Located at almost seven thousand feet above the sea level, on a highland over the southern escarpment of Palani hills in Western Ghats, stretching from the high ranges of Anaimalai Hills in the west to the small hills in the east , stooping steadily into the plains of Tamil Nadu – Kodaikanal, a small town in the Dindigul district, is one of the most popular hill stations of South India.
Meadows flaunting gardens of vibrant yellow wild flowers sprawl over the valleys, alongside scanty brown woods, adorned with densely grown luscious red flowers of Rhododendron trees, the faint pink of Magnolia, and the green, yellow and orange of tiny pears, dangling from branches overhanging wide out from its slender stem, swaying gracefully in the breeze blowing down the hillside, carrying with it a faint fragrance of the eucalyptus trees that stand tall and proud in the patches of evergreen forests, scattered on the grasslands, separated from each other like islands on a fresh, light green sea of grass.
Tiny streams of sweet water gently trickling down from the upper reach of the ridges, cross the narrow streets cut out on the hills, and dribble down the steep valley in untraceable courses. On the Kodai road that ascends the hill to Kodaikanal, about eight kilometers before the main bus-stand, is a perfect spot to behold the Silver Cascade falls: the excess water from the Kodai lake hurling down a hundred and eighty feet tall cliff – crashing over the mighty boulders piled over each other, spattering the surrounding black rocks with white foam, leaping in jagged shapes and tumbling down the craggy rock shelves, before plunging into the water-pocket right beside the road.
On arriving at the bus stand, I picked up a glossy booklet for fifteen rupees, titled “Kodaikanal Tour Guide” in large dark green letters over a background that was a digitally prepared photo-montage of various tourist attractions in town. “Tour guide.. tour guide”, then another coarse competitive voice – “best tour guide!”, “rooms.. rooms.. rooms”, “home made chocolates”, “freshest honey”, “grow hair in two months guarantee.. herbal oil.. grow hair in..”, “cheap and best”, “A-1 quality!”, and other sounds of selling clattered around bus stand.
I started up the road towards a small stall, sniffing for coffee, and, “rooms.. rooms.. rooms”, came a short plump middle-aged man with dark face and a bright white cap, jostling his way through a group of tourists and asked, “rooms?”, raising his brows and pointing his finger at me. “How much?”, I asked. “200 only”, he said, “the best quality you can find”. “With hot water?”, I asked, and tossing his head back and drawing his brows together, “huh?”, he said with genuine bewilderment. “Does these best quality rooms for 200 rupees a day have hot water supply?”, I asked, pronouncing each word slowly and carefully. “No no”, he said with a creeping disappointment on his face, “no rooms.. no rooms”, and walked away nodding his head, to where he was standing before and started chanting ‘rooms’ again. I watched him curiously, wondering what exactly he found strange, or perhaps offensive, about a traveler expecting hot water supply on a hill station, in December, when the temperatures range from 8 to 14 degree centigrade, with short spanned afternoon downpours that cools off the little heat absorbed from the noon sun.
I found out later from the shop keeper, who sold me a steaming glass of robust, locally grown coffee, that “rooms” is a code word for, “shrooms”- which apparently is a word used in hipster circles to refer to hallucinogenic mushrooms called psilocybes, known on street as magic mushrooms, which he was selling at 200 rupees a dozen: allegedly the standard doze to hallucinate.
