Besides the picturesque locale, Esther Elias stumbles upon a century-old natural history museum and archives at Shenbaganur

The peace begins from Palani railway station. Tamarind trees branch over an empty road stretching past mango orchards and coconut plantations. The Western Ghats peep through gaps in the foliage and before long, we’re on their ascent. The morning sun hides behind a cloudless sky washed clear by the night’s downpour. Trees overrun by creepers bear telltale raindrops, rivulets rush down the winding road and our car makes sprays of large puddles. We’re about 65 km from Shenbaganur, a small town before Kodaikanal, but the journey is more the destination.

The Palani Ghat Road to Kodaikanal turns 14 hairpin bends, each close behind the other’s heels. It runs through none of the manicured beauty of hill station tea estates though. Every spare inch is a mad profusion of grasses and ferns, shrubs, climbers and trees — enough of a visual feast to distract from a churning stomach. As the hills rise, the valleys in between fall deep below. The plains grow further away, and lines of cattle grazing and women farming soon fade into faraway dots.

Along the turns, the view occasionally breaks to reveal grey mountains outlined against a white-blue sky. In the distance, threads of white water fall from cloudy heights. Up close, small streams bounce over jagged rocks to shush your climb up. The signs of civilization begin after several hairpin bends. People huddle around scattered tea-coffee-tiffin joints. With sweaters wrapped tight and hands warmed by steaming glasses, they’re prepared for the cold winds that rush past the white barks of sprightly eucalyptus. Soon enough we’ve passed the gushing ‘Silver Cascade’ falls. It’s designated tourist territory and most tourists follow the well-worn road up to Kodaikanal.

Instead, a sharp turn to the right leads us to the century-old Natural Science Museum (NSM) in Shenbaganur. It’s home to a collection of plant and animal species native to the Palani Hills, curated by biologist Louis (Aloysius) Anglade in the early 1900s. Stuffed tiger, pangolin, brown flying squirrel and porcupine sit beside Indian moorhen and pheasant tailed jacana. Python and cobra skins hang alongside spotted deer and wild buffalo skins. Bottled snakes and animal foetuses share room with hundreds of pinned butterflies. A cross section of a 133-year-old monkey puzzle tree hangs on the wall — its lifetime, from planting to being cut for a TV tower, traced across its growth rings. NSM is a still jungle within four walls.

The museum also takes you through the stories of the Paliyars and Puliars, tribes that lived a few kilometres within and around Shenbaganur, particularly in Perumalmalai and Palamalai, 7,000 years ago. In 1928, as part of his study of the Palani Hills, Anglade uncovered Adivasi funeral urns dating back to 5,000 B.C. These gigantic urns, some cracked, some whole, stand intact in the museum with the bones found within them, piled alongside. The urns were excavated beside tribal dolmens — structures made of stone, each often over a tonne in weight, created without hammers or chisels. Photographs of the dolmens are framed inside NSM but what’s more fascinating are Anglade’s miniature three-dimensional sculptures of them. The tribals’ unearthed earthenware, characteristic of the Iron Age, are also exhibited at the museum.

NSM comes under the purview of Shenbaganur’s Sacred Heart College, begun in 1895 to train Jesuits. Within the maze of wooden floorboards and staircases, is an unassuming room named Jesuit Madurai Province Archives. Shafts of sunlight fall through skywindows onto cupboards of books and manuscripts dating back to the 16th Century. Under a distilled stream of dust, assistant director of Jesuit Archives, Edward Jeganathan opens a drawer piled high with red cloth covers, each strongly scented with citronella oil. He unwraps one cloth to reveal rectangular palm leaves, strung together by twine and bound between wood spines. Each is covered by the print-like Tamil handwriting of Joseph Beschi from the early 1600s. The Italian Jesuit later became the famous Tamil poet and grammarian to be honoured by a statue on Chennai’s Marina Beach. The archives contain 30,000 such palm leaves from the time.

A walk around Shenbaganur reveals many similar small wonders. Scattered across the slopes are a few remaining kurinji shrubs that flower once every 12 years. Their light blue flowers are said to have once graced the Nilgiris dense enough to be named The Blue Mountains. As we prepare to leave, a soft wind scatters a few leaves from the once-widespread Shenbaga tree, after which Shenbaganur is named. It’s a blessed goodbye.