Window on Poombarai
Window on Poombarai (Photo: Ian Lockwood)

From Bombay Shola to Kilavarai: The Nature Lover’s Guide to Kodai

Kodaikanal is a unique mountain ecosystem. Set in the Western Ghats, this landscape of Shola forest and grasslands is one of the earth’s eight biodiversity hotspots: rich in flora, wildlife and freshwater bodies like lakes and waterfalls. 

There is much to experience here, and as lovers of nature, it is important that we treat this environment with the respect and care it deserves. This list of activities combines fun, observation and learning experiences that yield a connection to this beautiful habitat. A word of advice for the eco-conscious traveller: travel in small groups, be open to quieter experiences and be respectful of your surroundings. Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but tracks. The more mindful we are, the richer our experience is likely to be. 

Fern in Bombay Shola
Inside the shola, biodiversity abounds, just minutes from Kodaikanal town (Photo: Rajesh Mani)

Birdwatch in Bombay Shola 

Sholas are dense, lush, high-altitude tropical montane forests, found in valleys and surrounded by grasslands. Unique to the Western Ghats of South India, they are home to a staggering range of biodiversity, from rare birds to large megaherbivores. Bombay Shola, a central 25-hectare patch, is a good introduction to this kind of forest and how it functions—and it exists in the middle of town! Located just above the town’s lake, Bombay Shola is open to the public and easily accessible, off Upper and Lower Lake Road. 

Visit early in the morning, ideally around 6am, with a pair of binoculars, a field guide and a notebook. The forest holds many treasures: a 500-year-old Syzygium densiflorum, or jamun tree, as well as giant tree ferns and ground orchids. The grey-breasted laughingthrush, the black-and-orange flycatcher and the brown wood owl are often spotted here, as are flying squirrels and the Nilgiri tahr. 

Bombay Shola tree
The gentle giants of Kodai have a rich history (Photo: Rajesh Mani)

Take a heritage tree walk

Enjoy doing a tour at your own pace? Try the wonderful, self-guided tour featured in the book Meet the Trees of Kodaikanal, An Island in the Sky. It was created by the Kodaikanal chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH)— with inputs from the late Bob Stewart and Tanya Balcar, our town’s renowned naturalists—and is a fount of information on Kodaikanal’s natural history. The book’s QR code helps you plan your tour in a day if on a bicycle or motorbike, or over a few days if you plan to walk. Illustrations and descriptions help you identify the trees. Ideal for saunterers and tree-lovers, the walks wind down charming country roads, past rose-and-ivy clad stone cottages and deep into the Sholas. 

Meet the Trees of Kodaikanal, An Island in the Sky is available at The Hoopoe Shop, PT Road and at Shalimar Weaves, Maratha Complex, Bazaar Road. Rs 200. 

View of Kilavarai
The village of Kilavarai makes for a classic Kodai day trip (Photo: Ian Lockwood)

Visit Kilavarai, the last village on the Tamil Nadu border

Less than two hours away from Kodai lies a patchwork of lush step farms on steep slopes surrounded by eucalyptus plantations, Shola forests, waterfalls and streams. Together with stretches of verdant grassland, these make Kilavarai a charming location for a day trip or overnight stay (there are a few farm stays here).  The last village in Tamil Nadu, on the border with Munnar in Kerala, it was once part of an ‘escape route’ planned in case of a Japanese invasion during World War II. Now the inhabitants of this region are an agrarian community who cultivate hill garlic and a variety of vegetables on terraces cut into the slopes. Take a jeep out to this village and trek through it at a leisurely pace, or take the bus over. 

Buses depart from Kodaikanal Bus Stand at 10.45am, 3pm and 7pm (check the schedule on the day of your visit). Note: no permits required.

Yoga amidst the Kurinji flowers
Yoga amidst the Kurinji flowers (Photo: R Serapandi)

Walk around picturesque Poombarai 

The subject of many an Instagrammer’s feed, this tiny hamlet is worth exploring in-depth and on foot. Inhabited by an old farming community, it showcases rural life in a remote mountain village. Driving down from Kodaikanal, your first view of this colourful village will make you stop and linger for pictures. Clusters of houses are surrounded by terraced fields, where you can stop to buy fresh produce in season: GI hill garlic, potatos, carrots and other vegetables that have just been harvested.This is a charming day trip, 35 kilometres from the heart of Kodai. You can drive there or take a bus from the town centre. Carry a packed lunch or snacks, or stop at one of the tiny tea shops along the way for refreshments. There’s also Passiflora, the Italian restaurant that puts Poombarai on the food lover’s map. 

A bus leaves every hour from the Kodaikanal Bus Stand from 4.30am onwards (check the schedule on the day of your visit).

Elaeocarpus blascoi, a large Shola tree
Elaeocarpus blascoi, a large Shola tree (Photo courtesy INTACH Kodaikanal)

Visit the Anglade Institute of Natural History

This renowned eco sanctuary, which is also a spirituality and heritage centre, is the kind of unusual space you rarely stumble on in a small town. Located in Shenbaganur village, 7 kilometres outside of Kodaikanal town, it is run by Jesuit priests who were dedicated to conservation, among them the late, renowned Father K M Mathew, founder of the Palni Hills Conservation Council. 

