Kodaikanal – Amidst the Palani Hills

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The princess among hill stations and the many stories it hides.

I will always remember the hill station and the few times I have visited the place. At that time, I did not know any of these stories, and other than visiting the few important tourist spots and wandering around the lake, we just lazed it out. It was while researching the story of the so-called escape road from Kodai to Munnar that I got deeper into the history of this hill station and learned so much more, along the way. So, I will first start with the escape road and then get to the other aspects.

If you recall my previous article on the mass hysteria that enveloped Madras in 1942 when some Japanese aircraft strafed Vizag up North, you can imagine the fear that enveloped the region and the rush to get out of these. It is said that in those early days, the British cleared up the unused road between Kodai and Munnar above Cochin so that in case of an emergency, the British and their families could evacuate Madras, drive through to Kodai, and on to Munnar. From Cochin, they could board a ship and sail away to Britain (the East coast and the seas would presumably, in the worst case, be controlled by the Japanese after the fall of Singapore and Burma). While I must admit that much of this is only mentioned in passing here and there, I could find no paperwork establishing this as a fact.

In 1864, Douglas Hamilton submitted a report stating that the Berijam Swamp area was the best site in the Palani Hills for a military cantonment or sanatorium. "Let but the lake be reconstructed, and a road made to it, and this magnificent sheet of water . . . will of itself attract residents to its vicinity. "The Fort Hamilton military outpost, built there later, was named for him. Sometime around 1915, the Law's Ghat road opened Kodaikanal to four-wheelers from Batlagundu. In 1925, a second ghat road was started from Berijam Lake to Top Station, connecting Kodai to Munnar (Kerala) and from there down to Cochin, covering a distance of 257 kilometers (160 mi). This was an extraordinarily slow dirt road, taking about eleven hours to reach Cochin, and well, in the rainy season, pretty much unmotorable. The road was possibly rebuilt by estate developers and owners and tarred and metaled over time.

It is also mentioned that the route had many transit camps along the way for travelers to rest. Many of these transit camp buildings have been lost over time or destroyed, but there is one at Berijam, still standing, reminding us of those harrowing times. The pristine and charming, but blackened brick building is off the beaten track, providing a perfect view with the hills sloping down to a clear blue lake bordering swamps on the other bank. The walls state boldly in stenciled letters "Britisher's Transit Camp." With a maximum elevation of 2,480 meters (8,140 ft) just south of Vandaravu Peak, the escape road was among the highest roads in India, down south, before its closure in 1990.

Then again, I doubt if anybody is too keen to read more details about a road, so I will digress and get to the many interesting people, mainly foreigners who frequented the Kodai hill station in the war years. Many missionaries and activists settled there also made evacuation plans and were supposed to congregate at the Grey Jungle! They were there for a peaceful sojourn but proved to be a huge headache for the British as well as the administrators at Travancore, due to many reasons.

The British, a vast number of them, found the heat in the plains and the cities unbearable when coupled with the drudgery of their own bureaucracy and homesickness. It was to escape this tropical fatigue, that they traveled for vacations, to the refuges termed called hill stations which were once convalescence centers or sanitoriums. Pretty soon they had become highland resorts for Europeans and their flight to the hills was often getting documented as ‘those enjoyable times’ by the few who got the writer’s itch. Many of these hill stations were recreations of little British towns and boasted a lifestyle reminiscent of the days back in the blighty, churches, parks, no mosquitoes or other animals like cows and mutts who frequented the roads, walking trails, riding and golfing possibilities, a cricket match or two, clean, crisp, and cool air, ballroom dances at the Gymkhana and parties to boot. No wonder they enjoyed it. True, officers had to produce a good medical reason to get the vacation trip approved, and quaint reasons like ‘a fluttering heart’ and ‘aching knees’ were not uncommon. Many a hill station sported boarding schools set like those back in England, these were ideal for the affluent Brit, compared to shipping kids back home.

I recall my recent visit to the Nuwara Eliya hill station in Sri Lanka where we had to wear a formal jacket for dinner and when I mentioned to the steward that I had not carried any, he was only too pleased to lend one from the club’s coat closet, for the dinner, which we proceeded to eat and enjoy, the multiple courses served on plates and complete with cutlery, supposedly once used by Queen Elizabeth who visited Ceylon!! Anyway, the British created many such hill stations in British India, Africa, Burma, and of course other parts of SE Asia such as Malaya, and Singapore. The French and Americans who followed also adopted the same practice in Vietnam and the Philippines. Ooty and Kodaikanal were the most popular ones in the South of India and there were Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Murree, Simla, Mussorie, and Nainital up North.

