There was a special era at Kodai, the golden age of Protestant
missionaries to India, lasting from 1901 until 1980 or so, when the last
of the missionaries were still vacationing in Kodai.
Approximately 5000-8000 people, of diverse races, nationalities,
religions, and stations in life lived for decades in peace and harmony
there. Probably 60% natives of India, the other 40% was comprised of
people predominantly from the United States and England, with
representation from France, Germany, and Sweden.
Most of the white population was what is called “religious” ––
ordained ministers, missionaries, doctors, teachers, nurses, priests,
What brought them to Kodai was its location, 7000-8000 feet above
the southern plains of India. Particularly before 1900, life in the plains
was perilous because of the risk of cholera, typhoid, malaria, and
dysentery. These were especially infectious during the torrid summer
months of April-June, when temperatures could reach 130-140
degrees. The high elevation made it cool enough to be above the
upper limit of such tropical diseases as malaria, ancylostomiasis, and
cholera (about 6000 feet in India).
The escape to the “hills” was started by the American Mission in
Madura, who first built in the Sirumalais (little hills—4454’) northeast
of Madura around 1830, but abandoned them for the Kodaikanal
Plateau to the west (7000’) after they had succumbed to malaria and
other fevers at the lower elevation.
Their first two houses in Kodai were Sunnyside and Shelton, on the
South Lake Road, and were built between 1844-1845. Many others
followed, over 100 scattered in the wooded hillsides around the lake
created by a dam flooding the marshy plateau basin.
Pleased with what they found, they built, along with many others, a
settlement which became the location of one of the two American
missionary schools in India. (The other is Woodstock in Mussourie in
the foothills of the Himalayas.)
A natural theatre of hills surrounds this artificial lake, which has been
constructed at the bottom of a beautiful little valley. Houses have
been built on the southern cliff which overhangs the ghat road
leading up from the low country from Periyakulam. From the time of its
origins, Kodai served as a hillstation for both civil servants and
Kodai owes the British a lot for the many paved roads, the municipal
hospital, the “excursion” roads— Ten-Mile Round, Forty-Mile Round,
Eighty-Mile Round and their associated rest houses —for electricity,
and an excellent pure water supply.
Sir Vere Henry Levinge, Baronet of Ireland and Collector of Madura,
built the Bund (dam) between his arrival in 1867 and 1893, when the
Boat Club was formed.
The Palni Hills
The simple natural beauty of the Palni Hills casts a spell over most
visitors; for long-timers its attraction is like an irresistible magnet.
Shaped like a finger stretching 50 miles eastward from the Kerala
border of the Western Ghats into Tamil Nadu, its crest is one to five
miles wide at an altitude of 6000-8000 feet.
This high plateau itself is what is called “downs” in England and
Scotland-–- grasslands covering a granite massif—dotted by sholas
(woods), especially in ravines and folds of the mountains.
This massif is composed of archaic plutonic rocks, entirely
Charnockites, a bluish granite, though broad bands of feldspars and
quartz cross the gneissic foliations.
The entire Palni Hills spur of the Western Ghats juts eastwards. They
receive their largest share of rain with the Northeast Monsoon, and
thus can be damp and unpleasant from late October to early
December. This does not affect the hill-season, which is from March
One of the strikingly different characteristics of the Palni Hills is the
abundance of water flowing throughout the year in the streams and
waterfalls originating at its crest, particularly between Perumal and
the Gundar Valley, unlike the Appalachians or Yosemite Valley in
America where the streams dry up in the summertime.
(The Nilgiri Hills 100 miles to the north also have this phenomenon.)
On the northern and southern sides of the Kodai plateau there are
spectacular rock cliffs, waterfalls, drop-offs, steep inclines plunging
many thousands of feet to the jungles below, where monkeys and
elephants can be seen amongst the trees.
There are innumerable wild flowers, orchids, tree ferns, tree
rhododendrons. The settlers planted eucalyptus, mimosa, and pine
In the 19th century, reports tell of wild bison, sheep, sambar (deer),
and an occasional tiger on the plateau. By the end of the 20th century,
sightings were extremely rare, although bison were beginning to
move uphill in the extreme northwestern section of the Palnis, and
elephants had become acclimatized in the shola southeast of Berijam
Two of the major attractions for visitors are the mild temperatures of
the hills at their summit (70-80 degrees), and the absence of malarial
Additional advantages are the absence of cobras and other
venomous snakes, and no scorpions.
There is not too much variety of birdlife, although mynas and crows
are quite common.
Nor of fish. Kodai Lake has some little 4-6” minnows, and there are
crabs in some of the streams.
There are two distinct levels of plateaux in Kodai, a higher westerly
half with elevations from 6000 to 8000 feet and high points, Vembadi
Peak 8221 feet and Vandaravu Peak 8310 feet above sea level, and a
lower easterly plateau averaging 3000 to 5000 feet. These are known
as the Upper and Lower Palnis.
