Notes from Kodaikanal

Tourists at Silver Falls in Kodaikanal.   | Photo Credit: G. KARTHIKEYAN

The gravitas of each of the 21 notorious hairpin bends en route to Kodaikanal via Palani below was beginning to take its toll as I battled the ensuing waves of nausea. A raging earache threatened to exacerbate my misery whenever my trusted SUV’s wheels made contact with the pothole-ridden asphalt of the hilly road. To top it all, a burst blood vessel in my right eye had left me looking like the antagonist of an 80s Ramsay Brothers horror flick!

Little did I know that I was following the same path — both literally and figuratively — taken by a bunch of American missionaries way back in the mid-1800s. The bucolic hill station provided them with much-needed succour as they convalesced from malaria contracted in the plains below. But more on that later. First a bit of a revelation…

Rock candy and chocolate

Having had my soul irrevocably scarred by images of the disastrous effects mass tourism ‘bestows’ upon other Indian hill stations, I was prepared for a place strewn with used chip packets, juice boxes and other ugly tourist detritus. But not in Kodaikanal, apparently. Here, it was evident that the neatly lined garbage bins and ‘Keep Clean’ signage were doing their job. Clean, freshly swept roads and sidewalks greeted me as I passed shop after shop at the famous Seven Roads junction selling rock candy, homemade chocolate and other sundries that are crucial to the tuck boxes of the students who board at the many schools Kodaikanal is famous for.

Later, I learnt of the vital role both students and local youth play in keeping Kodaikanal clean. Plastic bags are banned, and vendors and shopkeepers are encouraged to use recycled paper bags. These measures were adopted after a study conducted by the Department of Atomic Energy confirmed that Kodaikanal Lake had been contaminated by mercury emissions.

Another surprise for me was the high concentration of churches here. Christianity, introduced by American missionaries, seems to be thriving here as I recognised the Tamil versions of popular hymns sung in the La Salette Shrine church, next to where I was staying. The daily evening novenas, as a lead-up to the annual feast of the Assumption of Mary, were followed by processions taken out by the devotees with decibel levels well in check.

American influence

Kodaikanal was established in 1845 by a posse of Americans who sent up their women and children from Madurai to seek refuge from the mosquitoes of the plains, and to recuperate from the rampant malarial epidemics. This origin story was an interesting departure from those of the standard ubiquitous colonial British-established Indian hill stations meant to serve as summer cool-off spots.

The American influence is amply evident to this day, especially in the unique architecture. Many of the original cottages and bungalows — with names like Sunny Side and Shelton and modelled on those found in America’s New England region — have today been repurposed, retaining the original aesthetics. In fact, the hotel I stayed at is one such building, and is one of the earliest structures constructed in Kodaikanal. Today known as The Tamara Kodai, the large barn-like building itself was originally called Baynes Bungalow, named after the owner, a District Judge.

Speaking of chapels, the former St. Peter’s church that once stood in the abandoned old American cemetery along the town’s fecund Lower Shola Road had a roof salvaged from the many biscuit tins the convalescing children would go through. Well, they do say necessity is the mother of invention.

The Mumbai-based writer and restaurant reviewer is passionate about food, travel and luxury, not necessarily in that order.

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Printable version | May 14, 2021 5:22:30 PM |

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