The Kodaikanal-Munnar road, also called the Escape Road or Back Route, was closed sometime in the mid-1990s. This photo from 1981 shows the road in its glory days, before plantations took over the slopes. Photo: Mark Laun, Wikimedia Commons.

Escape Route: Tales from the Legendary Kodai-Munnar Road

“We were driving on a road—little more than a dirt track with large pot holes—the car’s headlights eerily reflecting off the swaying silver oaks among the tea bushes and occasionally elephant or gaur dung making us wary of running into one of these great animals. The Himalayas seemed comparatively tame! It was a scary road to navigate in our little Dolphin car.’Vicky Chandhok, a veteran of many a rally and motor race, shakes his head at the memory of driving down Kodaikanal’s legendary Escape Road.

This was the Kodai–Munnar road, the highest motorable road south of the Himalayas, and certainly not an easy route to navigate. It twisted and turned around Ibex Cliff and Vandaravu Peak before crossing the border from Tamil Nadu into Kerala in Pampadum Shola National Park. Seventeen hairpin bends later, it wound into Top Station and thence to Munnar. This remarkable road traversed a part of the Western Ghats—one of a few biodiversity hotspots and home to some of India’s most rare and endangered plants and animals.  

But not many residents know of its interesting and dramatic history. 

The beginnings of the ‘Back Route’, as it was called, go as far back as the late 1800s, when the British were making their way over the high hills of the Western Ghats to map unexplored country between Madurai and Cochin. Most of the surveyors followed the Periyar River into the dense forests of the Kannan Devan Hills, which came to be named the High Range, but many also trekked across the hills from Kodaikanal, creating the track that was to later become the Back Route. 

P. Guhathakurta, the retired vice president of the Kannan Devan Hills Plantation Company, Munnar, a subsidiary of Tata Tea, gave me a background of the beginnings of the tea industry in the High Range. In 1877, a British administrator John Daniel Munro set about surveying the area for the commercial planting of tea, coffee and cinchona. The first major camp was at Top Station at 6,000 feet. Moving on from there, they came to the confluence of two rivers (one almost doubling back on itself in a sharp bend), aptly called Munnar (moon meaning ‘three’ and ar meaning ‘river’).      

Around the end of the nineteenth century, the merchant and manufacturer James Finlay amalgamated many of the smaller concessions and companies into one large company—The Kannan Devan Hills Plantation Company (KDHP), owned first by Finlay himself, then Tata Finlay and finally Tata Tea. A ropeway and a railway, and then a road, connected Munnar, the seat of the company headquarters, to Top Station. From here, goods and supplies were transported by the ropeway that went down to Bottom Station near Bodinayakanur, and then farther afield by road or rail. Top Station lay at the edge of the company holdings, separated from Kodaikanal by a vast stretch of grasslands and forest, at the other end of which lay the pristine Berijam Lake. Rarely did the tea planters venture beyond Top Station, except to go fishing or game hunting. This then was the setting for the oft-used trekking route to become a cart road that connected Kodaikanal to Cochin via Munnar. It came to be known as the Escape Road during World War II. 

The Escape Road’s origins began as an unofficial foot trail from Top Station towards Kodaikanal. The Kannan Devan Hills Plantation Company, based in Munnar, built a ropeway, railways and road until Top Station to transport goods. Photo: Abinaya Kalyanasundaram.

During World War II, the British Army requisitioned a piece of land in a valley near the Pambar River on the outskirts of Kodaikanal town, near the Golf Club, and built a series of barracks (now known as Holiday Home). These were intentioned to house convalescing British troops and also to serve as an internment camp for non-Allied citizens living in the Palani Hills. The bombing of Madras by the Japanese had caused people in the city, mostly British and American, to find refuge in the hills. The British had an escape plan in place, in case of a possible invasion by the Japanese, to reach Munnar and from there get to Cochin harbour and onboard ships to England. The 81km cart road (the old SH18) to Munnar went from Kodaikanal town, past the Golf Club, then past Moir Point and Berijam, and on through the forests and grasslands to Top Station. It was quickly improved and referred to as the Escape Road. 