Kodaikanal was somewhat different, in the sense that this locale was founded by Americans, not the British! The Kodaikanal International School was one of the few American schools in India, and Americans in India compared it to the Blue Ridge Mountains. That mountain range incidentally stretches some 550-mile ridge linking southern Pennsylvania through Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia. Kodai was quite different from other hill stations, for it was truly egalitarian. European and American missionaries created a different lifestyle there and with it, came the flow of free thinkers and hippies, many of whom spent long periods in this spot among the Palani hills. It was not built for the British upper class, nor did it boast a cantonment or care a hoot for the snobs from Madras.

The Palani hills, on the other hand, were surveyed by the British in 1821, but the report took a while to be completed, closer to 1837, following the establishment of Ooty in 1827. The naming of Palani follows the myth of a ‘race around the world’ challenge thrown by Shiva to his two children Subramanyam and Ganesa. While Subrahmanyam set out on his peacock, swiftly circumventing the world, the clever Ganesa went around his father (as he is considered the universe) and won the prize of a choice Palam (fruit in Tamil).  Subrahmanyam was very upset on his return and hid down south on a hill, and after a while his father found him and consoled him by saying - palam nee, you are the divine fruit, and the place where this was said apparently became the palam nee – Palani hills.

So why is it spelled Kodaikanal and not Kodaicanal, the British way? Well, it is not a canal for there is no canal in Kodai, the Kanal is a word in Tamil, meaning dense or closed forest, like the Vattakanal. Kodai katru means summer, so the apt meaning of the phrase, could be ever-green summer forests? Hamilton however called it Kudaikanal in 1864. A poet used the term Kodai – Kanal to describe forests that are green even in the summer, or as others said, a forest of Kodi or creepers.

Anyway, going back in time, it appears that the tribes that lived in the Palani hills were called the Paliyans and Puliyans. The Paliyans were nomadic hill tribes whereas the Puliayns were more developed agriculturists, claiming to be even earlier in the area than the Paliyans. In the 14th century, Vellalans feeling Coimbatore entered the region, conquered the Puliayans, and made them their serfs. 

The 18th century was the time when religious fervor penetrated protestant churches, colleges, and organizations. Missionaries eager to evangelize the dark worlds, left for China, India, and Africa, to spread the gospel.  That is how the Americans were headed to the South of India in the latter part of the 19th century.

Interestingly, the American Madura Mission started up in Madurai in 1834 and they built the first houses at Kodai in 1845, making it their mountain retreat (a flight from the mosquitoes!) after Malaria and Cholera took many lives in the plains. It was after some search and experimentation that they landed up at Kodai, taking a British contractor - Mr Fane’s advice. He built them two bungalows to convalesce, the Sunnyside and Shelton. The British administration considered it a bad choice, just a swamp, no water sources, and no scenery, so also a lack of native villagers to take care of menial needs. By 1906, however, its character took a change in records, and it was considered quite salubrious and a perfect health resort, far from the madding crowd. The soil was considered perfect for European vegetables. Twenty years later, it sported 10-15 ugly houses, but the numbers increased gradually, and it was one Sir Levinge who spent a lot of his money to lay roads and beautify the little town. By 1853, a ramshackle church had been built and interestingly, while all other hill stations termed the April-May period as fun weeks, Kodai became known as a hill station sporting a ‘spiritual season’! In 1875, the South Indian railway was extended from Madras to Madurai and Tuticorin, and by 1878, Col Law had built the ghat road good enough for carts and carriages.

People came up the hills on bullock carts in the early years, carting into Periyakulam, while those arriving by train came to Kodaikanal road (Ammaiyanayakkayur). This by itself is based on a curious story. To accommodate the long name Ammayaanyakkayur, an American suggested lengthening the platform, but the traffic manager decided it better to rename it Kodaikanal Road! Then the carts, started out to go up the hills in the evenings, taking the tired passengers. As the carts left each village, they blew loud horns, so that the following village arranged for fresh bullocks and other items quickly at the next, due to them having only light torch flares. The roads were full of kallanmar or robbers and therefore armed guards lined the roads. After a 14-hour journey, the white man reached Krishnamma Tope. From here while the men went ahead on horses, women and luggage were carried on doolies or palanquins (or canvas chairs) to Kodaikanal, a tough four-to-five-mile vertical climb!!

