The Hills Have Secrets
Travel+Leisure India|November 2021
Kodaikanal, like many Indian destinations, has seen a post-lockdown boom in tourism. DEVANSHI MODY makes a week-long family trip to discover its many undiscovered historic and spiritual sites.
Devanshi Mody

The Hilly Kingdom of Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu has reopened, and all of humanity has descended upon it, clogging its serpentine roads. There are crowds, noise, chaos. We hope things will be more civilised at the heritage property The Tamara Kodai. Here, entire families bolt out of BMWs, if not coaches.

DAY 1

The general manager of the property, Dhrubo Ghosh, ushers us into his “best cottage.” He beams, “It’s the one Tamil Nadu CM Stalin occupied recently!” Guest relations executive Reena warns us never to leave the terrace unlocked—hooligan monkeys invade, leaving you a thumping mini-bar bill!

Unique guest experience manager Sayed Mehaboob and the inimitable Ravi, whose father was a tracker during the Raj, explain that tourists are flouting COVID protocol, so the top sites and wildlife reserves have been shut (at the time of our visit). Yet, Sayed has crafted a seven-day itinerary for our family.

DAY 2

We drive to Thandikudi past swards of eucalyptus, pine, cypress, and wattle forests that Sayed strenuously disapproves of. The British, trying to conjure Europe in India, extirpated indigenous shola forests and planted imported trees with devastating ecological repercussions.

The British sedulity at beautification eventually cedes to shola forests that tribals inhabit. We stop to inspect a mound. Upon it lie three dolmens. Sixty such dolmens bestrew Kodai. Forlorn, mystifying, and Neolithic, they comprise large stone slabs resting atop megaliths that are each one metre high. Sayed says that in 5000 BCE, they served as dwellings, hideouts, or tombs, the latter attested by excavated urns revealing utilities to accompany the deceased in the afterlife. Sayed marvels at how short men, three-footers, carted such hefty stone. What tools did they deploy to craft the urns (that are exhibited at Kodaikanal Museum)? What astonishes me more is that such sites of staggering historic interest languish in India, whereas, elsewhere, a century-old church is classified as “ancient,” UNESCO-tagged, and ticketed, fetching a heave of click-clicking tourists.

We reach a small Murugan shrine, which Ravi says is “2,000 years old, maybe 3,000.” As per legend, Lord Murugan— already married to Devayani—heard the sweet song of a tribal girl while strolling the Palani Hills abloom with neelakurinji. He was enticed and eventually betrothed to Valli. After the honeymoon (even gods deemed Kodai a worthy honeymoon destination), Murugan leaped with Valli from this shrine to the famous Palani Temple.

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