However, to make it difficult to be followed by the invaders, a new plan was formed: connect the Escape Road to Observatory Road, which went from Kodaikanal town to the observatory before petering out into a track through the forest towards the northern villages of Poombarai and Mannavanur. The government connected the two roads along the hillside below the Swedish Settlement and named it Levinge Road, and they extended Observatory Road all the way to join the Escape Road well beyond the Golf Club, at Moir Point. A small hillock named Semman Medu had to be flattened to achieve this clever ploy. I can just see it in my mind’s eye—vehicles with frightened civilians making a dash for Munnar…the enemy following not far behind…escapees veering off on to Levinge Road…enemy vehicles carrying on straight ahead, unaware of this detour…and in the meantime, the escapees being well on their way to Top Station. In reality, this drama never did happen. There was no invasion of Madras by Japanese forces. 

Nevertheless, many others took advantage of the Escape Road. Keen anglers from Munnar, like Chengappa, and residents of Kodaikanal, like Gordon Cummings, drove along it to the two streams that teemed with trout, having been stocked by James Finlay & Co. from their hatchery in the High Range. Golfers drove both ways for sports meets in Munnar and Kodai. Given the nature of the road and the terrain through which it went, it was a perfect route for car and motorcycle rallies. Beginning in South India in the 1950s, adventurous motorists rose to the challenge in their Heralds, Ambassadors, Dolphins and Fiats, small cars unheard of in today’s world and quite unlike the powerful off-road vehicles we now have. It didn’t take long for this route to be made part of the South India Rally. For drivers, it is at once the most exciting as well as the most challenging section of the rally, once taken and never forgotten.

An old milestone from the 1940s, on the derelict Kodai-Munnar road. Photo: Ian Lockwood.

Tales from the road make for thrilling albeit slightly terrifying stories. According to rally drivers, ‘We had to get off our Lambretta scooter many times and push it uphill, and then carry the scooter across as many as ten streams.’ 

‘There is nothing called a road in most places and you will actually have to find your own way, sometimes with two wheels on the rock face.’

Former Indian racing and rally champion Kamlesh Patel was a youngster in 1971 on his first South India Rally with his father when he first encountered the Escape Road. ‘The route from Kodaikanal to Munnar was treacherous even then,’ he says. ‘There was a thick fog that night, and it was very difficult to see what was ahead. We were following the tail lights of the car in front of us. Suddenly we could see nothing! The car in front had gone around a bend, but Dad missed that and careened straight down the slope, where we were fortunately stopped by the tea bushes. The car behind us had a rope and pulled us out.’

The Escape Road was never used during World War II, but it did serve as an escape route in the early 1980s, during the Tamil-Sri Lankan conflict. The long-serving principal of Kodaikanal International School (KIS) was a Sri Lankan; there were several Sri Lankans on the faculty and in the student body. It became unsafe for them to remain in India, particularly in Tamil Nadu. Somebody remembered the Escape Road and late one night, all the Sri Lankans were put on a bus, under the able stewardship of Curly (Rajagopala Dorairaja), a long-term resident of Kodaikanal, and driven to Munnar and on to Cochin, through the Escape Road. 

Dr Kumar and Jayashree were living in Munnar at the time. They remember having been woken by the doorbell at around 2am. They opened it to find their old friend Curly there with a fantastic story of an escape to Cochin. Behind him stood a group of adults and children, dazed and shaken by the perilous ride they’d just been on. After the frightened and bewildered passengers had rested a bit and freshened up, the bus proceeded on its way down to Cochin and safety. The Kumars never forgot that pre-dawn drama, and it’s likely the passengers didn’t either. 

The Escape Road or Back Route continued to feature in larger-than-life situations for Kodai residents as well.

The Escape Road was built by the British during World War II in case of a Japanese invasion. The existing cart road was developed starting from Kodaikanal town past Moir Point and Berijam lake (pictured above), and on toward Top Station. From here, they would connect to Munnar and Cochin harbour to board ships to England. Photo: Shutterstock.

On Christmas Eve of 1987, the George family from Kodaikanal and their visiting cousins had plans to head to Cochin to celebrate Christmas. But the day dawned with the news of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MGR’s death. Lathika George recalls, ‘Unfortunately, there were the usual riots and violence after a superstar’s death, and it was unsafe to take the main roads. So four adults and four children piled into our trusty Ambassador early in the morning and took the Escape Road. Luckily, there were no elephants, but the road was bad, as expected—huge, gnarly tree roots spread over the surface. For much of the journey we walked alongside the car. We finally reached our cousin’s house in Munnar, tired and hungry but quite relieved to be safe and warm. It was exciting and fun!’