Tracing the topography of the Palni Hills from east to west at first the
heights are 4000-6000 feet, and bananas, coffee and jackfruit are
commercially raised in these lower levels.
Fifteen miles from the eastern end, Rattail Falls provides a stunning
view as it drops straight down a thousand feet or so almost to the
The next feature is “Perumal”, a prominent mountain shaped like an
extinct volcano, rising alone into the sky to a height of 7000 feet.
Just west of the lower slopes of Perumal is a small tea plantation,
and west of that a Roman Catholic seminary called Sacred Heart
College in Shembuganur, at an altitude of 5000-6000 feet.
The town of Kodaikanal is directly above Shembuganur an additional
2000 feet. It is a typical India hilltop resort, but has an atypical lake,
three miles in circumference, with houses nestled in its thickly
wooded hillside shores.
Coaker’s Walk is on the southern edge of the plateau at Kodai, and
stretches for several miles above a drop of 7000 feet. At its western
end is Mount Nebo and St. Peter’s Church, with the drop-off
continuing for another eight miles: Ferncliff, the Catholic convent,
Levering Stream and Falls, Dr. Ida Scudder’s home “Hilltop”, Viper’s
Pit below, Pillar Rocks, Doctor’s Delight, Eagle Cliffs, Marion Shola.
The Northern edge of Kodai is not as scarped, and continues more
or less as a rolling plateau for several miles before falling away more
gradually to the plains.
There is a little India village, Pumbari, of a few hundred people, with
terraced fields and chickens, ten miles northwest of Kodai on this
Five miles east of Pumbari is a sheer drop-off of 7000 feet on the
perimeter of the plateau. From here, the Nilgiri Hills are visible to the
north 100 miles away.
Beyond Pumbari eight miles to the northwest, is Kukkal Cave,
reached by hiking through a large shola filled with leeches.
Here is a large natural open cave perched atop a 4000 foot cliff wall,
with views into the animal-filled jungle below.
Story has it that this is tiger country, and it feels it. Because of
population pressure on the plains, bison and elephants are pushing
Southwest of Kukkal another ten miles, the Palni Hills reach their
peak height at Vandaravu (8310 feet) and Anamalai (8400 feet).
Proceeding Southwest from Vandaravu, we find tea plantations at
Top Station, west of Marion Shola. Top Station is the upper terminus
of a simple freight-carrying cable car system used to bring supplies to
the hill plantations, and deliver tea to the plains below.
Further west the Anamalais hills have gentle westward facing slopes,
which offer few restraints to the onslaughts of the rain-bearing
southwest winds. They are thus extremely wet from the end of May
until September. Palghat, however, in the Anamalais offers a steep
The highlands of the Cardamom Hills are limited, with steep scarp
slopes, this time facing eastwards.
Periyar Game Sanctuary is near the Cardamom Hills at Thekkadi, and
contains elephants, tigers, monkeys, and other jungle animals.
Arguments, crime, and violence were virtually unknown; the only
felony I know of was a most unfortunate rape of a six year-old girl in ’
36. Of course there was the scourge of all resort towns in the off-
season –– stealing from the unoccupied houses.
Vacations were arranged so that the long school closure was in
winter at a time when children could live comfortably on the plains. In
the summer it was expected that parents visited their children at the
In its heyday as an American missionary hill station, about two
hundred missionaries and their wives would arrive during the
season, April to June, and take up residence in the cottages which
dotted the hillsides around the lake.
They would take their children out of “boarding” at Kodai School,
the school would close for 3 weeks, and for a while they would live a
normal family life.
This was the season of family hiking and camping out on the
“downs”, of tennis and afternoon teas at the K.M.U., of picnics and
boating, of plays, musicals, and oratorios put on by the vacationing
By June most of the working men had gone back to their stations,
and the kids straggled back to boarding as the mothers gradually
closed up the summer homes and rejoined their husbands on the
Those furthest distant, from the Persian Gulf States, arrived in July
and August. These are the hottest months of the year on the Arabian
peninsula and thus the time workers there take vacations.
The first school to be established in Kodai was a Jesuit seminary.
With sanction from Rome, the construction of a novitiate was
commenced in 1894 and a course of philosophy started the following
year at Sacred Heart College in Shembuganur. The school was
basically organized for Indian students. Shembuganur, being
approximately 1000 feet lower than the La Providence Jesuit property
in Kodai, would be less cold for them.
The American Madura missionaries at first had the use of a boarding
school in Oberlin, Ohio for their children.
Then Kodai School itself (Highclerc) was founded in 1901 as an
American missionary school, by a number of church mission boards
cooperating together, to be an attractive alternative to this then
current custom of sending the children back to the States for their
education. It opened with eight very small classes and two boarding
homes for thirteen children.
The school rented the Highclerc Hotel property at out of season rates
until it could afford to buy the hotel.
As such, Kodai School was one of the first successful ecumenical
endeavors by Protestant churches, and the spirit of equality, and
respect for diversity, was the norm throughout the school and the
Kodai community at large.