I read in the booklet about Bryant park, that boasted of 325 species of trees, shrubs and cactuses, 740 varieties of rose, a Eucalyptus tree standing since 1857, and a Bodhi tree, all spread out over 20.5 acres of botanical garden, built in 1908 by H D Bryant; about Coaker’s walk – a kilometer long pavement along the steep southern slopes, from where, if not engulfed by thick clouds, one can relish the panoramic valley view; about Kodaikanal Solar Observatory, from where John Evershed had discovered the radial motion of sunspots – named after him as Evershed effect; about the Bear Shola falls, that is named after the bears that once used to frequent the place to drink water; about Dolphin’s nose, kodai lake, pillar rocks, Silver cascade; and not finding what I was there for, tossed the booklet in a trash can after sipping the last drops of coffee, and asked the man who was standing next to a bus that had just arrived, relentlessly proclaiming himself a “Tour Guide”, if he could take me to the Devil’s kitchen. “It is closed for public. Too dangerous”, he said, “but I can to take you to Kukkal caves. It is..”. “Never mind”, I said and started up the hill, not sure about the next plan of action.
A young Good Samaritan, probably in his late teens, rode me on his motorbike, in less than 5 minutes, to Kodai lake, where he said I had the best chances of finding someone who can take me to Guna caves – the popular name for Devil’s kitchen after it was made famous by the movie ‘Guna’: a tale of a mentally unstable, romantic kidnapper who abducts his lover to this cave.
Kodaikanal lake is a roughly star-shaped, man-made lake spreading over an area of 60 acres, which is large enough to make it difficult to notice the star shape at the first glance, unless viewed from a higher vantage in one of those thick evergreen forests on the hills surrounding the lake on all sides. The area was a vast marsh, flooded by various streams flowing from the upper regions of the surrounding hills obscured by squiggly opaque clouds for most part of the day, until 1863 when Vera Levinge, a retired district collector of Madhurai who had settled in Kodaikanal, built strong embankments around and transformed the marsh into this lake – so I learnt by sneaking behind a tour guide and stealing some knowledge he was imparting to a group of tourists who had hired him.
Couples in pedal boats, families and friends in row boats, and families with slightly heavier wallets in gondola-like boats roofed with artfully embroidered, bright coloured canvas tarpaulin, sailed serenely across the water, shimmering under the slanting rays of the late-morning sun. Lotuses were in full bloom in corners of the lake, where water was not frequently disturbed by boats. Kids and middle aged couples rode extended, three wheeled, two-seater bicycles with two handlebars and pedals – hired at the bicycle club – on the finely tarred, 5 kilometer long peripheral road, lined on either side with pushcarts selling Samosas, fruit juice, chocolates, eucalyptus oil, handicrafts, T-shirts etc.
The next hour I spent fruitlessly, walking around the lake and asking localites, boatmen, hawkers, and the manger and waiters in the restaurant where I gobbled a breakfast of idly-vada, if they knew someone who could get me into those caves. On my second attempt, I asked a boatman who was sitting ideally in a row-boat lashed to a thick wooden log shoved into the ground skirting the lake, presumably just after labouring the paddles, for tiny beads of sweat shone on his forehead. Like all others I had asked, he religiously narrated the story of 12 youths who disappeared into the caves. “None of their bodies were found in spite of expensive rescue operations”, he said, before telling me that the area, fenced and guarded by forest department, is not open for public. “But there’s got to be someone who knows a way around the fence and guards, right?”, I asked. Seeing me from the corner of his eyes, he spread a smile on his face and said, “Meet me in the evening.”
I noted his cell number and started up the street, ascending the hill to the west of lake; and after a kilometer or so, deviated left on a narrow pathway of cobblestone that wound up the grassy ridge to a single storey rectangular house – with light gray coloured walls and sloping roof of corrugated clay tiles – where I rented the room on the first floor for 150 rupees a day, from the old, soft-spoken landlady who lived downstairs. It was a simple room with a double bed, electric heater, a clean bathroom; hill view from the rear window, and from the balcony, a vast valley view, which was not panoramic, but nevertheless, vast enough to please my spatial sensibilities. I took a long hot shower, chomped the rice and dal kindly offered by the landlady, and slept warm under the woolen blanket that was neatly spread out on the bed sheet.