For several years from 1983, the Kumars used to drive ‘across the top’ every month from Munnar to Kodai for weekends and, after they moved to Kodai in 1986, to see Dr Kumar’s parents in Munnar. The drive, which usually took about three hours, began to take longer and longer as the neglected road kept deteriorating. Jayashree says, ‘The last time we drove across was in 1990. The road in many parts was like the path of a rocky avalanche. It took us seven hours to drive the 80-odd kilometres to Munnar.’ 

Eventually, the road was closed to vehicles in the mid-1990s and turned into a logging trail that passed through grasslands. This turned out to be an ecological disaster. These vast tracts of grasslands were vital in holding together the hillsides as well as in retaining water. However, the Tamil Nadu Forest Department only saw them as a commercial prospect and planted black wattle and other exotic trees, thereby destroying the natural vegetation. 

In 2003, with much prodding by environmental conservationists, this area was declared the Pampadum Shola National Park on the Kerala side and, a few years later, the Kodaikanal Wildlife Sanctuary on the Tamil Nadu side. Every few years, there is talk of reopening the Kodaikanal–Munnar road to facilitate a shorter route for tourists and villagers. This would endanger wildlife, indigenous sholas and whatever remains of the grasslands. One hopes that greater consideration is given to preserving the area with advice from environmental scientists. For once, procrastination and inaction have turned into an ecological blessing.

Sunayana Choudhry

Sunayana Choudhry heads the Kodaikanal chapter of INTACH. She lives in Kodaikanal. Teacher, copy editor, reader, knitter, writer and quilter, Jayashree Kumar has lived in Kodai off and on since the 1950s, and permanently since 1986.


  1. Tamil riots broke out
    The KIS singhalese principal wife 2 sons escaped on this root to Munnar – the Jeep turned turtle

    Mrs Hineman who lived on top station, was her favourite to do a Horse ride on this route.

    Our friend Cleto D’Costa did thus route trek in Dec 1982

    Quite few travellers hiked this route

    John & Matthew drove on this route few times

    I & few friends trekked overnight to Munnar 89

    Once national park came up . People were not allowed to use this.

    Great memories of this route.

  2. Nice to this piece of history coming from a North Indian. The article was worth reading and the info was interesting. Thank you

  3. A beautiful read. I have lived a somewhat similar life, in less harsh terrain, in the hills of the Kalakad Sanctuary and Mundanthurai Wildlife Reserve in the Western Ghats of Tirunelveli District of Tamil Nadu. Married to a tea planter who worked for The Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation Ltd. The Zamindar of Singampatti leasing out for 100 years in 1928, 40000 hectares of his land in those hills, to the then Wallace Brothers, (later called The BBTCL), then based in the UK. This group of tea plantations of The BBTC Ltd., came to be named Singampatti Group. It was the 2nd Indian company to be listed as a Rupee Company, on the Bombay Stock Exvhange.( the 1st on this List being The East India Company).
    Singampatti Group was a a paradise lost, and some of us who married into the tea planter community, had many an interesting tale to tell, as we lived and worked in beautiful isolation, during the early 1960s through to the present day, in the pristine surroundings of these wild, isolated hill tracts.
    But that is a story to be told another day…

    • There are a similar stories in Valparai too, where you can see slavery till now by the BBTC. The sad part is our native Tamil people are still slaves to their North Indian managers.

  4. I too experienced this jungle route Munnar to Kodaikanal in 1975 with my Vauxhall – Velox six cylinder car with five members. We started from Munnar town around 9 AM and reached Kodaikanal 1:30 PM .There was about 17 hairpin upto Tamil Nadu boarder .After climbing about tenthousand feets above sealevel my car slowly began to descend to 7000 feet to reach Berijam lake near Kodaikanal town .
    During this adventurous trip we have to cross a water stream since the bridge was damaged then . We drove the car through the water stream for about 50 meters and again connected to the mud road filled with Bamboo both side .We only met one pilot bike & British Tonga on way coming from Kodai to Munnar . No people on the way till Kodai .I am thankful to the built quality and the Engine performance of Vauxhall Velox to achieve this adventurous trip to kodai though this off road in 1975. I wish to make this road again motorable so that may people can enjoy this mountain road and connect both these Hill Station within a few hours time .

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Issue 9 Editorial: Letter to the Readers of The Kodai Chronicle