A staunch hold-out was the Missouri Lutheran Church, which
established its own walled compound in the heart of town, “Loch
End,” with a beautiful church and gardens, summer homes, and a
school through the eighth grade, complete with dorms.
Only by 1940 did they permit their children to attend high school
classes at Kodai School, and then only as day students.
Besides this ecumenical feeling, Kodai was blessed by the vast
majority of the American community motivated by love of God and
man, and by service to both. This majority was comprised of
professional people, many with advanced degrees, all of whom
abhorred vulgarisms and excesses of any kind. Substance abuse was
non-existent. Most people listened to either religious or classical
music, and there was horror at Kodai School when a returnee from
the States in 1941 brought along some “Big Band” records.
Obviously, the character of the people of Kodai, and its natural
beauty, had a profound effect on all who spent even a few years at
And for those who grew up together, the relationship was like family.
This idyllic world begin to unravel after India gained its
independence from Britain in 1947. A delegation of missionaries was
told by the Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru that their work in the
medical and educational fields was particularly appreciated, and that
they were welcome to stay as long as their numbers remained
approximately the same.
Unfortunately, story has it that some of the sects flooded India with
many new missionaries, and when the authorities became aware of
this, they refused to grant any visas to new missionaries other than
medical personnel or educators.
Thus, as the older missionaries retired, their numbers dropped
drastically, and both Kodai and Kodai School have felt the impact.
It has been difficult, particularly for American and non-British
European missionaries, to obtain visas to work in India since the early
1950’s. Rather than evangelists, most of the missionaries have been
specialists in some branch of medical, educational, agricultural, or
industrial missions since then. Enrollment at Kodai School did not
decrease. Instead it rose steadily from 139 in 1947 to 372 (excluding
the kindergarten) in 1969.
I am told that all the mission homes and compounds have been
deeded over to Kodai School. The school itself changed its name to
“Kodaikanal International School,” began to offer the International
Baccalaureate test, and actively encouraged students of all
backgrounds to attend. A guesstimate would be that at present only 5-
10% come from missionary backgrounds.
This era of Kodai as the American Protestant missionary hill station
is nearly over, although the principal of Kodai School is an alumnus of
the school, and several of the teachers and some of the students are
children and grandchildren of missionary families.
I doubt if there is much opportunity on Sundays to attend four church
services as I did as a boy— the Kodai School service and a Lutheran
Service in the morning, vespers at St. Peters in the afternoon, and
vespers at the school in the evening.
All three American schools in India: Kodai, Woodstock, and Delhi
International, are accredited U.S. schools; thus a difference in
educational standards is not an important issue.
Presentation Convent is run by the Sisters of the Presentation of
Madras, increasing in the number of students from 141 in 1947 to 237
in 1969. High teaching standards and relatively low costs have made
the school attractive to Eurasians as well as British and Indians
desiring an English-language school system.
The Swedish mission took over the work of the Leipzig Lutherans and
also their compounds in Kodai. Later they bought properties in the
same general location, spreading along the Upper Lake Road. The two
communities shared a church, alternating Swedish and German
services during hill seasons. The Breklum Mission bought the Penryn
property, which was converted into a boarding home for all German
speaking children. The children attended Kodai School. In the 1920’s,
the Swedes opened a Swedish elementary school at their Solvik
property, located on the Highclerc Hill.
The Swedish School built a new unit at the Swedish Settlement, on
Upper Lake Road, in 1970, selling their Solvig property to Kodai
school. The small Lutheran School at Loch End amalgamated with
Kodai school in 1969, as its numbers declined to the extent that its
usefulness was questionable.
Another result of independence was that many native Indians decided
to visit Kodai as another choice of hill station, or summer resort. It
has become so popular that its visitors have far outstripped its water
supply and municipal services. Lake water is being used for drinking
In addition, South India has been plagued by drought a number of
times in the past 50 years, with a seriously adverse effect on the lakes
and streams of the Kodai plateau.
The population of Kodai has been secularized by these native Indian
tourists and western businessmen and diplomats; and its population
has greatly increased in size.
This 50 mile long plateau is unusual in that, although a 6000-8841’
irregular ridge along the top of an offshoot of the western Ghats —
basically a granite massif — it has many large streams flowing year
round right out of its crest.
In an original survey it is stated that “On these mountains are the
sources of upwards of thirty large streams… however the pasturage
found is deficient in salt, and therefore cattle do not thrive upon it. A
few Toda buffaloes might be imported with great advantage.”
Obviously, these streams begin as springs or from marshy areas, but I
for one have never traced any to their source. An exception is Kodai
Lake itself, which has its origin in the marshy area in its westernmost
As these streams descend to the plains, there are several thousand
foot waterfalls -–- Gundar, Levering, and Rattails.
The Palni hills (and Nilgiris 75 miles away) seem unique in that these
streams continue to flow year-round. By contrast, the Appalachians
seem to be devoid of any water anywhere near the top. Yosemite ––
more recent granite mountains — has water in its streams and
waterfalls until June or July, at which time the snow run-off from the
winter is exhausted.