Back at the lake in the evening, the boatman told me that he had arranged everything for the next morning. “Will cost you 5000”, he said. That was about twice the amount I had spent on the entire trip: food, stay, travel, liquor, all put together. Evidently he had mistaken me for one of those well-fed, well-scrubbed tourists, from whom the largest portion of Kodai’s revenue is generated. “5000! Come on”, I said, “ you are not taking me to paradise. 5000 is too much for a devil’s kitchen.” He told that, even amoung the localites, there were very few who knew that place well enough to slip by the guards and make it through the caves alive – probably hoping that I, presumably having studied basic economics 101, will understand that the shortage of supply accounted for the high price. “Never mind”, I said, “I’ll make it in by myself”, with the air of a man grossly over-estimating his abilities. “Many young folks make it into those caves every year”, he said, in a voice that had suddenly grown gruff and proud as I turned my back on him and started walking away, adding, after an intelligently timed pause, “few make it out”, in a gentle and polite voice again.
After almost an hour of aimlessly wandering around the town , stopping strangers on streets and asking if they could take me to guna caves, a local taxi driver told he me that a man named Yash, who had recently returned back to Kodaikanal, his hometown, after working for two years in Chennai, had been looking for someone to accompany him there. I asked if Yash had been there before. He told me that on his previous attempt he had to turn back from half way through, but this time he intends to go all the way. “But no worry. He takes firangs (Indian word for ‘foreigners’ usually used to refer to whites) on long guided treks.” That was not the most satisfactory assurance of his credibility, but he wasn’t charging me any money, which was important for I did not have much of it.
Excitement and anxiety levels were too high that night to have a good sleep, in spite of the few drinks I had in the balcony of the room I’d hired, gazing Orion and Gemini that hung in the clear sky over the valley, through which sailed thick clouds, giving a mysterious appeal to the hazy gorge below. “Many young folks make it into those caves every year … few make it out” – those words rang in my head for hours as I lay on the bed, twitching and turning with jolts of fright that was perfectly blended with a sense of excitement that one feels just before beginning the descend into the darkness of a widely feared abyss, known to have consumed most of those who dared into its depths.
The next morning, after a light breakfast of bread omelette and coffee, meandering my way down the slope on the cobblestone pathway from the house to the street below, I met Yash – a short, fair and lean fellow in his late twenties, with neatly cropped hair – who had arrived punctually at 7:00am on his blue Hero-Honda CBZ, customized with extra wide tires and an awkwardly huge fairing, which, far as I could see, served no function other than slowing down this modest 150cc and reducing its fuel efficiency.
We rode downhill to the junction that connects to the lake’s peripheral road and turned right on the observatory road, before deviating left, a couple of kilometers before the observatory, on a slippery slush of a narrow untarred lane leading to the Upper Shola road, where we turned a sharp right and raced south, passing the Golf club, and parked the bike alongside the various stalls selling ice-creams, chaats, fruits, salads etc, on a road lined with pine trees on either side.
Hiking through the pine forests on the left – where groups of tourists sat on carpets spread out on the clear spaces in between the trees, talking, eating and laughing, with their backs rested against the towering conifers – we reached the thick evergreen forests on the upper regions of the hill, where snarling cypress roots on the ground made the climb slightly tricky, but nevertheless, gave a firm footing on the steep slopes. “You wanna check out the view from the top, before going into the cave?”, asked Yash. “Sure”, I said. We climbed to the roof of the pillar rocks – three magnificent granite rock boulders, rising 500ft from the valley, supporting each other shoulder to shoulder – to behold the panorama. But up there, in the impenetrable whiteness of the thick clouds that hung on the peak and showed no signs of having any intentions to move, we were blinded more hopelessly than we could possibly be in the darkness of a moonless night.
