Archive for July 2011
For many visitors Palani hills and Kodaikanal have long evoked ideas of deep mysticism and mystery. A place that often conveys these emotions are the cavern’s in Pillar Rocks known as Devil’s Kitchen or more recently Guna Caves. The area is located on the southern escarpment of the Palani Hills where weathered charnockite pillars protrude out of the cliff face. Historically these cliffs were covered in a mix of native grasses and shola (montane evergreen) forest. Because of the unique topography and climatic conditions on the edge of the escarpment the area hosts what was once one of the most unique and finest shola examples near Kodaikanal. When the Palanis were settled by Americans and Europeans fast growing, non-native tree species were introduced to the area changing the views that were sketchedby early visitors such as Douglas Hamilton. The shola at Pillar Rocks, like many in the outer hills, was largely left intact.
Prior to 1990s the caverns and gnarled shola of Devil’s Kitchen were a favorite, yet little known, hiking spot for Kodai school students and the few hippies and others who resided year around in Kodai. The area was dangerous with numerous caverns enclosed by dense vegetation. In fact there is a memorial at the entrance to the shola remembering an unfortunate trader from Madurai who fell to his death in one of the crevices in the 1950s. A highlight of the trip was to descend into the deepest cave, actually the split between the third pillar and the main cliff face, into the “kitchen.” The hike involved some serious scrambling and a short rope descent before you traversed a dank, pitch-black tunnel and emerged in a forest-enclosed outlet (popularly known as the chimney).
In 1992 a Tamil film named Guna was shot within the caverns. In making the film the producers damaged several once-pristine areas but the worst was yet to come. Once the movie was released people wanted to see the site and it quickly became a favorite spot for tourists making the rounds from the Golf Course to Moyer’s Point. The Forest Department now reluctantly manages this flow but the numbers on a busy weekend are astounding. A minor bazaar with shops selling corn, candy and what not marks the entrance to the caves. There is rubbish strewn all over, vegetation has been trampled and areas have been blocked off with massive steel frames and grates. Pesty bonnet macaques (Macaca radiata) scavenge for food while the calls of the Malabar Whistling Thrush (Myophonus horsfieldii) are drowned out by the shouting and hooting of visitors. The Devil’s Kitchen area and its vandalized habitat by chaotic mass tourism underline the challenges of managing sensitive habitats in a hill-station with growing numbers of visitors. For old Kodai residents like me, it is a very personal and sad development that illustrates the worst side of the tourist boom in the hills.
The Brihadishwara temple in Thanjavur represents the pinnacle of Chola architecture and glory. It was built by Rajaraja I (985-1014 CE) at a time when the empire covered most of southern India and Sri Lanka and even included colonies in what is now Indonesia. I was interested to look for linkages with the interaction with Sir Lanka having seen evidence of both the art and wrath of the Cholas in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa.
“The journey is the destination” and this summer after flying into India from Colombo we moved slowly from Chennai southwards to the hills. Starting in Egmore we took a rented vehicle and were able to visit Mamallapuram, Pondicherry, Chidambaram, Gangkondacholapuram, Tranquebar, Swamimalai and finally Tanjavur before ending up in the cool heights of the Palani Hills. The images in this post were taken during this visit using a digital SLR and then reworked and polished using Adobe Photoshop with plugins from Nik Silver Efex. It marks the first time that I have not shot a major trip on film.
Gangaikondacholapuram was a highlight of the temple visit. Many years ago a friend had suggested that I not miss the temple if I was interested in south Indian temple architecture. Built by Rajendra I (1014-42 CE) the architecture represents the peak of the Chola period. The temple is a slightly smaller replica of the big temple in Thanjavur. But it was the location, lost in an under populated and ignored corner of the district that made it an unforgettable delight to visit on our way to Tranquebar. The Rough Guide appropriately describes it as “amongst the most remarkable archeological sites of South India, outshone only by Thanjavur and devoid of visitors most of the time, which gives it a memorably forlorn feel.”
Earlier we had made a brief stop at the Croc Bank and Mamallapuram on our way south. The Croc Bank remains one of the best educational opportunities for patents that want to imbibe natural history and a love for reptiles in their children. We look forward to Lenny and Amy attending summer camp here in a few years. Mamallapuram, of course is an old favorite haunt thanks to my uncle Michael’s interest in the Pallavas and their ancient port that was based next to where the shore temple now stands. It is also a great place for kids to explore and climb exquisite rock.
It has been nearly 15 or so years since I was last in Auroville. The utopian community and settlement just north of the union territory of Pondicherry (now named Puducherry) was motivated by the teachings of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. Their pioneering experiments with sustainable living in a south Indian context has long attracted my interest and admiration. I use a video that documents their experiments with afforestation, energy use, biodiversity conservation and low-impact architecture in my IB Environmental Systems and Geography classes. The film is a great resource and always makes me want to take the students to Auroville for a week of work-study. So far that has been impossible but I will continue to build links in the hope of taking students there in the near future.
Auroville, of course, has changed a great deal in the years that I have been away. The Matramandir has been completed and there are complex barriers in place to keep the busloads of tourists away from it. Because of this I could not photograph the banyan tree that overlooks it but was able to spend time with several other banyans nearby. The townships on the periphery have grown and the dusty road that leads up to the plateau from the East Coast Road has now been done in concrete. The interiors still evoke the sense of peace with the cycle lanes leading through groves or eucalyptus and native tropical dry-evergreen forest. This time I brought my family and it was gratifying to share the place with them.
The highlight was taking Lenny to visit Johnny Allen (now Auroville) at his hermitage in Fertile. There are a kaleidoscope of personalities and lifestyles in the community but Johnny lives my idea of the vision. He uses locally available materials for construction, the power comes from the sun and biomass and the impact on the ecology is minimal. He is still using a biomass-fueled Stirling engine to make peanut butter and dosa mix and chutney every Saturday. This was the engine that had first brought my father Merrick here. I had tagged along on several trips in the early 1990s. Johnny’s home is set amongst towering trees, thatched workshops and cowsheds. He is just the sort of teacher that helps you understand the practical side of sustainable living. Lenny was given a personal tour of the Stirling engine, a compost toilet and models of housing units that Johnny is designing for young people. The significance of Johnny’s example may have eluded Lenny this time but he enjoyed playing in the tree houses and variety of swings created from recycled life preservers.