When we decided to visit Kodaikanal this summer, I searched for a new imagining of the place. In my memories from childhood, this was the hilly town with dense pine forests, winding roads to lonely places, and a unique attraction in the 1990’s of a children’s skating rink! As I discovered two decades later, a lot has changed with Kodaikanal, and yet, not much has changed.
Hill stations are a major draw in this country for tourism, and particularly so in Tamilnadu where you have to brave the heat for the most part of the year with no winter to speak of. Records of Kodaikanal speak to its discovery and early development by the colonial masters who looked for an escape from the Madras settlement during its hottest months. Call it a colonial hangover, but this very idea of escape unites a large number of people across the social spectrum in their quest for Kodaikanal. You have the affluent visitors with their holiday homes in the hills, who speak of the Madras heat being unbearable. They have developed into a community of sorts, with a summer infrastructure revolving around them ranging from special stickers permitting access to restricted roads, to clubs that come alive with their patronage. You can see most of them break into comfortable camaraderie, brought on by a lack of routine, and the need for human contact to make it less lonely in the hills. When summer ends, they go back to their lives, only to meet again the following year.
You also have the ‘tourists’ as the former group would pejoratively describe them. Tourists abound in large numbers to catch the magnificent sprawling views of the Palani Hills, which has unfailingly awed people with its expanse and lush greenery.
Having visited hill stations of many hues in different parts of the country, I wondered what special enticement Kodaikanal holds for me and many others like me. For one, being in my own state, it has no different cultural experience to offer. None of the uppity ‘mall roads’ of Nainital or the tea estates of Darjeeling. Kodaikanal has had the same line of shops dotting the lake for as long as you can recall. But there’s something about the place that defies and transcends this utilitarian assessment. Speaking as a Tamilian, it is hard to ignore the sense of ownership you feel over it. It is ‘our’ very own hill station, irrespective of whether it makes it to the list of the hottest and most exotic destinations.
A part of the answer, for me, also lay in the recesses of the memory I wandered into as I began to write this. I sensed that beyond the new age experiences that holidays bring you in today’s times, ranging from special brews in tea and coffee estates, to the luxury of massages with a view, lies the space of the simple and the shared. This is the space that brings people together and creates moments in a natural sense of humanity, unrestricted by definitions of our ‘types’ who have holiday ideas similar to us. Bryant Park in Kodaikanal, abounds with memories of such moments for me, and I am sure, for many of you reading this. As we walk through the curved paths of the park, gazing at the very flowers we have seen before, the feeling descends on me. Memories of conversations in the very same place, that interesting tidbit about the gladioli my aunt threw my way, and loud guffaws as we sat on the lawns and enjoyed our silly moments as children. Every one of these I realize is indelibly etched in my mind, and inseparable from my surroundings in Kodaikanal. As I observe families walking around and clicking the customary photograph amidst the blooms, there is a sense of déjà-vu. These children will perhaps reminisce 20 years later about their trip to Bryant Park and remember their own small moments. Kodaikanal had become the vehicle for this shared experience.
Strolling down Coaker’s Walk to take in the views of the hills, and rowing in the central Kodaikanal lake are equally enriched by memories. There is something immensely comforting about knowing exactly how the hills look from every point on Coaker’s Walk. It’s almost as if you’ve experienced beauty in your life, developed a relationship with it, and return every now and then to your moment of intimacy and recognition with it. ‘That is Periyakulam, can you see?’ – my dad points to a small settlement ensconced in green, ‘..and that is the path’ we would take to climb down the hills when we were young’ he narrates perhaps for the 100th time in his life, but this time to the next generation of our family. We run to the humble binoculars, perhaps not serviced for years together, and pay a princely sum of Rs. 5, to gather the view. I doubt my niece is very excited, with the 3D shows and sophisticated views her generation is used to, but there is something charming about her standing on the very same spot her mother stood 20 years earlier, taking in the same view.
The Kodaikanal lake is the centre of gravity of the town. The size of the lake is, to my mind, perfect. At a circumference of approximately 5 kilometers, it is not so small that you don’t get the real feeling of a lake, but not so big as to appear insurmountable to your feet and oars. Our daily escapades around the still water enveloped in layers of mist, is replete with filmography and family history. Many a romantic equation in the Tamil movies of the 50’s-80’s, and I am sure of life as well, have found their climax here. Stopping dead in the middle of the lake, letting go of the oars and taking in the views around is a defining experience of peace. As the lone line of pine trees at the very top of the hill rustle to the wind you can only see but not hear, you feel an immense sense of calm surround you. Alone with your thoughts, and alone with nature, nothing else seems to matter.
Even as Kodaikanal celebrates the old, it does not fear to usher in the new. Tredis tea room is one such recent addition to its landscape. Perched on huge green acreage belonging to the erstwhile royal family of Pudukottai overlooking the town, Tredis offers you an interesting range of fruit and spice blended teas. Hot favourites like the Potato basket and Gobi Manchurian are a perfect evening accompaniment. The design aesthetic is minimalist, draws on cane, and gives you a little bit of a feeling of your grandparents’ place. I personally squeal in delight at a sign which reads ‘No Homophobes!’, and swear I will visit every time I come to Kodaikanal. Cafe Kariappa which serves delicious Momos out of a small cosy space is yet another new entrant. But would you rather savour a chip off history’s block? You don’t have to look hard as the perennially excellent Tandoori food in Tawa and the crisp Bhajjis in Shanmugam’s shop by the lake, beckon. The unique taste of Kodaikanal will remain with you.