Times Change…Devil’s Kitchen Then and Now
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.