Today, the Anglade Institute of Natural History has an environmental awareness and education programme for schoolchildren, college students and grassroots-level conservation leaders. The century-old Natural Science Museum (NSM) in Shenbaganur has a collection of plant and animal species native to these hills, curated by biologist Louis Anglade in the early 1900s. It also documents the lives of the ancient inhabitants of the Palanis, the Paliyar and Pulayar tribes, and features rarities such as Adivasi funeral urns and ancient palm leaves inscribed with Tamil by the Italian priest-turned-poet Joseph Beschi.

Sacred Heart College, Shembaganur. Open 9am to 6pm, every day of the year except Good Friday. Father Stanislaus can be contacted on 63744 38273. 

Bryant Park, Kodaikanal
Take your lunch to the park while the crowds are away (Photo: TKC Staff)

Wander around Bryant Park 

This 20-acre botanical park by Kodaikanal Lake was established in 1908 by a British forest officer called H D Bryant and is maintained by the Department of Horticulture as a recreational park and demonstration centre. It has a glasshouse, a nursery, lush sloping lawns, walkways through colourful flower beds and a large pond filled with water lilies. An extensive collection of rose bushes, cacti and shrubs, a large Bodhi tree and an ancient eucalyptus tree, as well as a variety of rare tree species are some of the attractions.

The Department of Horticulture conducts classes to train students in ornamental horticulture, pruning, budding, grafting and seed collection. It also holds the annual Flower Show in May, one of the highlights of the summer season. It can get pretty crowded in the evenings and over the weekend, but Bryant Park is lovely in the mornings, especially if you’re an avid gardener. Pack up a sandwich and a flask of tea, and head over for a picnic.

Lower Shola Road. Open daily 9am to 6pm.
Entrance fee: adults Rs 30, children: Rs 15, camera: Rs 50.

Night skies in Kodai
Night skies in Kodai (Photo: Vahishta Mistry)

Stargaze at the Kodaikanal Solar Observatory

An interest in the natural world also encompasses the skies above us. The Kodaikanal Solar Observatory was started in 1899 as the Solar Physics Observatory, featuring the oldest continuous archive of solar data in India, starting from the 19th century. This tiny observatory has indeed made a mark in the scientific world; the Evershed effect, which noted that gas flowed outwards from sunspots at velocities of between 1 and 2 kilometres per second, was discovered here in 1909.  Now managed by the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, it is an interesting spot to explore.An astronomy museum is open to tourists daily, and visitors can view live solar images and the Fraunhofer spectrum, depending on weather conditions. You can also watch the skies at night and try your hand at using the equipment available here—an offbeat, educative evening.

Observatory Road (4542 240245, 240588). Email: Open daily 9.30am to noon and 2pm to 4.30pm. Night sky watch from 5.30pm.

A floral find of bright red
A floral find of bright red (Photo: Neha Sumitran)

Walk around Chettiar Park

This is another easy park to try mid-week. 3 kilometres from the centre of town, Chettiar Park has been designed on a steep hillside. It features winding walks through different levels of flowering beds and lawns, a collection of rare plants and well-maintained topiary. The park is best known for its slopes of kurinji bushes, which burst into bloom every 12 years, turning the hillside into a blaze of blue. You may also recognize it from the big screen—the park has featured in many films.

Near Kurinji Andavar Temple.
Open daily 9am to 5pm.

Flowers in Kodai
Learn about Kodai’s beautiful flora at the Horticultural Research Station (Photo: Neha Sumitran)

Explore the Horticultural Research Station

If you are interested in how plants, vegetables and fruit grow in our hill station, this is a must. Spanning more than 18 hectares of land on Fairy Falls Road, the Horticultural Research Station was first established in 1961 as the Apple Research Station, to develop apple farming in Kodaikanal and other hill stations. Given its current name in 1971, it continues with research on a variety of fruits, vegetables and medicinal and aromatic plants, to help local farmers with new varieties and farming techniques. It also serves as a research station for students from agricultural universities.

Visitors can spend a pleasant morning exploring the extensive grounds, which have a waterfall, nurseries and greenhouses housing plants at different stages of growth. One of the gardeners will show you around and explain their activities. The nursery has fruit trees, herbs, aromatic plants and some ornamental plants for sale.

Fairy Falls Road (04542 240931).
Open Monday–Friday 8:30am to 5 pm.

Guides to take you to other parts of Kodaikanal:

Vijay Kumar:  99655 24279,, Rs 500 an hour

Peter: 99653 58689 (Minimum charge: Rs 2000 for 1 or 2 people for 2.5 hours)

Sekhar: 98652 14479

Lathika George

Lathika George is a writer, landscape designer and organic gardener. She is the author of Mother Earth, Sister Seed and The Suriani Kitchen, and has written for Mint Lounge, Conde Nast Traveller, Architectural Digest and Food 52. She had gardening columns in the Business Standard and The Hindu. She lives in Pachamarathodai.

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