“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.
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.
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.
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.