Published in the August 2016 edition of Discover India magazine, as 'The Big Misty'.
The fireplace crackled, spewing out untamed flames, and sparks that spat into the room like energetic fireflies. I smiled and sank deeper into my easy-chair, cupping a bowl of hot soup. I was enjoying every bit of the cold weather, having arrived here from the scorching plains. Just a few relaxing hours in Kodaikanal had afflicted me with a languor that was quickly becoming second nature. As my hosts spoke animatedly about life in Kodaikanal, their favourite long walks, secret nooks, and scenic views, it became abundantly clear that I had a battle on my hands to shake off my slothfulness, if I wanted to explore Kodaikanal.
Sepia-tinted photographs and meticulous black-and-white sketches from the 1800s, dotted all over my hosts’ living room, enticed me with the promise of pristine landscapes, fleet-footed Nilgiri Tahrs and Sambar deer in grasslands, and humungous Gaurs surprising me at road bends. As a compulsive nostalgia seeker, the thought of attempting to experience 19th century Kodaikanal immediately caught my fancy, and soon, I was consumed by the idea. So I pored over the photographs and sketches, noted details, and armed myself with directions and tips from my hosts, to help me recreate the memories held by these images.
|Morning dew on my window|
The next morning, I forced myself out of the snug comfort of my quilt, only to be greeted by the croaking of cicadas. When I left at 6 am, there was barely enough light to discern and open the padlock on the property’s gate, while simultaneously trying to prevent their resident pet from running out with me. Kodaikanal had not yet awoken from its slumber, except for a dimly-lit tea shack from which wisps of smoke emanated.
From its viewpoint, Kodaikanal Lake was seen shrouded in mist, which had coagulated over the water like gigantic, unruly candy floss. All around, trees emerged, many of them distinctly pine and eucalyptus. The sunrise vista was like watching film slowly develop in a dark-room: monochromatic at first, segueing from pastel pink to sepia, with the other colours choosing to reveal themselves only an hour later, as I drove back past the viewpoint. The lake’s shape as seen from here corresponds exactly to its 19th century photograph. Not much has changed in the view, barring low roofs of Kodaikanal town peeking out from between layers of trees.
Pillar Rocks lay at the end of a long, winding drive from the lake’s viewpoint; save for a couple of houses, the road was deserted. Crepuscular rays streamed in through thickets of trees, from which I heard langurs swinging. I was shaken out of my reverie by the appearance of a barricade - the road hadn’t yet been opened to vehicles for the day. I approached Pillar Rocks on foot, with heightened anticipation.
|Pillar Rocks sketch by Douglas Hamilton, 1862. |
Source: Wikipedia. Larger image: click here
The valley, however, lived up to its promise of being mist-filled, revealing parts of the escarpment of the Palani Hills on which Kodaikanal is situated. A howling, bone-rattling wind made my jacket and gloves redundant, but helped clear the clouds; the sky then turned a picture-postcard blue and gifted me the sight of Pillar Rocks crowned by the setting moon. When I said gifted, I meant it – just a few hours later, eager visitors to Pillar Rocks saw nothing, as fog hid the rocks until the next sunrise. My hosts had been right in egging me on to leave before dawn.
Enthused by how my morning had panned out, I was less averse to exploring ‘modern’ Kodaikanal and decided to see the picturesque lake up-close. The lake is the focal point of life in Kodaikanal, for residents and visitors alike. With restricted vehicular movement on the road encircling the lake, it comes alive with cyclists whizzing past, people chatting, residents jogging, and couples enjoying quiet strolls. With the lake on one side and many palatial heritage buildings lining the other, the lake road exudes an old-world charm.
The sight of bicycles brought out the child in me and I spent a greater part of the afternoon giggling over our clumsy tandem-bike riding skills, while resolutely cycling around the lake. To perhaps continue kindling the child in you, the boat clubs have ensured that most pedal-boats have gigantic cartoon characters built on them. With Mickey Mouse for company, I pedalled across the lake to one of its quieter arms. Families had turned up in droves to enjoy the pleasant evening; in spite of the crowd, the large size of the lake allowed me to have a piece of Kodaikanal to myself. And I had to admit - the Kodaikanal of today had provided me with as much excitement and relaxation as the Kodaikanal of the past.
That didn’t stop me from resuming my pursuance of the next black-and-white photograph, though. Dolphin’s Nose, so named because of the shape of the rock overhanging the valley, promised an interesting trek, and I decided to undertake it early the next day. The narrow trail took me past bustling hutments, cheap lodges with bewildering Hebrew signage, refreshment stalls, and locals gathering firewood, before meandering through trees and losing all sight of habitation. Which is why, it startled me to hear a voice behind me say “photo, madam?” barely ten minutes after I sat near the edge, lost in quiet contemplation.
Once an Enid Blyton-esque picnic spot for Kodaikanal’s residents, Dolphin’s Nose now attracts many visitors who enjoy posing in the ‘Titanic pose’ at the very edge. A few enterprising photographers not only orchestrate photogenic poses, but are also equipped with instant printers to give you copies within minutes. Upon my refusal, the photographer too sat down to admire the view. Coaxed by him into experiencing the feeling of sitting at the actual end, I slowly overcame my fear and swung my legs over the edge, hands gripping the ground next to me for dear life. Though decades had elapsed since my reference colonial era photo had been taken, Dolphin’s Nose still felt like the end of the world.
If Dolphin’s Nose whetted my appetite for more solitude, Berijam Lake surpassed it. With highly restricted access to the lake, you are almost guaranteed to be the sole individual there if you time it right. The long drive to the lake passes through precariously surviving shola-grasslands; I was pleased because it increased my chances of spotting wildlife, if not the elusive Tahrs. Mist engulfed the road for quite some time, considerately lifting at just the right viewpoints.
Berijam Lake sat in the valley like the grand prize at the end of a journey. To stroll and sit at the water’s edge, surrounded by hillocks and dense clusters of conifers, with no sign of ‘civilisation’ in sight, made it the perfect end to my quest for nostalgia.
Driving back from Berijam Lake, lamenting that it was time for me to leave Kodaikanal, I passed the golf course. Despite being mid-day, mist rolled over its gentle undulations, even as a lone golfer persistently played his game.
That is when it dawned on me - the 19th century still existed in Kodaikanal: in its pristine landscapes, its capacity to offer solitude, and its flair for surprising you. And then, almost as if to chide that obsessing about the past wasn’t healthy, Kodaikanal drops a misty curtain on it all, nudging visitors to experience its present – its people, its lake, and its activities. I realised that Kodaikanal morphs into what you seek from it.