Kodaikanal is a place where time flows backwards, where time retracts, inch by inch, reversing its flow on the space-time continuum through the centuries, before the European missionaries made their way up the mountain, before indigenous clans warred for land, before the first tribes hunted the crags and peaks—to the Jurassic era, 150 million years ago. When East Gondwana broke away from Madagascar and collided into Eurasia, forming the nib of the Indian peninsula and giving rise to a magical oasis called the Western Ghats.
Kodai is a lot of things. It’s a sky island, floating 7,000 feet above sea level, its misty trails leading deep into mountainous jungle. Its untrammelled sholas are ensconced in one of the few remaining biodiversity hotspots on planet Earth. A bastion of montane indigenous forest pre-dating the birth of the Himalayas. Kodai is also my school town, the place I lived in from 1986 to 1995; from age nine to 18. Sufficient time to get spellbound by its primeval beauty.
I returned last year. As my car snaked up the steep ravines recently, the scent of fresh eucalyptus filled my lungs. The symphony of the forest rising and falling with every turn, the incessant buzz of the cicadas along with the melodies erupting from songbirds. Vines and creepers fell like streamers, so tenacious and thick, one could scarcely see beyond them. Mosaics of radiant green, snatches of yellow like bamboo and salamander, bark the colour of dinosaur hide, blossoms soft and pink like the teat of a marsupial, jagged leaves protruding like purple lizard tongues. Some flowers nestled in the folds of the mountainside; others were dotted brazenly along the road, watching my ascent into their sacred abode.
At the higher reaches, my skin stung with the chill as opaque fog descended over the car like a ghost. Beyond the short jab of the headlights, visibility was down to zero. Cutting through cloud, I stuck my head out, wind whipping through my hair. I opened my mouth, allowing droplets of mist to condense on my tongue.
Kodai’s original tribes date back to the Stone Age. Builders of megalith dolmens: burial sites that housed earthen pots with their dead interred in foetal positions. Forest people who roved through jungle-clad gorges that fringed the upper ranges. Men and women hunting shoulder to shoulder for porcupine, deer and boar, and foraging for honey, yam and lichen.
I spiralled back in time to a huntress fresh from a kill, panting as she rests on the soft, spongy moss garnishing a brook, her spear trailing ribbons of blood into the cool forest pool. She has a natural-born awareness of her surroundings. She knows the dangers that lurk about her.
Dolmen sites have been found in Europe, North Africa, India and Korea. Little is known of the people who made them. One archaeologist hypothesised that the construction of the mausoleums was carried out by ‘mythical megalithic missionaries’, who divulged a religious faith known to belong to the cults of Gaia, Mother Goddess of Earth. Before Hinduism, Christianity and Islam tiptoed up the mountain, animism was the root of devotion. Connecting with the forest spirit. Worshipping nature in all its myriad forms. Believing in the sentience of rocks, plants and streams that burst into waterfalls. Approximately 3,000 years ago, these missionaries of Gaia disappeared like an echo never to return, taking with them the wisdom gleaned from the ancient forest.
As a girl of nine, I remember a sanctum etched out like a comma in the nook of a dimly lit path, whitewashed and bright with diyas. I don’t remember much else. On a recent trip, I paid more attention to the relics. Beside the trishul impaled with a lemon stood three symmetrical blocks of stone: one rectangle, the second a square with a flat slab resting on it, and the third like a stunted gravestone with a garland of marigold and a green cloth draped over its shoulders. I was later informed the stones were icons of animism, the columns signifying the venerated trees they worshipped.
On my visit last year, I broke from the trail, climbing over a bend in the fence and into the innards of the shola. Ferns with coiled fiddleheads broke skyward. Moss spread in every direction, transforming the land into a rippling emerald sea. Spindle-legged lichen hung under dead bark like jade earrings.
The Western Ghats boast over 750 varieties of fungi: some stood tall like pewter lollipops, some like burnt meringue, some like drops of clotted cream on the forest land. Red caps so miniscule I mistook them for scarlet clover mites. The morning sun streamed through the gills of a troop of flat topped mushrooms flanking a tall tree, looking like manta rays swimming out to ocean.
I got down on my knees, scrutinising the fruiting bodies of the fungi, the bulk of their network thriving underground in a complex grid of thread-like hyphae that spread out over thousands of acres, signalling pulses to the far ends. A 150-million-year-old arrangement. What did the largest organisms in the forest make of this strain of human? What did they have to say to us?
I left the moist undergrowth and took the lane down to Red Lynch, a sprawling Victorian greystone in the heart of the Shola.
The house was built by a member of the British Raj in the late 1800s. My parents rented Red Lynch from the Ganesan family, its current owners, for a couple of months in 1986 so as to ease both their children into a boarding school regimen. I remember its sunroom, a cube bright with light facing the swaying forest.
I remember the grandfather clock with its pendulum ticktocking. The clock had endured a long journey to reach its current station. Trees had been felled from exotic forests belonging to imperial colonies, then shipped to workshops in England, assembled expertly then packed and sailed over the Atlantic to a port in Bombay, then on a train to Madurai where it was lugged to Kodaikanal over several days in a bullock cart. Made from either mahogany, teak or rosewood—trees that are now endangered. The grandfather clock ticked, as though heralding a warning. African mahogany saying to evergreen Indian montane, tick-tock. Ancient forest saying to ancient forest, tick-tock. Tick-Tock.
I spiral back in time to a woman in the 19th century: She is distracted by a giant, exquisite luna moth, with wings the colour of moon ash flying into the purple rush of twilight. Oblivious of bats as large as raptors circling overhead, she follows the iridescent flutter into a dark crevasse of the forest.
Here, in these forests so dark, evolved the black panther. Sitting atop an opaque slant of bark, the panther drops onto the unsuspecting wanderer, clawing her jugular before she can squawk. The gifts of the forest.
Last year, I caught the shine of a blue-tailed skink—snakelike lizards that burrow under deadfall. But it wasn’t a jungle reptile. It was garbage. Chips wrappers. There were also biscuit wrappers, plastic caps and alcohol bottles. A used diaper flared open in the wind.
Breaking course for one last forest bath, I walked to an arm of the jungle that looked untouched. Fingers of mist fell down the slopes to meet the shafts of light filtering through the canopy.
Bounded by the sway of sun and cloud, I spun like a dervish, inhaling deeply, pulling Gaia into my lungs. Breath stopped. Thought stopped. When I heard the forest goddess whisper. Tick-tock.