Updated: Jul 27, 2019
Kodai Kanal is a hill station in the southern state of Tamil Nadu in India. Since the time of the English era, this place, at a 2000+ metres above the sea level. lush green forests, a star shaped man-made lake, and winter holidays, has been known to the travel-loving tourists from India and abroad. But, when I asked my friends about Kodai, the first few thoughts that I could hear were - tourists, shrooms, boating, ghats etc. So on my second trip to Kodai in the monsoons, I was genuinely keen to know about this place beyond the popular understanding.
Here are what my recommendations are to rediscover Kodaikanal, an overnight train journey to the nearest station Kodai Road, from Bangalore.
I stayed at Villa Retreat in Kodaikanal, one of the heritage properties boasting a great view from the balcony and super-friendly service. The team at Villa Retreat hosted me here for the beautiful stay, as well as the off-beat excursions to most of these places. Some of the tours like visiting the homes of the people of Kodai, visit to the farmhouse and sunset at Palangir Hills are exclusively managed by them in Kodaikanal. The team conceptualises cultural immersions to portray Kodaikanal as a cultural destination as well as a place for unique experiences.
1. People of Kodaikanal : The spirit of Kodai
Kodai Kanal means 'The gift of the forest'. People from the southern India, and abroad, including America, England, Netherlands, France, Israel did understand the value of this place. When you look at a place, the vibe of the place is created by who live there and how they connect with it. Kodai is no different. I got the opportunity to experience and interact with a wide variety of people during my stay here.
1.1 Visit a Pottery shed
After we drove for almost half an hour from the main city, we entered the gravel roads and reached a corner of a place. There stood an isolated place, defined more by its width than its length. On entering the place, the sense of hard-work and beautiful art - both were strong. We met Prabhu, the last representative of the generation who had come to Kodai and called this place their home. He is of Tamil descent, a humble man, who learnt the art of pottery that was passed on to him through generations. He patiently takes you through the entire process of pottery, makes you do it, and it felt good to create something that looked so simple, but was so hard to master.
1.2 Understand the life of a French entrepreneur
In the village of Pethupurai, 40 min away from the Kodai city, lives a French family, who came and settled in India 23 years back. I entered a quiet, green and wild forest, full of various kinds of trees. Each tree had fruits which were used to produce jam within the same premises. The local shops and some of the other ones outside the city bought these. I refrained from taking pictures to respect their privacy. But, I interacted with them to understand their philosophy to make a choice of this kind. Once I entered the house, the calm atmosphere with some chanting music going on in the background, gave me a glimpse of how peaceful this life could be. Saw a treehouse that the family had built, and spent time at, with a bonfire at the bottom. In the days of preservatives and added flavours, the jam and marmalade are devoid of any such additions, supporting natural ingredients and giving livelihood to the local people.
1.3 Get surprised with natural cheese making married with a spiritual life
A bunch of ladies from Netherlands and America came in the 1980's to explore the spiritual side of India. They met the holy mother and decided to leave behind their own countries to follow the spiritual path in Kodaikanal. Most of us were not even born then. Slowly they found their way, and created a sustainable way of living here, working with the women in the villages, and produced the best quality of cheese in Palani hills. I met one of them who welcomed me warmly, chatted with me, and made me taste cheese. My favourite was pepper gouda and Montasio cheese.
1.4 Meet and wonder about an unconventional 'Captain fantastic' family in India
Along with traveling, I love watching movies from across the world. Some of the movies are unconventional and make us wonder about life. Don't they? I remember watching 'Captain Fantastic', a movie with Viggo Mortensen and Matt Ross, running an unconventional family including their children, living deep in the wilderness. Away from the society, the couple devotes their existence to raising their kids - educating them to think critically, training them to be physically fit and athletic, guiding them in the wild without technology and demonstrating the beauty of co-existing with nature. Until I met a dutch couple in the forest of Ganeshapuram with their twin daughters, the movie was just a story in my head. They run the family by creating organic soaps and singing in the cafes. Very private, but thoughtful, this family will open up your minds towards having a lateral thinking about education and life in general.