By 1934, at least six magnificent churches had been built— the
Union Church by the American Mission, two Lutheran churches, the
English church St. Peter’s on Mount Nebo, and two Roman Catholic
Colonies of Swedish and French established their own compounds,
schools, and churches, the Swedes on the western portion of the
Upper Lake Road, and the French near Levering Stream (west of the
center of Kodai).
The Roman Catholics have a strong presence, founding a Jesuit
seminary Sacred Heart College in Shembaganur, a convent in the
Levering Stream area, and a girls school, Presentation, on the road to
Palni. And true to their custom of festivals, once a year they parade
their statues through the main streets.
In the meanwhile, the English had been busy building their homes;
had built the “English Club” complete with tennis courts and a
clubhouse; built the rather large Carleton Hotel, established a branch
of “Spencer’s” department store, a golf course, forests of eucalyptus,
pine and mimosa; and built three dams, creating lakes in Kodai and
Berijam 15 miles away, and the water reservoir west of Observatory
We were aware of only one native village on the Kodai plateau –
Pumbari with its terraced fields – 10 miles to the west.
Perhaps the most influential club throughout Kodai’s history has been
the K.M.U. (Kodai Missionary Union). Subscriptions for a club house
on Highclerc Hill were taken in the early 1920s.
The K.M.U. sponsored most of the large scale art, music, and drama
productions at Kodaikanal during these expansion years. Concerts
were held in Kodaikanal from the earliest days. The obvious
difficulties of transporting pianos up the Coolie Ghat did not prevent
this from frequently taking place. The K.M.U. sponsored two large
musical groups, which produced annual performances. These were
the Kodaikanal Choral Union, and the Gilbert and Sullivan Operetta
groups. Straight drama had a later start, primarily because many
missionaries in the early years frowned upon theatrical performances.
All talent and time were donated to a Community Chest
Entertainments Fund, so-called because the profits were given to the
Van Allen Hospital, Highclerc School, a creche for Indian babies
whose mothers needed to work, the mobile village medical
dispensary unit, the Kodai branch of the Indian Red Cross, and
various similar projects or institutions which served the community.
This spirit of comradeship, which helped to make Kodai different from
British hill stations in the Himalayas, continued to be evidenced
throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Efforts were
consistently put forth to resolve serious differences and create an
example of tolerance to people of all religious, ethnic groups, and
Kodai could easily have become an extension of the manifold petty
Christian religious squabbles, which unfortunately were frequent on
the plains. All groups joined together to sponsor a Missionary
Language School whose headquarters for many years were in Kodai.
Wednesday afternoons were set aside at the K.M.U. for formal teas.
Each week these teas were prepared by a different large, or
combined group of small denominations, with the express intent of
stimulating friendship with members of different groups.
As well as concern for peaceful relations between the Americans and
the British, and between missionary and non-missionary, or among
diverse missionary groups, there was also considerable thought for
good relationships between the Europeans and the Indians. A Kodai
fellowship was begun in 1927 as a branch of the International
Fellowship, with the purpose of bringing together all types of
residents at Kodai.
In 1940 Kodai was connected to the electrical supply system at Pykara
in the Nilgiris. Shortly after that, links were also made to Mettur in the
North, and Pabanasam in the South, as alternative supply systems.
Gradually private homes were able to install electricity. A private
company built a cinema at the foot of the bazaar road, the Kodaikanal
Talkies, which showed English, Tamil, and Hindu films.
Kodai also became the temporary sanctuary for many European
refugees from both Nazi Germany and Communist Russia during and
after World War II.
The census figures showed a permanent population of 10,941 in 1950.
In the larger Kodai area, including Shembuganur, Naidupuram, and
other districts with a Kodai postal address, there are seven large
landowners, two of them Catholic establishments, the rest Indians of
several castes and creeds. These landowners employ coolie laborers
and in some instances also skilled managers to cultivate their crops.
Kodai is the site of the only automobile repair shops and petrol filling
station in the hills.
Being near to the Mysore jungles, black panthers were somewhat
frequent visitors to Kotagiri in the Nilgiri Hills, molesting the cattle
until disposed of by the shikarees (hunters).
As for Kodai, by the time we arrived in 1935, all the game animals
had disappeared, and reports of tigers in remote areas were rare.
One or two times from 1935-44, a dead tiger was carried into town
strung up on a long pole.
Kukkal had a reputation for being tiger country, and Vanduravu was
known for being frequented by elephants. Recent letters from Kodai
tell of a herd of elephants in the shola to the southeast of Berijam
Lake, on the way to Doctor’s Delight.
Being so far away from populated areas, one would expect to find
much wildlife. Certainly, wildflowers were in abundance, and there is a
copy of a thick two volume set of books in the New York Public Library
at 42nd Street called “Flora of the Palni Hills.”
I remember crawling on my belly and peering over the edge of the
cliffs of Doctor’s Delight and watching the monkeys scampering in the
trees 4000’ below.
