As you wind up the road towards Kodaikanal, your expectations will soar. You might too. This is easily one of the most scenic mountain drives in the country. The Palani Hills roll outwards towards green vistas dotted with lakes. The shola forests in these parts have a quiet and vivid beauty. The foliage is dense and varied, ranging from dappled yellows to intense greens. Wildflowers abound. As mist rolls on and off the hills, you’ll find yourself understanding clichés about journeys being more important than destinations. Once you enter Kodaikanal town, however, your spirits may sink a bit. The starfish-shaped lake is beautiful but the town centre is overrun with block-like buildings and there is an alarming amount of construction going on. Hotels and restaurants vie for attention. The impressive Kodaikanal International School dominates the main square. And there are more signs advertising homemade chocolates than you can comprehend. Don’t run yet.
The pleasures of slowness are still to be found in Kodai, in nooks and corners, down secluded paths, in unexpected places. Veer off the usual sightseeing tracks, shirk the guides, go solo when you can, and take your time about it. Kodaikanal is a place to let your most adventurous side loose — or your laziest. Off the beaten path and freed from the frenetic guided tours, Kodai yields up its gifts like a shy but certain lover. And the gifts are well worth it. Secretive mountain paths, mist and bramble, hedges full of wildflowers, gardens full of roses, placid lakes — Kodai is rich with discoveries. These hills are alive with flora and fauna. You’ll need to slow your inner rhythms to appreciate them fully. The guided sightseeing tours might be useful if you’re short on time but it’s best to explore on your own. Luckily, you have a variety of options for this. If you don’t have your own vehicle, cabs are readily available. In town, cycles are available for hire, and the roads are clean and well-maintained, ideal for walking.
The best place to begin is Coaker’s Walk (entry fee INR 5), a promenade on the south-eastern cliff of the mountain. There are impressive views of the valley from here and on a misty day, the sweeping walk has a mystic aura. On a clear day, you can take a peek from the observatory to see Dolphin’s Nose, the Pambar River and far away, the tiny scramble of Madurai city. And all around, the Palani Hills stretch out like a carpet of gigantic dunes, reminding one of how earth began. Across the road is Bryant Park, a horticultural garden set up by the British. With its neatly labelled trees and rose beds, the place has a soothing quality. You can picnic at the park but be careful of monkeys. They are as irascible as monkeys anywhere else. Meander through the park to come out near Kodai Lake, one of the major attractions of Kodaikanal. Its quiet is best experienced away from the main area. Hire cycles or take a pony ride. Boat rides are available for anything between INR 100 and 250 per person for 30-min cruises, depending on the type of boat (single/ double pedal/ row). Inquire at the Kodaikanal Boat and Rowing Club (Tel: +91-4542-241315). Walking around the lake is a pleasant experience. The road is flat beneath your heels, and clean. If you want to rest, there are seats incongruously facing away from the lake! You can also stop for steaming masala tea or home-made chocolates at one of the many stalls.
About 51/2 km from the lake is Green Valley View from where you have a view of the entire Vaigai Dam. Nearby is one of Kodai’s most popular attractions, Pillar Rocks. This 400-foot-high vertical column of three rocks looks like manmade pillars. A little outside town is Silver Cascade, a waterfall formed by the backwaters of Kodai Lake. The gush is substantial, but caged in by barricades. In the other direction is the Kurinji Andavar Temple, a hilltop temple to Lord Murugan which offers serene views of the valley. The nearby Jain temple is smaller, but more atmospheric. On the way lie the Bear Shola Falls. The walk through the forest to the falls is calming but around the lake, there is some proof of messy humans. Also check out Pambar, Glen and Fairy Falls. The Kodaikanal Solar Observatory houses one of the world’s oldest extant telescopes and is definitely worth a visit if you have time.
When it comes to shopping, Kodai is less of a bazaar than some hill stations but there are some quaint, little shops that make for interesting shopping. On Hospital Road, Potters Shed sells lovely pottery items made by disadvantaged children. Re has beads of all kinds. Chocolates are ubiquitous, with lots of shops selling heaps of almond, rock, raisin and other assorted flavours. Fay’s Confectionery has some lovely nut-based options. In town, there are shops selling the spices that these hills are so famous for — clove, cinnamon, elaichi and pepper — but also a range of medicinal or aromatherapy oils. Eucalyptus oil is a must-buy but you can also try Lemon Grass, Olive, Orange or Rose. Lakeside, the Tibetans ply their colourful stoles and shawls. Sold slightly more informally are KodaiKanal’s famous Magic Mushrooms, a naturally occurring hallucinogen.
State: Tamil Nadu
Location: On the southern ridge of the Palani Hills in the Western Ghats, 6,854 ft above sea level, bordering Kerala on the west.
Distance: 481 km S of Bengaluru; journey time: by rail: 9 hours
When to go: Best all year round, except for the late monsoon in November and December. Summer time is the peak tourist season; during the monsoon rains, the hills are lush and everything misty; January and February are cold and crisp.
By Anindita Sengupta
About the author: Anindita Sengupta is a poet and freelance writer based in Bengaluru.