2. Go on a nature walk and get lost in the past of Kodaikanal
While I understand that a vacation is about relaxation, but if you could, getting up in the early morning, will cleanse your heart here. The path from the centre of the city to Vattakanal falls and the loop back to the origin will take a couple of hours. During the way, I saw beautiful churches. Among them, was a beautiful blue-white church called La Salette Shrine. It was the very first church that was built by the French missionaries here. I specifically found the stairs so pretty and serene.
If you continue to walk, you will see the thermometer factory which was closed down years back after a mercury metal mishandling affecting the lives of hundreds of workers. No place is devoid of its tragedy, and Kodai despite is amazing beauty, is no exception. The walk is full of a wide variety of flowers, including Hybrid Rose, Fuchsia, Chrysanthemum and so many more. And you will eventually reach the Vattakanal falls, known as the 'Lyril' falls due to the ad showing the model taking a bath in a waterfall. The trek to Vattakanal is widely known and is a recommended activity to do.
3. Experience the mesmerising Shola forest, while understanding its ecological significance
One of the most important learnings for me from this trip was to understand the significance of existence of Shola forest in Kodai Kanal. Sholas are the local name for tropical mountain forest found in only western ghats alongside the grassland in the South India. These are usually the short plants having amazing medicinal qualities. While you are likely to see the tall eucalyptus or the pine trees easily, Shola forest releases water into the atmosphere, thereby becoming the source of the only water reservoir in Kodai, that supplies water to the city. I went on a drive to discover existence of these plants, easily overlooked, having Ayurvedic importance for various diseases, of skin, lungs, mind and even cancer. Even if you are of the kind who does not want to understand the scientific significance, the greens of trees and the calmness inside the forest is going to soothe your soul without any doubt.
4. Discover the undiscovered Kookal lake, your best bet for soul searching
There is something really deep about visiting a quiet and vast lake. And if the clouds gather around them during the monsoon days, it just adds to the vibe. Kookal lake is one such place. It almost feels like that nobody knew about it, even the locals. but you are meant to be here. On your excursion to the Shola forest, insist the driver to move farther to reach here, There is a plenty of places where you can sit and ponder about life. There is no boating, no crowd, and you will wonder where this place was for all these days. While coming back from the lake, you can also visit the beautiful Meenakshi Amman temple, one of the most respected places of the Hindus here. Do not wear shorts or mini skirt if you decide to visit here.
5. Visit a farm house, or a waterfall, pluck some fruits
You can soak in a place only when you do a few things that the locals do. I had the opportunity to visit a private farmhouse away from the Kodai city. While initially I wondered what I could do there, I am so glad that I did. Local families usually take care of these places, whether the modest house or the green plush forest surrounding the same. I carried some sandwich with me and had a peaceful lunch sitting there. I also plucked some berries and rosewater apple, played with the dogs and caught up on a quick nap. From there, visited a waterfall not known to the world, and pretty much spent time by myself there. It's a tall waterfall with a small pond around. Carry your bathing suit if you want to take a dip. An afternoon well spent, and you will feel re-energised to get on with your next excursion.
6. Find out spots to witness the best of the sunsets and do an off-roading to reach there
If you are easily swayed by the hues of sunsets or sunrise, you are in for several heartfelt moments in Kodaikanal. Just half an hour drive away from the city, you will reach Poombarai village, with colourful houses and terrace farming of beetroot, carrots and garlic, creating a dreamy scene when the sun sets. If it's one of those days during the week, the atmosphere will be filled with the chants from the village temple.
You can also do an off-roading to reach the top of Palangir hills to experience a burst of clouds and sunset together. For a person like me, who has seen the best of the sunsets across the world, you need to trust me when I say this is the most heavenly sunset I have ever seen in my life.
During my stay at Kodaikanal, Villa Retreat team hosted me for my accommodation and the excursions.