Vattakanal, seven kilometres uphill from Kodaikanal town, has a small population of residents and is full of sweeping views of valleys and vales all around. From here, we can see as far as Vellagavi, an isolated nearby village, and beyond. Photo: Venkatesh Balasubramani.

Voyages through Vatta

In 2010, as our semester drew to an end, my college gang was eager to vacation off the grid, and we got the perfect recommendation. As a spot to go away and be merry in, the macha-verse* spoke of the breathtaking beauty of Vattakanal (fondly called ‘Vatta’ by its familiars). They insisted on the pre-eminence of Vatta as a bohemian paradise nestled within a biodiversity hotspot. We heard curious fables of hiking trails and hidden waterfalls from Bangalore bros who frequented the hamlet just outside Kodaikanal.

Trippy trip operators

The trip gods had spoken, and a shoe-string budget was mobilised just in time for the overnight bus. We woke up to nippy gusts whipping through the window gaps as the bus neared Kodai. As we got off, we were immediately surrounded by cab drivers and touts vying for our attention. The one who succeeded repeated, ‘Taxi, boss, taxi. Vattakanal, Mannavanur, Poombarai? How many members you all are? You want rooms-shrooms? Very fresh and new, just 10–15 minutes near.’ 

Our new friend personified the term trip-operator. With Tamil songs of yore playing over his Omni van’s stereo, he gave us the low-down on the off-grid hamlet of Vatta. Season after season, these trip-operators introduced visitors to its different faces during their stay. 

We reached Vatta to find a group of travellers singing soothing songs, I think in French, on the grassy slopes of the pear orchards near the taxi stand. The thick mist surrounding us lifted in sync with the music to reveal a vista of valleys below and a stunning rainbow above—we had landed in heaven. That first trip left such a mark on me, I returned more than a dozen times over the next seven years.

Many visitors hike through the forests of Vattakanal, solo or in groups. If you are lucky you find moments of quiet, like that at this popular viewpoint (2) or deep in the forest (3). Photos: Liron Levy (1), Olivades (2), Richard Winkler (3)/Shutterstock.

My first visit as part of a boisterous group of college-goers made me realise the need to return with more sensitivity, time and humility for this fascinating hamlet. By around 2013, newer and fancier resort-like cabins had sprouted up. The narrow road to Vatta was clogged with larger cars with even louder stereos. With more dangerous incidents of tourists under the influence, stricter policing was enforced and a number of hiking trails were closed off. 

After my last trip in 2018, I returned only in October 2023 to see if these conditions had changed. While it could still dial back to its former glory, it was apparent that the lovely face of bohemia was fading. 

The author climbing up to the Vatta cottages (top) and, with his college gang (bottom), on an early trip to the hamlet. Photos:  Aadil Mohammad N(1). the late Lian Bawitlung (2).

Memories of a cosy hamlet

Among a majority of Tamil families, the permanent residents of Vatta also include a handful from other parts of India, and even a family from Israel, who have settled here for its tranquillity or to help conserve the surroundings. Many host backpackers, adventurous families and footloose youth from all over the country and the world, with warmth and spontaneity, providing a steady stream of stories and gossip about fantastical occurrences involving the quirky residents of Vatta, human and non-human. If you stay long enough, you’ll soon become a part of the ‘everyone knows everyone’ equation of this close-knit, home-like settlement.

Until about a decade ago, Vatta was a sanctuary for artists, performers, yoga enthusiasts and wandering dreamers, particularly those on modest budgets. On the quieter weekdays, they would gather to get some sun on the grassy slopes next to the popular Altaf’s Cafe. While some wrote, drew, played board games (we discovered backgammon through some avid players) or practised asanas, others played guitars, djembes and didgeridoos. Among other arts and crafts carried over from across the world, macrame and other outlandish—at the time—activities were quite popular. Some folks even practised fire poi by swinging tethered burning weights in hypnotic patterns. We discovered various card games and board games like backgammon.

Travellers exchanged questions and opinions about culture, music and absurd philosophies. We Indians untangled the confusions the foreigners had about our countless gods, rituals and god-men, while they told us about the symmetry of their lives back home. 

Tourists visit Vattakanal with groups of friends, as documented in the Happy Faces of Vatta Instagram account (2) or in family groups (3). Often, they visit from other countries (1); Vatta is often called ‘Little Israel’ due to the number of Israelis who visited, in the past. Photos: Azad Reese.

Stairway to heaven

In those days, there were only a handful of homestay cabins. As you climbed the steps next to the taxi stand and the church, you would find yourself surrounded by pear trees. The steep climb led to small clearings among the orchards, where charming little wood-and-mud cabins, straight out of the earliest Noddy comics, lopsided chimney and all, dotted the landscape. 