I remember looking down from Kukkal Cave to the jungle 4000’
below, and seeing elephants working their way through the trees,
ripping branches off with their trunks as they went along.
Until the building of the Law Ghat road, in 1915, which opened Kodai
to cars, trucks, and buses, access to Kodai was by the rather steep
“coolie” path-–- rising straight up from a point northeast of Villagubi
to “Neutral Saddle,” a thousand feet below the Kodai plateau.
A decade later a second ghat road was started from Berijam to Top
station and Munner, and eventually to Cochin, a total distance of 160
miles… an extraordinarily slow dirt road. Until 1970 one needed
approximately eleven hours to reach Cochin this way, and the road
was impassable after heavy rains.
A third road northwards to Palni was built to avoid the impossible
scarp slopes on the south. The road does not go directly through
Vilpatti or Poombarai from Kodai, but turns off the ghat Road at
Perumalmalai and follows the coolie path from there through the
Varadamandi River system rather than the Kallar Valley.
Two motor roads have been constructed in concentric rings—the Ten-
Mile Round and the Forty-Mile Round— with a number of simple guest
huts-–-Green Hut, Marion Shola, Vandaravu,etc.
The “Ten Mile Round” links the observatory on the northern side of
the settlement with the golf course and Pillar Rocks on the southern
rim. Goschen Road, popularly known as the “Forty Mile Round,”
extends to Poombarai, Mannavanur, and Berijam. It was completed by
Mining surveys have led to the recent discovery of bauxite at
The South Indian Railway runs from Madras to the Ammalyanakkanur
Station between Madurai and Dindigul, a station which later became
known as Kodaikanal Road. From there is the 33 mile road to Tope, a
road that was notorious for its Kallan dacoits in the past.
From the Tope, climbing through the steep spurs and valleys of the
southern scarp slopes presented a major problem. The path leading
up from Periyakulam via Kistnamma Nayak’s tope and Shembaganur
became an acceptable route, and efforts were made to widen and
safeguard the zigzagging path which ascended the 6000 vertical feet
from the Tope to Kodai in a distance of less than 12 miles.
Mounted armed guards patrolled its length. Menfolk used small
mountain pack ponies on which they rode up this coolie ghat. Women
and children were carried up in a covered box, like a palanquin,
known as doolies, or in open canvas sedan chairs.
Travelers were purposefully noisy because of the ever present
danger of wild animals. At the half-way milestone the coolies rested
before the next stage known as the “Zig-Zags”. Here the path had
been cut out of the steep rock cliff for three miles of short, steep,
hair-pin zigzags, where there were no trees or any kind of shade.
The climate of the hill-station sites in South India differ considerably
from those in the Himalayas. While those in the north have great
vicissitudes of heat and cold, dryness and dampness in the course of
a year, those of Southern India and Ceylon are comparatively uniform
in these respects.
Clear, dry, bracing northeasterly winds of winter during the months
from January to April are followed by a cold, moist atmosphere during
the monsoon heavy rains falling from early June through September,
often with intense thunderstorms.
January and February nights are cold, reaching to the low 40’s, with
frost forming frequently in the valleys. March and April are milder
both during the day and at night, but there are frequent afternoon
showers particularly toward the close of April. In May, India’s warmest
month, the winds swing to the southwest. June and July are often
rainy, while August and September can be fine, warm, and pleasant if
the Southwest monsoon is early and short. There can be, however,
frequent fogs, mists, and drizzle if the monsoon is delayed. In late
October the winds revert to the northeast bringing damp, chilly
weather. Three-quarters of the annual rain falls in this season. By
early December the rains are over and the weather is expected to
remain clear and bright.
In point of climate, Kodai is considered by many of its rivals to rival
Ootacamund, where shelter from prevailing winds and rain were the
desired factors in its location in the lee of Dodabetta Peak.
Many visitors to Kodai claimed they had chosen Kodai as it was less
expensive than other hill stations, both Ootacamund and the northern
stations. “It is not as rainy as Ooty. The dry climate is much better than
Ooty.” “it is good for health, Ooty is too chilly.” “This is comparatively
cheap.” “There is more variety of things to do here.” “Because it is
heaven on earth.”
The village of Vellagavi is accessible only by an extremely steep
footpath down from Kodai. As its altitude is comparatively low, its main
produce is fruit, particularly bananas and oranges. Apples ripen later,
but they generally do not flourish on the Palni Hills. It would appear
that apples thrive better under colder winter temperatures than those
available in Kodai. By far the most important fruit grown in Kodai is
the pear. A hard green pear is the most popular variety. The main pear
season is from July to November, peaking in September.
Early Kodai History
The first European to visit Kodai was Lieut. B.S. Wood in 1821 on
survey work, followed by the American missionaries in 1844.
Before 1821, botanists and hunters had camped in the Palni hills,
and several cattle trails and trading paths leading up to the hill-
villages had been discovered. The hills lie between 10’5”-10’25” north
and 77’15”-77’50” east. They are approximately forty miles across from
west to east, and average fifteen miles north to south, thus occupying
some 600 square miles.
