One’s first impression of Kodaikanal, might be that of any other hill station in India. haphazard development, over-tourism, and tons of plastic pollution in and around the lake.
Kodaikanal has a remarkably rich history that’s old enough to add to the mystique but new enough to let people feel it through the walls and routes that were set up over a hundred years ago by American missionaries who first set up their homes here.
It was in 2018 when I first visited Kodaikanal. It was for a freelancing project (I was to project manage a hostel setup). I set foot there in the midst of peak tourist season, which meant lot of tourists by the lake, lot of picnic spots with trash left behind. But as the footfall started decreasing and I got hold of the thread of history in the form of KMU library, I woke up to a Kodaikanal that was entirely different from how I had been seeing. Since then, I have returned to Kodaikanal multiple times and would continue to do so.
Below are some of the historical buildings that I felt grateful to be able to visit (many historical buildings belong to the church and the Kodaikanal International School, making them inaccessible to the general public).
Shelton is one of the first two Bungalows that were build by the American missionaries who first moved to Kodaikanal. The house still stands today on the lower lake road.
2. Van Allen Hospital
It was the efforts of Dr. Van Allen that got Kodai its first hospital. A hospital that still stands today. Located near Coakers walk, Van Allen offers a scenic view of the valley.
Missionary doctors from CMU (Christian medical college), Vellore, like Dr. Lewis and Ida Scudder would come up during the summers to treat patients in Van Allen.
3. La Saleth Church
La Saleth church is one of the oldest in Kodaikanal. It takes its name from a village in the French alps where the church father Louis Saint Cyr was trying to commemorate is located.
Last Sunday of May every year, a grand festival used to take place here but it was later moved to August. What was earlier a 9 day celebration is now reduced to 2 days but that has not deterred the enthusiasm of people. Roads leading to La Saleth church is lined with vendors, and locals walking to the church, the festival is an occasion of spreading the joy.
4. German Church
Located near Swedish compound (on the way to Vattakanal) is the gorgeous German church that was shared by Swedish and German missions. The church’s distinctive feature is a large wooden bell tower right outside the church in the same compound.
This is one of my favorite church in Kodaikanl, it’s quite, beautiful, and still has the old charm.
5. Kohinoor Bungalow
Located on the Kurinji Andavar temple road, Kohinoor bungalow now serves as a government guest house.
This is where Sheikh Abdullah, the first Chief Minister of Kashmir was interned. Arrested upon his arrival to India on 8th May (over his meeting with the China’s prime minister over Kashmir conflict), he was released owing to his detoriating health on 2nd January 1968.
It’s unusual to see an old structure with two floors in Kodaikanal, this building is one of them.
6. Kodaikanal Club
Initially called the English Club, Kodaikanal club is located at the 7 road junction (the center of Kodaikanal). The club was earlier not open for Indians (except royalty) which to me makes it an embodiment of class difference we still live with. The membership fee being high, does keep the access restricted to a certain class of Indians. And therefore, I find the Indian Club much more interesting even though it’s not operational. As a structure of interest, I find it speak out loud through its very presence.
7. Indian Club
When I first read about Indian club, I wanted to drop everything and go visit. About a km away from where I was staying then, the Indian club still stands at original place.
Indian Club was started by an Indian to provide a place for fellow Indians as Indians weren’t allowed to be part of the Kodaikanal club back then.
On my visit, I came across a group of men playing cards inside, it was dark and nothing about that encounter felt comforting. They all stopped with a look in their eyes that compelled me to leave immediately and I did.
8. Kodaikanal Missionary Union (KMU) Library
KMU played a crucial role in history to foster goodwill in the community. Wednesday afternoons were reserved for tea.
While many of its parts were handed over to the Kodaikanal international school, the library and the reading room still function. There’s also a tea section right outside where residents come for a chat. Currently run by volunteers, the library is open twice a week for limited hours (It was closed during Covid).
9. The Observatory
The foundation stone for Solar Observatory was laid in 1895 and on April 1st, 1899, the observatory was ready.
Kodaikanal’s higher altitude, clear skies, and mild weather made it idea to continue the research that was earlier happening in Chennai (then Madras).
This is where the discovery of Evershed effect (the phenomenon of radial motion in sun spots) was made by Dr. John Evershed.