Most of these cabins had little fireplaces and kitchenettes, the walls resplendent with graffiti celebrating reggae, psychedelia, Buddhist imagery and bohemian affirmations by unknown artists-in-residence. You could roam freely in the orchards and forests nearby; the cabin caretakers wouldn’t intervene as long as you weren’t loud or obnoxious enough to disturb the peace. 

The crisp air smelt of pine. After thunderstorms, the landscape would gain a tender sheen. The rain created the perfect weather to visit, offering the chance to experience the diverse fruits, fungi and flowers of these mountains. Small seasonal streams would emerge, carrying the cold and clear rainwater downhill. 

You would be surrounded by the happiest variety of birds and bees, the stars and the trees. While waiting for the showers to slow down, you’d gaze into the powdery mist as slender rays of sunshine would sneak through, creating a spectrum of hues all around us. The paths would be washed clean, and a sparkling dew would cover everything. When the sun finally managed to break through, clouds would form halos around it while rainbows appeared, sometimes more than one at a time.

A glorious Vatta view, as the sun prepares to set in Vattakanal: this is one of the most popular times of day to visit (or congregate in) this hamlet. Photo: Pronoy Banerjee/ Shutterstock.

Walks through paradise

Whenever we stayed in Vatta, we would go to Kodai every few days to stock up on eggs, bread, fresh vegetables, Kodai chocolates and meat. We would take the 4-kilometre walking route across the Vatta bridge towards La Saleth Church and cross the infamous Hindustan Unilever factory on the way. Since it was uphill most of the way, the walk created a great appetite in us for thukpa and momo at the Tibetan restaurants in town. 

Whenever we went hiking, a dog, sometimes more than one, would appear and join us. The short hikes in different directions always led to unique perches or clearings. Bison sightings were quite common, and the lucky ones among us even saw them leaping over the few fences that separated the forest, the pines and the pear orchards. 


Beyond the last cabins, we would reach a steep slope followed by a pond-like sink of land, where the bison liked to gather. Past that a natural amphitheatre-like area opened up, where food-snatching monkey gangs hung out. The dogs that came along usually saved us the embarrassment of being unable to defend ourselves, particularly when the monkeys sneaked into our cabins through an open window or door.

Seen here: Dolphin’s Nose, a popular viewpoint and item on every Kodai visitor’s bucket list, which is a short hike away from the main Vattakanal street (1, 2); a waterfall flows deep in the forest in Vattakanal (2). Photos: Frances Jones (1), Imanuel Thallinger (2) KS Art/ Shutterstock (3).

For a proper cliff view, we would walk along the edge of the pine forest near the orchard wall. This led to the red rocks or cliff spot, where you could stretch out on the sun-warmed rocks and watch the day go by. After a picturesque sunset, the towns in the valley below would light up, like diamonds scattered across the nightscape.

Walking past the pine grove, the native and natural sholas appeared in all their splendour; creepers girdled age-old trees, shooting up to catch the sunlight. The ground was soft and plush, carpeted with dead leaves and mulch that allowed us to walk barefoot. Unlike recent years, there were no leeches to speak of back then, and no fences either. 

After about 10–15 minutes down the middle path of the pine grove, we would hear water flow and spot a steep slope full of tree roots intertwined to form a sort of cargo net, which we climbed down. This led to a clearing with a hidden waterfall that collected in shallow little pools at multiple levels, surrounded by tender plants and moss. Levinge Stream was the source of this heavenly spot. We called it Paradise Falls.

This classic drone video of Vattakanal is among many tributes to its panoramic beauty. Video: Venkatesh Balasubramani/ YouTube.

Bohemian central and other eateries

Hiking around the many paths of Vatta never failed to make us hungry. The best bet for quick, hot meals were the handful of shops serving Maggi, bread omelettes and tea. 

Our favourite was Selvi’s sister’s shop (just below Altaf’s), which still serves fresh bajji-bondas (savoury vegetable fritters), delicious bread omelettes and Maggi with fresh vegetables. Despite a speech impediment, Selvi always described the latest goings-on while her sister translated and prepared our snacks. She was a careful listener who responded to our discussions with sharp wit; she would also nudge her sister to tell us exactly what she meant. 

When I met her in October last year and asked about the new road leading to Vatta, she expressed a sigh of relief that the motorable road down to Dolphin’s Nose wasn’t built over the hiking trail her shop is on. As her sister was away and a group of tourists came calling, the conversation was short-lived. The route detours through Vellagavi, a pristine hamlet downhill from Vatta which activists have raised concerns about, as they say it threatens gaur and deer migration corridors.

