balance between man and nature, that is becoming increasingly difficult to keep, we have an instance of a beautiful patch up in the Western Ghats that braves the onslaught of civilisation as man turns parasite on nature.
Once a “happily-ever-after” town of Kodaikanal sadly seems far from having the prospects of a concluding fairy tale. It is fast turning into a shabbily built city, causing its charm to dissolve into a history one would only look back at wistfully. This biblio-journey through the “island in the sky” begins with a view of Shelton Cottage, Kodaikanal’s oldest house.
This house has come to be a symbol of a bygone harmonic and symbiotic association of man with nature. Early in the 1990’s, the native environmentally-innocuous construction methods and techniques started to get replaced with cement technology, dotting the region with uncharacteristic flat-topped box like houses and multi-storied buildings.
Situated in the Palni Hills, Kodaikanal has ancient stone structures that indicate human habitation dating far back to 3,000 BC. Long before the Christian era, the beauty of the landscape finds mention in Tamil literature.
The surrounding villages are inhabited by Tamil and Telagu-speaking agrarian families who migrated from the plains during the 16th and 17th centuries, probably in search of livelihood or to escape oppression. People such as in Poombarai village have palm leaf manuscripts of treatises on medicine and astrology.
Many villages are rapidly losing the tradition of oral songs and stories. Tolkapiyam is a famous work of grammar from 2,000 BCE that talks of Vettuvar and Kauravar tribes of hunters dwelling in Kurinji. The poems from this work divide the landscape into hills, forest, plains and the coast.
These tribes collected fruits and vegetables, and gathered honey to sell in the plains. The people had their own percussion and string instruments, and also a favourite melody. Some of the popular flora and fauna talked about are elephant, monkeys, bulls, bamboo, and jackfruit. Little wonder that the predominant theme of poems set in Kurinji is the union of lovers.
Kurinji takes its name from a flower that only blooms in those hills, and just once in 12 years; this is traditionally associated with a girl attaining puberty. A tribe called Maduvar, living in the Western Ghats calculates age with the blossoming of Kurinji. The Paliyans are the nomadic inhabitants of the Palni Hills who still follow the hunter-gatherer lifestyle of their forefathers.
Their way of living is a manner of sustainable living since before this concept became a global concern. They dig out a large tuber from the dense undergrowth of the forest and cut it into pieces. Then they put a small piece back to where they dig it out from. They say the reason behind this is to ensure that when they pass this way again later, this little piece would have grown to provide them with another meal. Kodaikanal owes its existence to necessity. When the Christian missionaries arrived in the sub-continent in the early 19th century, most succumbed to tropical diseases during summer.
Escape from these diseases led them to move to cooler temperatures and higher altitudes. Eventually a settlement was sanctioned to be created. Law Ghat Road, or simply Ghat Road is one of the two roads by which one enters Kodaikanal from the plains today. This was the only road until 1970’s.
The excitement of the first settlers, and their keenness to document everything, at finding a heaven safe from the miseries of the tropical downside, gives us an invaluable record of the region. The shola is the evergreen forest that is known for their water-retaining capacity. Some scientists even call it “tropical cloud forest”. What in fact makes the shola forest retain water is the presence of grasslands that act as large reservoirs. The myriad marsh-pockets around that are the source of several small streams that meet the water-needs of the region.
The establishment of plantaion (i.e. unnatural growth pattern) has caused the streams to lose their perenniality. Nearly every marsh now has either completely dried up or is headed to imminent extinction.
The climate of the region earns it the monicker “island in the sky” as this climate is as effective a barrier to species’ migration as the waters of the ocean are to an island. The immense and painstakingly made effort that is presented bound under a cover that reads Kodaikanal- Vanishing Heritage of an Island in the Sky aims to educate and sensitise people and help preserve and nurture this environmental heritage that is fast degrading.