Near Kodaikanal’s Berijam Lake lies a shola which is over a hundred years old, dense with trees. Your first impression of it: limitless, wild, and primeval. Those who have visited say it is a slice of old-world Kodai: unspoilt and unpredictable. A world unto itself.
Look closer and you’ll notice—as though they have been imagined into life by a poetic child—that the treetops look like ‘broccoli heads’, as local trekking guide Vijay Kumar describes them. Inside, the undergrowth is heavy and dense; it obscures the ground, with shades of Hansel and Gretel. ‘There are smaller plants covering the ground,’ Vijay says, ‘as well as small trees jostling for space with taller trees draped in vines and creepers.’ In some areas, they grow so close together that they shut out the sky.
This is Mathikettan Shola; in English, the ‘place where you lose your mind.’ According to local legend: if you enter, you just won’t be able to find your way out again.
It has been widely reported that many people have died in the shola; media platforms, bloggers, and YouTubers reference a large yellow painted sign stating ‘Prohibited area. Don’t cross the fence. ‘CAUTION. Till now 12 people have died’ to prove their point.
Stories about this shola have been around for decades and date back to when the British first arrived in Kodai and started surveying the area’s geography. “In 1864 when they [the British] recorded the existence of Berijam, they added a note about the Mathikettan Shola”, states Tamil YouTuber and digital content creator Madan Gowri, in an episode about the shola, who noted that the British were warned by the local people not to go inside.
150 years later, and no one’s any the wiser about this Kodai ‘rural legend’.
‘I heard that a famous politician and his brother decided to go into the forest to see what would happen,’ says Peter John, a local trekking guide, speaking with authority. ‘They went in with 14 people, and only seven returned.’
‘It’s definitely a scary place,’ says Jose Manikam, a 40-year-old who sells dosas and idlis near the bus stand. ‘People who go in go crazy and die. Even if you beg me to, I’ll never go in there.’
Jose’s breakfast-cart neighbor and competitor, Mano Kumar, has a slightly different take. ‘It’s drugs,’ he says, matter-of-factly. ‘I heard a group went in and did all sorts of drugs. Then obviously they forgot their way and got lost.’
‘They were tourists,’ he adds, as a way of explanation.
The conspiracy stories only get weirder and crazier. A shopkeeper in town tells me it’s because of alien involvement, a neighbor speculates it’s a government cover-up, but declines to share more details..
However, it appears as though the most dramatic element of the stories about the shola is untrue. The sign referenced by the YouTubers and media outlets actually refers to 12 boys who died in Guna Caves.
‘No one has died in the shola,’ a well-informed source told The Kodai Chronicle. ‘The most dramatic story I know about it is when a school hiking group got lost in the shola, as sometimes happens when you’re hiking. They couldn’t find their way out, and had to spend the night there. We went to rescue them in the morning.’
‘The actual culprits are our local taxi drivers and tour guides,’ says trekking guide Vijay Kumar, pooh-poohing all the other theories. ‘These very enterprising individuals would have heard some story about people getting lost in the woods and have added some masala here and there to take it to a different level. And this added mystery makes it easier for them to pitch it to tourists who will want to see it.’
One of the most popular theories is that there’s a plant in the shola with a strong smell that confuses people and drives them crazy, or a special vine that causes you to get lost if you touch—a theory that’s grounded in some fact. The entirety of Mathikettan Shola (which stretches into Kerala) is known for being a biodiversity hotspot, and containing a variety of medicinal plants and herbs. A large board near the shola attests as much, stating that the shola is full of mosses, lichens, orchids, saprophytes, rhododendron, vaccinium, wild black plum (jamun), and a lot of herbs.
Discoveries about new species in the shola regularly make the news. In 2018, scientists identified a new herb belonging to the pepper family in the shola, which they named Peperomia ekakesara.
But with the shola being subject to constant exploration and research, it seems unlikely that a team of scientists would somehow miss out on the one herb or vine at the center of the stories about it—a confusion-and-hallucination inducing one at that.
Some in-the-know conjecture that hikers in the shola might have touched the plant known in Tamil as senthatti. This is the Indian stinging nettle (botanical name Tragia involucrata). ‘If you touch it, it causes a lot of itchiness and sometimes dizziness too,’ says a source in the forest department.
Then there are other, lesser known stories. In his video, Madhan Gowri shares a story he was told by locals: there is a Murugan shrine kept deep in the sholas by Siddhars, and the stories about the shola have been created to prevent people from looking for it. Suggesting that people might be referring to a small statue that was kept near where workers at the South India Viscose Company set up camp decades ago to cut wood to take back to their factory, our informed source is quite certain that this can all be put down to the relative impenetrability of this shola.
‘If you look at the canopy, it looks like the trees are holding an umbrella over their head, which blocks out the sunlight, so it is dark inside,’ he says. ‘You cannot clearly see a way out. Then the floor of the shola, like in other sholas, is covered with a thick layer of decomposing leaf litter and organic matter, which can make it swampy in areas. When you walk in, your feet might sink into it. All these things combined can make a person feel scared and confused. But these are all natural phenomena.’
‘The shola, because it is in a basin, is harder to get a direction to orient from, except by compass,’ says Barbara Block, a long-term resident of Kodaikanal and veteran hiker. ‘I went through it with [fellow veteran hiker] Dr Bruce DeJong who had a compass,’ she says. It’s lucky that they did. ‘There were no trails once inside to follow, not even animal trails,’ she explains. ‘[Everything] is growing closely with no paths to maneuver as you climb up or down holding on to [tree] trunks. Each open patch looks like the one you just left so it is so easy to get turned around.’
This is echoed by other locals who have ventured into the forest such as Dr Sam Abraham, Founder of Kodaikanal Christian College, who has ventured into the shola but not too far, also agreeing on how difficult it was to navigate. ‘My father once went into the shola himself,’ he adds. ‘He got confused and didn’t know the way out. So he waited till the evening and then spotted the light of a lorry nearby.
I’ve heard my own father, Noah Sagar, share a similar story. ‘My father, your grandfather, also got lost in the shola,’ he tells me. ‘He and his friend were hunting a deer and followed it into the area. It led them deep into the trees, but luckily they had already been breaking little twigs and marking their path as they went along. So, after they bagged the deer, and were heading back home, they could find their way out.’
In the light of day, many who know Kodai’s wilderness well, see the mysteries of ‘Mad Shola’ as nothing more than individual cases of bad luck strung together by coincidence—cautionary tales about general safety when out in the woods. But many others, even when confronted with the most practical of explanations, are reluctant to completely rule out the possibility of another, less tangible reason for the legends it has inspired. And to their credit, these mountains, more than most places, have guarded their mysteries closely. For now, Mathikettan Shola reveals its secrets to only a few.
See ‘A Secret in the Hills’ by Ian Lockwood for a detailed description of a visit, a while ago.