Selvi is one of Vattakanal’s most popular shopkeepers. Vatta’s shops are busiest in April and May, when many visit. Photo: Selvi.

*

An institution in Vatta, Altaf’s Cafe still serves soulful West Asian and continental food. Nestled in an airy perch, it has the most spectacular view of the surrounding peaks and the valley below. There’s always ambient music playing, part of playlists that are contributed to by travellers from around the world. Earlier, the occasional visiting performers also entertained guests while waiting for their own falafel and hummus, fruit-curd-muesli or other equally comforting dishes. This time, I spotted a few MacBook Pros amongst the more upmarket clientele.     

Altaf’s Cafe is Vattakanal’s most famous restaurant, a beloved hangout for visitors in search of views and vibes. Seen here: the view from above Altaf’s (1); a classic drink of ginger-lemon-honey tea, one of the staples here. Photos: Azad Reese (1), Rajni George (2).

‘’These days there are no regulars,’ says Altaf Hassan, the owner of the cafe. (For more about Altaf and his establishment, read ‘Altaf Hussain: The Man Who Put Kodai on the Hummus Trail‘.) Even after seeing thousands of visitors every year, Altaf recognises most returning visitors, like me. ‘Apart from the one-visit weekend groups, we serve camping groups now. Back in the day there was a mix of regulars and fresh visitors,’ he tells me. ‘But whatever changes, we keep doing what we do.’ 

Last of the Vatta folk 

I often visited during the rainy season, when tourist footfall is low. Last October, it was busier than usual, but people still made time for me. Today, only a few locals cling to sustainable and low-cost hospitality methods. I picked their brains about the rapid resortification of Vatta.

Sarah M is one of roughly 200 guesthouse owners in Vattakanal. Born and brought up here, she is the continuous link to the hamlet, through both her guesthouse and tea shop, for many a visitor. Photos: Azad Reese.

‘I focus on what I do. I come here in the morning and I run this place the best I can, by God’s grace. In the evening, I am thankful for my day and return home,’ said Sarah M, a guest house and tuck shop owner I’ve met several times over the years. Sarah was born in Vatta and spent her youth growing vegetables with her parents. She inherited a part of the land she grew up on about 20 years ago and built her guest house amidst trees and flowering plants, offering a simple, cosy and affordable stay. At the age of 58, she still works alone to maintain her place.

‘If someone wants to chase profits, that is their choice,’ she said. ‘I am happy with the rent I receive. I charge about Rs 600 per person. I don’t know if the commercialisation in town is good or bad, but I do notice that guests don’t get to experience nimmathi [relief or serenity] here anymore, and there isn’t much ammaithi [peace] left either.’ For a while, Sarah attended meetings of the local Guest House Owners’ Association, an organisation that helps resolve conflict and handle civic issues and the authorities. She continues to contribute towards the corpus, but lately, she is opting out of what she says are poorly timed meetings that stretch to 8.30pm at times.

The trip to Vattakanal from Kodaikanal town can take 20 minutes by car or a couple of hours if you are walking. Tamilvanan’s minibus takes visitors between Vatta and town. Seen here: Tamilvanan, his 15-seater minibus and passengers. Photos: Azad Reese.

The last of the Vatta folk offering affordable shared transport to these parts, Tamilvanan is a 64-year-old Vatta resident who has driven a 15-seater minibus between Vattakanal and Kodaikanal for nearly 47 years now. Running from 7.30 am to sunset, Tamil’s shuttle is, by far, the cheapest and most efficient way to travel. However, he finds the demand for his service has reduced over the past few years. ‘Very few tourists want shared rides now,’ he told me. Earlier, groups of people waited for him at the shuttle’s stops, calling to check on his exact location while he was driving; today, he waits hours to fill up his minibus with a feasible number. Most visitors prefer to use cars or cabs, which clog Vatta’s narrow roads. ‘Their shorter stays also often mean they don’t even find out about me. This hurts my earnings.’ 

Fighting the good fight

Despite occasional mindless weekend revelry, selective policing of Indian backpackers and skyrocketing room rents, among other menaces, Vatta’s charm remains alive through its people, who safeguard its spirit. Locals in Vattakanal aspire for a shift in the local administration’s approach, recognising that security measures alone won’t foster sustainable tourism. And, as businesses gain conditional licences here, there’s a growing call for improved civic services, such as better waste management, especially to mitigate the effects of increased tourism, highlighting the need for inclusive decision-making involving local perspectives.

