the atmosphere gay.  An artistic rangoli, created painstakingly by members of the staff adorns the lobby.  A pretty employee crowned and dressed in a white sari, proudly holds the Tricolour, masquerading as Mother India.  She is flanked by a commando on each side, again, employees of Sterling, one of them being Gopal.  A formal flag hoisting takes place in the garden, where a guest is given the honour.  Patriotic speeches follow.  A couple of interactive games with guests and employees are played. Finally it is time to celebrate with tea, sandwiches and laddus.

We cannot ask for a better farewell.  A happy holiday, such as this one, makes for golden memories.

tten for the in-flight magazines of Jet Airways (Jet Wings) and Air Deccan (Simplifly). Currently she writes regularly for Go-getter, the in-flight magazine of Go Air.

 

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