NY Times - Those early trips were not joy rides. They began on the plains in bone-rattling bullock carts that stopped at the foot of the hills. The climb was then made on horseback or in sedan chairs (called hong-go-gums because the coolies who bore them on their shoulders chanted a rhythmic ''ha ah ho, hong go gum'' to keep in step and in pace). Tigers and other wild animals popped out now and then to claim a pet or cow being led up the path.

All this was quite terrible, so the British deliberated for years on a road or a tramway, and eventually sold lands to the missions to raise taxes and build the road. It was only in 1919 that the location became fully accessible by an automobile. By 1935 the town which had outgrown itself was home to around 10,000 people.

The Mennonite brethren or MB missionaries landed up in Nalagonda near Hyderabad, around 1889, and the Americans tasked with converting as many Telugus as feasible, were Abraham and Marie Friesen. After a crash course in Telugu, they arrived in Nalagonda in 1890. Without getting into the complex details of their work or the difficulties and challenges between the various organizations and nationalities involved such as the Americans, Germans, and Russians, especially the Baptists, we can see that they established themselves between Andhra and the south of the Nilgiris. The Breeks and Hebron schools at Ooty and Coonoor were established by the brethren. After the first world war and many tribulations at Andhra, many more missionaries arrived from America and Russia in the late 1920’s.

The education of the MB children was always a question and they decided that the children needed American education, not the British style doled out in Ooty and Coonoor. The other alternative was to send them to Oberlin in Ohio. That was not possible and this was the prime reason why a school was planned in Kodaikanal, which opened in 1901 at the High Clerc hotel, with 13 children (initially known as High Clerc school due to this reason). Soon children from American families all around India were sent to Kodai. A British style school, the Presentation convent was also opened in 1916. Swedish, German and Montessori schools also opened in due course. Margret Eddy who was visiting her son Sherman a missionary in Madras, was convinced to take up the leadership of the Kodai School and she became the first principal of the Kodai school in 1901, and the school grew into what it is today.

NY Times - The central area around Kodai's town hub, the Seven Road Junction, is dominated by the tree-shaded campus of the Kodaikanal International School. The Kodai school is a legacy of those American missionaries who founded the town, and who declared the town so healthy that they wanted to leave their children there most of the year. Colonial Indian cemeteries are tragically replete with the graves of small children. Sometimes, the only alternative was to send little one’s home to England to maiden aunts or boarding schools, a wrenching separation.

The Wiebe diary is a must-read for those desirous of studying early life at Kodai during the 20th century. Viola Weibe provides an amusing study of the terrain, the people, and the new culture she was exposed to.

Many Europeans came in during the seasons and soon it was primarily a foreign enclave, while the natives settled east of the lake. The white man hunted, fished, trekked, danced, camped, and made merry, and games like golf and tennis were common. Boating in the lake was another favorite pastime. Tea parties and bridge parties took up evenings. The English had golf clubs established and the KMU or missionary union arranged hill-season parties. Doctors arrived for medical conferences, while evenings were filled up with dramas and concerts.

From NY Times - One element in the atmosphere of Kodaikanal would by itself distinguish it from strictly British hill stations: a strong egalitarianism. American and, later, European missionaries not only largely built the town but also dominated its early life. There was no official British presence except for the ubiquitous Government representative known as the Collector and some civil servants on leave. There was no military cantonment. Nora Mitchell, the British-born chronicler of Kodai, as it is commonly called, put it politely: ''As the early missionaries were American rather than British, they were probably less sensitive to the innate rights and privileges of the British upper class.''

An interesting situation arose when upper-middle-class Indians started to vacation in Kodai but found nothing to occupy their interests! Clubs, Bridge, British dramas, and concerts were of no interest, and that is how TN Sheshagiri Rao formed the first Indian club in 1915, and the club arranged for a team of Kathakali performers from Malabar to come and perform for the Indians!! One important aspect was that due to the presence of the Americans and the KMU, racial segregation was not so prevalent in Kodai. British, Americans, Indians, and Jews jostled about in the streets, avoiding any friction.