Among the most prolific naturalist painters of the Nilgiris, Edwin Joseph, known as Eddy, grew up in Jabalpur and was inspired to explore artistic pursuits when, in the early 1970s, he saw a film about the music festival Woodstock. In 1973, he travelled to Kodai in search of the fabled experiences he had heard about. Like so many after him, the more he explored the magic and serenity of the sholas, the more his urge to stay grew. (For more about the artist, read ‘For Love and Monet’.)

Eddy’s paintings give us a peek into the most untouched, often lost parts of the ecosystem around Vatta. Five decades later, the artist can’t remember the last time he went down to the plains, and the town of Kodai itself is a little too bustling for his taste now. ‘The first wave of European backpackers came here in the late 1990s,’ he told me. ‘After 2005, that changed, and Israelis outnumbered them. A lot of regulars [from India] stopped visiting, as most of the strict policing is for Indian visitors. During the year-end surge in Israeli tourists, there is even special security from plainclothes policemen who embed themselves in Vatta during those busy months and pretend to be tourists taking selfies.’

Edwin Joseph or Eddy (seem here at home) as he is popularly referred to is a local legend. His impressionistic art (seen in the background here) has been shown all over India. Photo: Rajni George.

When Eddy saw garbage piling up in Vatta due to surging tourist footfall, he decided to take action. He helped establish VOYCE (Vattakanal Organization for Youth Community and Environment Trust), a clean-up collaboration, with a French friend who secured funding to set up doorstep waste collection followed by processing at sites in the plains. He explains that the organisation’s activities eventually fell apart; Eddy decided to exit the initiative partly due to local opposition. Today, his message to tourists is simple: ‘Stop littering and clean up all your own sh*t.’

Though I’m sure we crossed paths, I never had the honour of meeting Bob Stewart and Tanya Balcar. The tireless conservationists worked for several years to help restore many lost patches of shola grasslands nearby, and visitors will remember their shola plants nursery, which protected various endangered and rare fauna. Among those inspired by them is Danish Khan, founder of backpacker-friendly Dostel Stays, who worked with them on conservation initiatives. ‘While guest-house owners are trying to negotiate for proper sanitation and garbage disposal, added efforts are needed to sensitise the ever-growing number of weekend visitors,’ he told me.

Wild gaur (bos gaurus), commonly referred to as bison, are among the many beautiful wild creatures you will see in and around Vattakanal. Over-development is driving them further into human settlements all over Kodaikanal, including grassy patches like this one, close to people’s homes. Photo: Zippura Madhukar.

After an initial bike trip in 2012, Danish returned to Vatta as a backpacker in 2016 after graduating from the Indian Institute of Remote Sensing. He started working with Bob and Tanya on projects with affiliations to reputed scientific institutions, including the Indian Institute of Human Sciences. He also built a social initiative at Dostel to mitigate the adverse impacts of tourism, allocating his proceeds to clean-up efforts in Vatta and installing waste bins. Today, he even offers free stays to guests willing to volunteer, and he has a ‘Rag-packers’ initiative which takes up shola replanting every few months.

‘Importantly, the long-stay tourists really make a difference,’ he said. ‘They want to help with conservation and keeping Vatta clean. But they are not willing to deal with the many restrictions and are moving to other destinations where they can explore nature more freely. The culture of conservation and cleanliness has to be ingrained into visitors, hopefully by the people present here.’

Vattakanal struggles for adequate parking and streamlined footfall, today; construction materials litter the street (1). Local estimates around 80 homestays exist, many undocumented, and many thousands of visitors fill its narrow roads, which are crammed with shops and parked cars (2). Photos: Azad Reese.
 

Somewhere over the rainbow

While Vatta’s ambience and its quirky-but-warm residents have served as a sanctuary for artists, hikers and conservationists, its off-grid location has also taught countless urbanites, including myself, priceless lessons in simple living in an increasingly consumerist world. My return to the hamlet reminded me of the privilege of experiencing its wonders and my debt of gratitude to the people conserving it. 

If we hope to keep returning to this slice of paradise, Vatta’s and its residents’ stories need to be remembered and retold, so that greater collective effort is mobilised to preserve this delicate and enchanting region. 

*’Macha’ is a Tamil word commonly used by south Indians to refer to a friend; literally, ‘bro’ in English.

Sumanto Mondal

Sumanto Mondal is an independent writer and editorial consultant specialising in long-form feature writing and social research on caste demographics in Bengaluru. He is a former correspondent with the ‘Global Macroeconomic Polling’ team at Reuters International News, prior to which he reported on Bengaluru's local economies and culture for The Hindu.

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