The American Madura Mission was founded in Madurai in 1834.
Within ten years, six of the early missionaries had died and then in
1844, what has been referred to as “a fearful attack of cholera” broke
out among them. The mission had originally started its work in the
Jaffna Peninsula in northern Ceylon, and when so many of the
personnel in India became sick, permission was received in 1844 for
the erection of a hill settlement.
As early as 1840 one of their members had gone to the Nilgiris to
recuperate, but the journey to Ootacamund was too difficult and
expensive to be taken on a regular basis. The nearest hills to Madurai
are the Sirumalais. Approximately twenty miles from the city and
without steep scarp slopes, they were easily accessible. With several
peaks over 4000 feet, they were considerably more comfortable than
the plains below and the American missionaries seemed unaware of
the dangers of malaria at this level.
But the Sirumalais were apparently not high enough to be a
protection from disease. So in 1834 the Madurai Collector Blackburn
climbed up from Devadanapatti and built a small bungalow at the head
of the Adukkam Pass near Shembaganur in the Palni Hills, at an
elevation of 6,000 feet.
Collector Blackburn’s house was built on the southernmost ridge of
the main southern rim of the Kodaikanal Basin. The area was named
Blackburne Shola in his honor.
By 1844 another Englishman, a Mr. Fane, had built godowns (storage)
in Kodai and had familiarized himself with the area from his tent as he
camped. Also a Judge Elliot, retired from service in Madurai, was
planting coffee on slopes of the lower Palnis further east.
Following the advice of Mr. Fane, the mission representatives chose
the Kodaikanal basin for the site of their settlement. In time for the
Madura Mission Quarterly Meeting in June, 1845, the first two
bungalows had been built in Kodaikanal. They were Sunnyside and
Shelton near the southern edge of the basin. In the following year
British houses also appeared and the hill-station was launched.
Within the first five years the Americans had added “East House” to
their original two, as well as the bungalow for Rev. Noyes on the site
of the present “Woodstock” house.
During the 1850’s… The American Jaffna Mission built Jaffna House.
Major Partridge of the Bombay Army is renowned as the man who
imported Australian Eucalyptus trees to Kodai.
By the year 1850, with ten European bungalows and perhaps twice as
many Indian huts on the compounds at Kodai, the hill-station clientele
consisted of approximately twenty Americans of the Madura Mission
and about as many British civil servants from the Madurai District.
Records also show that a few coffee planters, at least two British and
one Frenchman, had settled in the Lower Palnis.
Tea was eventually planted on the wetter, western facing slopes of
the Anamalais and Cardamom Hills. Coffee, on the other hand, has
become a successful plantation crop on the Palni Hills, but on the
Lower Hills rather than the Upper Hills.
Animal breeding and plantation agriculture or large scale farming by
Europeans never became part of the hill-station scene at Kodai as
they had become, for example, at Munnar in the Anamalais, Ooty in the
Nilgiris, or Darjeeling in the Eastern Himalayas.
Tigers, panthers, wild hog, jackals, and bears frequented the Palni
ranges, and thus challenged the skills and spirit of adventure of the
holiday maker. Sambar, thar, spotted deer, and other varieties of wild
animals were largely edible, giving excuse for frequent shooting
exhibitions. As the hill-station became more populous, most of the
animals retreated to a safer distance, so that the hunters needed to
venture further afield.
In 1853 a group of twelve American and British representatives met at
Pambar House to build a communal church. This “Church Under the
Hill”, as it was fondly called, needed an enlargement and eventually
both a large American (Union Church) and a new Anglican church (St.
Peter’s) were constructed.
Father St. Cyr. visited Kodai in 1852, built the Baynes bungalow in
1860 as a rest center for Jesuit fathers, and the following year built a
chapel on the compound and renamed it “La Providence”. Two years
later he purchased more land and completed “La Salette” as the
Kodai Catholic parish church.
The 1860’s saw the arrival of more Roman Catholics, bringing
Frenchmen, Belgians, and other Europeans into the hills, together
with a new outlook, that of evangelizing the existing Indian villages
on the hills.
The Catholic compounds, including La Providence, St. Mary’s, and La
Salette, were on somewhat higher ground, but in the further distant,
more westerly sections of the southern rim.
Kodai’s property was privately owned almost from the beginning of its
history. The earliest owners were American, British, and Indian, a
situation which still prevails today. In its early years the American
Madura Mission owned two major sections of land, one along the
southern rim from St. Peter’s to beyond the Union Church, a distance
of approximately half a mile at varying widths, and a somewhat smaller
section nearer the lake, including the site of the old church and
In the 1860’s, Lieutenant Coaker of the Royal Engineers, cut a path,
which bears his name, along the outer edge of the steep southern
plateau rim. It commands spectacular views of the plains.
