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Kodaikanal: This serene hill station in Tamil Nadu is a blast from the past

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An ariel view of The Tamara Kodai and beautiful Kodaikanal

Revelling in its lush, unspoiled natural beauty, colonial architecture and unbridled old-world charm, the hill station of Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu is a blast from the past. On a recent weekend stay at one of its newest resorts, The Tamara Kodai, Raul Dias experienced all this and much more

Kodaikanal. The etymology of this very mellifluous name has been conjecture’s favourite child ever since the Tamil Nadu hill town bearing this name was first discovered by the Palaiyar tribal people centuries ago. Interestingly, the Tamil language itself has at least three possible interpretations of the name ‘Kodaikanal’ where it can mean “place to see in summer”, “the end of the forest”, or “forest of creepers”. But one thing is clear from all three: they all infer in some way or form to a fecund place that’s worth the rather arduous uphill journey from the plains of Madurai below. Never mind the nausea-inducing 21 hairpin bends one encounters en route!

A view of the Kodaikanal hills from the The bedroom verandah of The Tamara Kodai’s suite rooms


Blast from the past

And that’s exactly what a group of canny American missionaries and British bureaucrats did in the mid-18th century. In 1845 to be more precise, they saw this lush, temperate haven as a refuge from the hot temperatures and tropical diseases—particularly the dreaded malaria—of the plains below. They first sent up their women and children while they continued to build houses and churches in a unique mélange of architectural styles that married the American aesthetic with the English country cottage style. In fact, the old St Peter’s Church that once stood in the now-derelict cemetery along the town’s Lower Shola Road was said to be built with both Anglican and Catholic elements in its architecture with a roof made from repurposed tin, salvaged from the empty biscuit tins that the children ate from.

The Tamara Kodai’s heated pool

Legendary for its six colonial style bungalows, the first two of which Sunny Side and Shelton—built by six families of American missionaries from Madurai with the help of an Englishman, Mr. Fane—are very much still in existence a little farther down the road from the cemetery. But it is one of the remaining four, Baynes bungalow that had the most relevance to this trip of mine.

Restored glory

In May 1860, a certain Father Louis Saint Cyr stayed at Baynes bungalow and was so charmed by it that by 29 September he had bought that place to use as a rest house for the members of Christ Church. The bungalow was renamed La Providence in honour of a lady patron who donated Rs. 20,000 for the reconstruction of the bungalow, after her sick daughter was cured post a stay at Baynes.
Today, as it stands, La Providence née Baynes bungalow has been christened The Tamara Kodai and was launched as a plush resort hotel in May 2018. With its 53 suites of French provincial design, The Tamara Kodai was established through the restoration of La Providence and an expansion that took place staying as close to the original colonial style of architecture as possible. True to the Tamara philosophy of ‘Sustainable Good Life’, this resort too was built sensitive to the surrounding environment, using efficient and sustainable design, and respecting the importance of the building and its history.

The cozy outdoor dining deck area of the La Providence restaurant at The Tamara Kodai

The resort offers world-class dining experiences at several spaces, including a French-styled dining restaurant called Bistro 1845. The appropriately named La Providence, an all-day dining restaurant that is housed in the former chapel, and 24 hour in-room dining services completes the wonderful F&B offerings here. The resort also provides conference facilities, a ballroom accommodating more than 200 guests, and a crèche for guests with young children. Wellness facilities will include The Elevation Spa, Yoga lounge, a fitness centre, and Kodaikanal’s only temperature-controlled swimming pool and pool lounge called Levinge Lounge.

The Kodai of today

As one of the cleanest places I have every come across in India with a strong Christian population and a profusion of churches, including the La Salette church that shares a wall with The Tamara Kodai, this hill station is a little spot of paradise nestled in the Palani Hills. Famous also for its boarding schools, one can often spot their well-dressed students out for an evening walk along the paved banks of placid man-made Kodaikanal Lake—that was created by Sir Vere Hendry Levinge in 1863—or picking up tuck box supplies at the many candy shops that dot the town’s Seven Junctions chowk.

The bedroom of The Tamara Kodai’s suite rooms that are kitted out in French provincial design

Just east of the lake and 500 metres from the bus stand is the well-maintained botanical garden called Bryant Park. The park was planned and built in 1908 by a forest officer from Madurai, H.D. Bryant, and named after him. With 325 species of trees, shrubs and cacti, the park abounds with flowers during the peak season. A large section is also dedicated to nearly 740 varieties of roses.

Another place of interest is the one kilometre-long, winding Coaker’s Walk. Constructed by Lt. Coaker in 1872, the walk is a paved pedestrian path running along the edge of steep slopes on the southern side of the town. The walk, winding around Mount Nebo, starts in front of the Van Allen hospital, running parallel to the Van Allen Hospital Road, and joins the main road beside the 200-year-old St. Peter’s Church, providing a panoramic view of the plains. On a clear day one can view as far as Dolphin’s Nose in the south, the valley of the Pambar River in the southeast, Periyakulam town and even the city of Madurai.

Raul Dias is a Mumbai-based food and travel writer and restaurant reviewer. Follow Raul on Instagram @rauldias123

Getting there
There are daily direct flights, buses and trains from most Indian cities to Madurai. From Madurai, the uphill journey by road gets you into Kodaikanal in under three hours.

When to visit
Thanks to its cool climate, Kodaikanal is a great all-year-round destination with a daily average temperature of around 17˚C. But for a real taste of the crisp winters, make sure to head there from November to February when a veil of mist shrouds the entire town and the need for an evening bonfire is imperative!

Accommodation
Offering stunning vistas, unrivalled beauty, attentive service and overall old world charm, the brand new The Tamara Kodai is an excellent choice of residence when in Kodaikanal. Visit www.thetamara.com/kodaikanal-resort/ for more information.