During the First World War years, the most important activity was the start of the Sarvodaya movement and the arrival of RR Keithan, an American teacher, and a missionary. A sympathizer and supporter of Indian independence from the British, he fell afoul of the British and had to leave the mission in 1930, which disowned him, and he had to go back to Michigan. He returned but did not join the mission and after embracing Indian life, started the Kodaikanal Fellowship (Rock of Vision) Ashram and helped the rural community, later joining the Indian freedom movement. Eventually, he was expelled from India in 1944 (the authorities linked his activities to communism) by the British who could not tolerate him any longer. I will write more about him later but suffice to note that he started the Sarvodaya and pacifist activities in Kodaikanal, and had several activist visitors during his time there, including people like Louise Ouwerkerk, whom I had introduced earlier. He returned after the war and lived in the region and died in India in 1984, aged 86. During his stay there, his wife Mildred was around, as their daughter Ruth studied at the Kodai school. Around the time Keithan started his ashram in 1941, Maria Montessori started a school at Kodaikanal which became a center for Montessori training until 1944.

After a few decades, it became a spot on the hippie trail, and they say this was when somebody discovered that the forests had some nice psychedelic mushrooms that could get them high. Whether that is true or not, I don’t know, but most look for the famed Idukki Gold (marijuana) smuggled in from Kerala. Slightly further ahead, is a place known as Vatta, short for Vattakanal which is a small town, also known as the 'Little Israel of India' because of its heavy Israeli tourist population (read this article for details)

The Kodaikanal Observatory, which is one of the three oldest solar observatories (the other two are at Meudon in Paris and at Mount Wilson in the United States), owned and operated by the Indian Institute of Astrophysics has its home on these hills since 1893. Charles Michie Smith was the man who selected the site, established the observatory, and directed it for the first 12 years. He was also the man who recruited John Evershed, discoverer of the famous Evershed effect and thus established Kodaikanal Observatory as a major center for solar physics.

The Kurinji Strobilanthes kunthiana is the name of the flower that is one of a kind and can be found growing in Kodai Lake. This one does not grow each year but in every twelve years. If you have luck on your side, then you might end up in Kodaikanal in the Kurinji year. The Kodai Lake has an interesting history. To add to the other facts, the lake in its early days, had people swimming in it. Punting also took place in the lake (like the punting that went on in the Thames, the Kodai Lake also saw punts). Punts are flat-bottom boats used as a means of relaxation and entertainment. Long poles were used to maneuver the boats around back then.  However, this was stopped decades ago for safety reasons.

Finally - Many years ago, Liril came to us through print ads featuring a gorgeous girl wearing a lime green bikini, joyously splashing around in a waterfall (Kodaikanal’s ‘Tiger Falls’ is the waterfall a little beyond Guna caves). We then saw it in movie theatres & TV for the next few decades. Karen Lunel, the lady who cavorted under the Kodai waterfall modeled for Alyque Padamsee from Lintas, the great ad maker working to launch HLL’s new soap, and was photographed by Surendranath. Remember the simple jingle tune (composed by Vanraj Bhatia) la, laaa laaa la..la la laaa???That was at Kodai. The Pambar Falls became known as Liril Falls. “In Kodaikanal, the waterfall was full only in December and the temperature would be around three or four degrees and the sun came out only for three to four hours a day.

interestingly, they had to give Karen sips of brandy in between shots to keep her warm. Quoting the team - “What (producer) Kailash Surendranath did was to give Karen sips of brandy in between the shots to keep her warm. Every five seconds, we would pull her out, give her some brandy, and put her back in. By the time we were five or six shots down, Karen was quite drunk, and we had to be careful that she didn’t drown! That was quite an experience”.

So, friends, hopefully, I have whetted your appetite – head over to Kodai – you may not regret it…


The Indian Hill Station Kodaikanal – Nora Mitchell

Perspectives on Mennonite Life & thought – Russians, N Americans, and Telugus – Peter Penner

Sepia Prints - Viola Bergthold Wiebe, Marilyn Wiebe Dodge

Pics – Bejiram shed courtesy – Duraimurugan

 Added on 06/03/24

The Gunaa Cave

While this cave was not actually discovered by BS Ward who surveyed the area and wrote an incredibly dull survey report, it is a cave that is home to a few deep and dangerous crevices and is located close to the pillar rocks. I realized only after seeing the brilliant movie “Manjummel Boys” last weekend that the acclaimed 1991 movie ‘Gunaa’ was shot in one of these caves and that the cave was called the Gunaa Cave. Like most Kamal Hassan movies, this movie was quite popular in Kerala and many of those who visited Kodaikanal, trekked to see the so-called Gunaa Cave or Dervil’s kitchen.  One of the deeper crevices in the Devil’s Kitchen is part of the theme of the above movie.