In 1867, a Madural collector, Sir Vere Henry Levinge, retired to Kodai,
rather than return to his family home in Ireland at the end of his
service in India. Levinge lived in Pambar House. He constructed the
bund which dammed the stream to form Kodai Lake, stocked the lake
with fish, and brought up the first boat from Tuticorin. A red granite
monument in the form of an Irish cross is in a prominent position at
the lake bund.
The Boat Club was one of the early clubs to be organized. A minute of
1893… “two sculling skiffs like the Gadfly, one Thames skiff from
Salter and Company.”
For many years, Pambar House was the location for all important
social gatherings. When a larger club house was deemed necessary,
Americans and British united to subscribe to a suitable building with
tennis courts, as they had previously collaborated to erect a church.
The Kodaikanal Club was opened in 1887. Through the years it
became known as the English Club.
By 1876 Shortt claimed that Kodai “contains at present 20 substantial
European and over a hundred native houses.”
A Wyckoff stated that by the mid 1880’s the permanent European
population was approximately 100, leaving a permanent Indian
nucleus of about 500. The number of Europeans visiting the station
for the season had increased from 75 to 400.
A bazaar arose on the last lap of the coolie ghat on the eastern outer
edge of the Kodai Basin. In the 1890’s conditions grew particularly
unpleasant, as, together with the increased population, diseases,
thieves, and rogues also made their way up to the center.
At the end of the nineteenth century, Kodai was chosen as the site for
an astrophysical observatory because of its comparatively clear skies
and favorable weather conditions. The foundation stone for the Kodai
Observatory was laid by the Governor in 1895, and three years later
Kodai Astrophysical Observatory, with its high altitude position in
close proximity to the equator, produces high class solar research,
which has given the observatory an international reputation.
Plans for the sanitary water storage and piping system were first
made in 1902.
This scheme, which included the construction of a dam on the Pambar
River system near Fairy Falls, and a set of cisterns and open channels
to the reservoir, and thence throughout the hill-station by pipes, was
Upper Palni villagers sell fruits and vegetables by walking from
compound to compound to vend their wares. Pear orchards were set
up at La Providence.
The Raja of Puducottai owned a French-manufactured car, which he
had already brought to Kodai by 1904. In 1905 a resident of Kodai
formed a Trichinopoly Motor Company to establish a bus service from
Kodai Road Station to Periyakulam, with a detour to the Tope.
Law’s Ghat Road was opened in 1916 from the plains to Kodai. Major
Law, an engineer of the Madras Staff Corps… traced a route through
Neutral Saddle, the natural boundary between the Upper and Lower
Palnis at the foot of Perumalmalai, a square-topped, isolated high
peak, the local landmark of Kodai.
Controls were set up to safeguard the prices and quality of foods, and
a cooperative store was established in 1919, owned and controlled,
on an economically sound basis, by shareholder residents of Kodai.
Europeans generally enlisted the services, for their health needs, of
civil surgeons, or missionary doctors on vacation in the hills.
Sufficient money was raised to construct the Van Allen Hospital in
1915, and it was expanded to include a maternity ward in 1923.
One of the early India poets used the word kodai-kanal to describe:
“forests that are green even in summer.”
KANAL is the Tamil word meaning a dense forest, and the earliest
specific references to Kodaikanal and the Palni Hills are to be found
in the Tamil Sangam literature of the early Christian era.
A poem on the god Murukan (still the chief god of the Paliyan hill-
tribes today), contains descriptions of the natural beauty spots most
loved by him.
The first people to live in Palni Hills, who have left visible artifacts,
were the dolmen-builders. Groups of dolmen circles surround
Kodaikanal, with over a hundred dolmens in the vicinity. Three types
of megalithic structures have been discovered, dolmens, kistavaens
(or cists) and stone circles. The dolmens are rectangular chambers as
large as eleven feet long, seven feet wide, and five feet high. A small
group of them are set inside a stone wall which is usually rectangular.
They were probably homes or perhaps a refuge for women and
children in times of danger. The Cists are buried dolmens, which
seem to be tombs. Near many of them funeral urns were found, which
are two to three feet in height and five to seven feet in
circumference. Circles, mostly elliptical in shape, up to 17 feet long
and 12 feet wide, also seem to be burial grounds, as digging a few
feet below the surface often revealed one or more tombs and a great
number of urns which contained many kinds of pots, copper, brass,
and iron implements and ornaments as well as human bones. The
builders of the dolmens are unknown. Local tribes call them Pandyan
forts, or hero houses.
Later, widespread agricultural Kurumba tribes were the descendants
of the dolmen builders. Several groups of Kurumbas still build
dolmens as resting places for their dead, and others built dolmen-like
Within historic times, at least two primitive tribes have fled into the
Palni Hills from the neighboring plains, the Paliyans and the Pulaiyans,
the most primitive of which are the Paliyans.
Many of them now live permanently in villages. Kukkal Cave, about 25
miles by road from Kodaikanal and a favorite camping and hunting
center for the modern trekker, show traces of Paliyan occupation and
there are still Paliyan villages near Palamalai and Maniampatti which,
though nearer, are less accessible.
