Saturday, July 05, 2014

Uncoding Kodi

I have fond memories of an earlier time, when school excursions from Madurai were invariably to Kodaikanal, where friendships were forged over smuggled cigarettes and teen romances kindled on post-dinner walks. I have grown up since, and so has Kodaikanal, which now aspires to upgrade from ‘Princess of Hill Stations’ to ‘Queen’. Lately, although I steer clear of tourist attractions like Chettiar Park, Bryant Park, Coaker’s Walk and Pillar Rocks, I absently revert to calling this beloved hill station by its touristy nickname, Kodi. 

I can’t help notice how some things remain the same and some have changed. The man-made lake, a brain child of Vere Henry Levinge, continues to be the tourist hub, with bicycles and horses for hire, and street-food indulgences of steamed peanuts and roasted corn-on-the-cob seasoned with lime, fiery chilli powder and salt. The next generation of cherubic toddlers of Tibetan origin cling to their mothers’ chubas in shops selling woollens. The fruit stalls near the Bus Stand continue to sell plums that are always too ripe to behold and too sour to devour. The homemade chocolates industry has grown by leaps and bounds and the Cheese Factory is renowned for its cheddar. Suicide Point has long since shed its besmirched reputation and now goes by the real-estate-friendly name of Green Valley View.

Unlike Ooty which has long since been ravaged by tourism, I hoped Kodi would remain pristine. But I also itch to do something different, delve to find a deeper personal connection to the place. This is where a nature guide like Kumar comes in.

Kumar leads treks and nature walks in and around Kodaikanal and staunchly follows the adage, ‘Take only pictures, leave only footprints’. He also believes that the Forest Department is justified in keeping some lush parts of the forest, particularly the area around Berijam Lake, off limits for tourist invaders.

Over the years, Kumar has added numerous words and phrases to our nature vocabulary - Hipericum, yellow raspberry, wild passion fruit, wild lemon, blue gum, acacia bark and numerous kinds of lichen. We learned from him that the ‘idli-flower’, with its flower-head that looks like the South Indian steamed rice-cake, is hydrangea that grows blue in these parts because of the high iron content in the soil. Thankfully, Kumar steers clear of mentioning the famed blue Kurinji, whose blooming once in 12 years in these hills I have been unfortunate to miss thrice over.

On one of Kumar’s treks, we met two tireless German farmers who walked on ahead discussing botanical names of the trees that they passed, while we wheezed weakly to catch up with them. Another time, we trudged up a hill to a little house that hugged the side of a steep hillside where we met someone who was presumed to be skilled at crafting moccasins the Native American way. I had my Pied Piper moment when we walked through a village handing out many kilos of ripe plums to the children of the village who pursued us till we ran out of fruit.   

This is the other, less touristy side to Kodi that I have the privilege of experiencing, one that compels me to return.

This morning, we are blessed with glorious weather on a half-day nature walk with Kumar and a few other trekkers. The sun is only now beginning to slant into the Sholas, shooting slivers of light through the dense foliage that is still dripping moisture from last night’s rain. I inhale the wet, lush, earthy aroma and try to memorise the smell of this morning so I can summon it to mind in the throes of rush hour in the city. The others in our group have moved ahead but I decide to take it slow, attempting to capture some of the experience in futile megapixels.

I feel something brush against the side of my leg, and jump back to let Shiva bound ahead of us. He is impatient for the opportunity to play ‘fetch’ and frequently jumps into ponds to retrieve sticks, liberally drenching us in the process. Ever since as a child I was chased by a ferocious dog, I have always been nervous even around an even-tempered Labrador like Shiva.

I admire the sight of a bunch of worms that walk in a weird manner on the shaded path. I crouch to get a good angle to capture the mid-air wiggle that these worms make. Kumar usually sets his pace by those in the group who lag behind and I’m not surprised to find him standing nearby, observing me. But I am focussed on capturing for digital posterity, this mysterious type of worm that uses both ends of its body to maneuver its way.

“If I were you,” says Kumar in a hushed voice, “I would be very still.”

In these parts, it is not uncommon to come across a Gaur, an Indian Bison that is indigenous to the region. I remember seeing one on a previous trek, a majestic beast with large horns, a muscular back and legs seemingly clad in white-socks. It stared us down with unfathomable eyes for an unnerving duration of time.

I whisper, “Is it a Gaur? Is it behind us?”

“No, but you are inches away from photographing a leech.”

I stand up in a rush, stomping my feet and brushing away hundreds of imaginary leeches that could catapult me into a low-budget ‘forest adventure-gone-wrong’ movie. In my haste, I’ve dropped my camera and hesitate to reach for it, as I look frantically for a sunny patch in which to examine my shoes.To my alarm, the leeches are all over the shaded sections, and for the rest of the morning, we stop occasionally to dislodge them from our shoes and socks.The others walk on, unperturbed, using their bare fingers to pick leeches off their ankles.

We walk along gurgling streams and sun-drenched grasslands, but the morning is ruined for me. I fear that unspeakable horrors might be hovering over our heads, and in this case, it was indeed right under under my nose. This wasn’t the discovery I had in mind and I now have a compulsive need to  check my footwear for imaginary blood-engorged worms that I’m anyway not supposed to feel.  

On completing the walk, we pile into the back of a pickup truck. Kumar and the rest of the group sit among chatty village folk who take to Shiva rather effortlessly. I give him a wide berth and shrink against the side of the truck, examining my socks yet again, silently cursing them all for being nonchalant about leeches.

Near the town centre, we alight from the pickup truck and walk along steep paths that have not seen tar in decades. Kumar leads us through an upper road that overlooks the site of ‘The Church Under The Hill’, the first church to be erected here in 1858, with a roof that some claim, was made entirely of biscuit tins. All that remains is a granite pillar marking the spot, and a cemetery around it. In all the years I have visited Kodi, the engraved history on those old tombstones have been kept out of bounds for us by ferocious hounds that seem to be the guardians of the cemetery. Shiva seems very mild in comparison and I decide, quite on a whim, to befriend him.

We finally stop at a cafe for refreshments, and I ask to hold Shiva’s leash. I have no idea what to do and I sit on a bench awaiting the coffee and chocolate brownie I have ordered. Shiva sits on his haunches regarding me. He finally decides to take charge and walks up to me. I look into his eyes and stroke his forehead. His tail wags joyfully and I am emboldened to stroke his back.

In that moment I make two discoveries. I have a mortal fear of leeches, and I am a little less afraid of Labradors.

Kodaikanal is a hill station in the Palani Hills, about 500 km from Chennai. The nearest airport is Madurai (120 km) or Trichy (150 km). The nearest railway station is Kodaikanal Road (80 kms).
Dhanvantari, who is the Hindu god of medicine, is usually depicted holding in his four hands, auspicious symbols such as nectar, conch, disc and a leech. One of the forms of Ayurvedic therapy for conditions like varicose veins and eczema is Jalauka Vacharana that makes use of leeches for treatment.  

Strobilanthes Kunthiana blooms every 12 years in the Nilgiris and Palani Hills. The next blooming is presumed to be in 2018.

The Gaur is one of the largest living land animals in South East Asia. In India, it is found predominantly in and near the Western Ghats. With a body length that can go up to 11 feet, Gaurs can easily weigh a ton.

Pics by author
An edited version of this article was published in the June 2014 issue of Culturama.

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