The major goals of the tribal units seem to be to keep peace within
and avoid aggression from without. In order to maintain their way of
life they have removed to the dry lower slopes on the lee-shadow
side of the Western Ghats, out of reach of the shifting-cultivators of
the Mannan warrior tribes of the Upper Cardamoms, or the Kunnavan-
Vallalan agricultural castes of the Upper Palnis. Because of the
unfruitful nature of their environment, they have little choice but to
live in small mobile groups. Except for clothing and bill-hooks, their
all purpose hunting and collecting tools, they are self-sufficient.
The Paliyans speak a Tamil dialect which presumes early contact with
neighbors in Tamilnad. They frequently act as guides for pilgrimages
to forest shrines in the hills.
At the time of the survey account of 1821, it was suggested that the
Pulaiyans were the aborigines of the Palni Hills. They seem to have
been the builders of the hill terraces.
By the fourteenth century, they were overrun by a conquering
Kunnavan caste who invaded their villages and turned them into
slaves, keeping them in severe subjection.
There are Pulaiyans in the Palni Hills today, chiefly attached to caste
villages as outcastes and coolies; though, like the Paliyans, they are
consulted on matters of medicinal herbs, tiger poisons, and methods
of driving out evil spirits.
Later people to migrate into the Palni Hills were the Kunnavans, who
claim to be Vellalan farming castes from the Coimbatore Plateau. They
invaded the hills in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and chiefly
settled in the Lower Palnis. In the early twentieth century they were
described as the principal cultivating caste in the Palni Hills.
They are not like the Todas of the Neilgherry Hills, who require large
tracts at one time or another during the year and actually occupy them
for the grazing of numerous herds of cattle
One of their settlements is Vellagavi, from where today men and
women daily carry baskets of fruit and vegetables on their heads up
the almost vertical eight miles of cliffside to help feed Kodaikanal’s
Writing of the late nineteenth century, Grierson explained the silent
barter system of the Palaiyans with the plains people: “the
mountaineers of Madurai… occasionally trade with the country people
who place cotton or grain on some stone and the wild creatures, as
soon as the strangers are out of sight, take them and put honey in
their place, but they will allow no one to come near them…”
The Upper Palni territory was apparently not considered to be private
property. The villages are few and far between, and the rights of the
inhabitants are confined to the land they cultivate.
Crops are grown on carefully terraced hill slopes along which
extremely complex, though primitive systems of irrigation using
bamboo trench guides, have been painstakingly erected.
75 miles away to the northwest are the Nilgiri Hills, where the British
established Ootacamund as the summer capital of the Madras
Presidency, and several other hill stations.
The Lutherans choose to build in one of them, Kotagiri, and the
Slifers, Gottwalds, Moyers and Neudorffers were neighbors there in
the early thirties. Efforts were made to start an elementary school for
missionary children in Kotagiri, but those efforts soon petered out,
and the Slifer and Moyer families moved to Kodai.
This satellite hill-station, Kotagiri, was founded in 1830 in the
northeastern plateau of the Nilgiris. Kotagiri, like, Coonoor and
Wellington, is lower than Ooty, at about 6500 feet above sea level, and
is both warmer and dryer than Ooty. The Basel Lutheran missionaries
built their hill-station for their members here.
The Nilgiri (Blue) Hills also have an elevation of 7000’ but they do not
have the breath-taking panoramic views of the plains, nor the sheer
cliff drop-offs of thousands of feet found at the Palni Hills. They do
have abundant water in numerous streams with spectacular waterfalls.
Ooty/ the Nilgiris: The Ootacamund Plateau
The town of Ootacamund is on a plateau at 7400 feet, surrounded by
rolling downs of springy turf, woods, and streams, and sheltered on
all sides by four peaks each over 8000 feet high. The first house was
built in 1887.
A mountain cog railway of about twenty miles runs from Mettupalalyam
in Coimbatore District, leading to within one and a half miles of
Wellington, a suburb of Ooty.
Himalaya Hill Stations
Land for the purpose of establishing hill-stations was originally
obtained in the Himalayas in 1816, and the first house was erected
there in 1819. Within another two years a hill-station had already been
founded in the Nilgiris in South India, 1500 miles away.
This first hill-station in India was established at Simla (7200 feet) on
land which was retained by the British at the Nepalese Peace Treaty of
In this territory three major multifunctional hill-stations are located
Simla, Mussoorie, and Naini Tal.
By 1887 the Governor General of the East India Company came to
All the early high-altitude hill-stations of the Himalayas were located
within easy reach of spectacular views of the snow-peaked
mountains, while those of the south were on rolling grassy downs.
Mussoorie (6500 feet),was created in 1826. A comment on its access
road by an official in 1828 describes it as “difficult and perilous in the
extreme. It sometimes winds down the edge of rocks, sometimes
zigzags up the face of the hill; plunges into dark depths of a ravine, or
creeps over the summit of a native crag.”
“The Indian Hill-Station: Kodaikanal” by Nora Mitchell Kodaikanal