Climbing hills and trekking through the forests in the night has always been a fascinating experience, but pillar rocks is one of the places I wouldn’t dare in the moonlight, for I do not want to slip into one of those dark, apparently harmless ditches, that the tour guide warns the tourists to stay away from, with a simple but effective demonstration: he tosses a wooden stick into the hole, and as the tourists watch the stick disappear in the darkness with horrified eyes, asks them to wait till they hear it hit the bottom. Cannot remember the exact count, but certainly took over seven seconds. These are deep ravines that drop vertically for hundreds of feet, straight into the devil’s kitchen. Though wikitravel says there is a 90% chance of suffering a fatal fall while attempting to explore guna caves, many have made it back alive. But no one who took the shortcut, through one of these ravines found all over the roof of pillar rocks, saw light again.
Descending along the northern slope of pillar rocks for about 20 minutes, we arrived at a vertical drop of allegedly 300 feet, skirted by slippery loam on all sides, with tall barbed fences surrounding the area. Tourists of all age groups moved in and out of the three openings, cut out in the fence. “Where are the guards?”, I asked. “You kidding me?”, said Yash, with a sneering chuckle. Entering through one of the openings and meandering down the north-east facing slope, we arrived at a pile of boulders, where most of the tourists clicked photographs and returned back. At the foot of the pile was the entrance, where a group of college students frantically screamed “Abhiraami”, looking into the caves. “Is someone lost in there?”, I asked. “Oh no. Abhiraami is the name of the lead actress in the movie guna. They are imitating a scene from the movie.” There were no guards the keep these folks from bouldering down the approximately 30ft drop, and making it to the mouth of the cave, but the saga of devil’s kitchen seemed enough to keep the enthusiasts in line.
We shinned down the drop at the entrance – jamming the right hand fingers in a fissure on the rock face, clutching the chunks protruding from the boulder-stone with the left, and carefully placing the tips of our shoes on the slits and cracks – and half way down the drop, we leaped to another boulder on our left, from where Yash gracefully pranced across the smaller rocks with nimble feet, and with one giant leap, hunkered down on one of the uneven shelves formed on one of the three pillar rocks that walled the cave on the right. I followed, but not quite with the same agility and confidence.
Treading sideways, cautiously placing foot after foot on the unsteady shelves of the rock, struggling to balance my body on my knees that was trembling with fear and strain, I climbed down the wall to the ground, and followed Yash into the mouth of the cave, trudging over the slushy ground in which the bottom half of our shoes were immersed. Noticing the ripples in the ground as we stepped over it, Yash stopped suddenly and saw me over his shoulder with wide terrified eyes. Picking up a long wooden stick that was at least one and a half times my height, presumably dropped from the ravines on the roof by the tour guide, he said, “It is wise to check for the firmness of the ground before stepping over it”, adding, “especially after the monsoon”. He carefully examined the ground by shoving the stick into it before every step. We had hardly taken ten steps when the stick went all the way into the ground without much effort.
“All right!”, he said, “gimme a hand”, waving me to a thick long wooden log that lay behind us, near the entrance just below the drop. We lifted it up, each holding one end, and dropped it across the quicksand, bridging the farthest point the stick test allowed us to go, to the visibly firm rocky ground adjoining the giant boulder which walled the cave on the left. “So, you know whats the first thing you do if you slip into the quicksand?”, he asked. “Panic?”, I said with all honesty and innocence.
“Ah! You don’t want to do that. Quicksands are not killers in themselves. It is the hysterical beating of hands and legs out of panic, that liquifies the quicksand and sinks those stuck inside. Just breathe deep and calm, and expose a large area of your body by lying on your back. That will keep you afloat”, he said. Most quicksands are only about two feet deep, but at this altitude, in a deep ravine formed between two large boulders by deposition of the soil run down from the peaks by rain water, devil knows how many tens or hundreds of feet of depth it could reach?
Clenching one end, he gave me the dirty end of the stick he had shoved into the ground, to hold on while walking sideways on the wooden log; so that, just in case one of us slipped in, the other could pull the unlucky one out of the trap using the stick, presuming that both would not slip in together. On reaching the firm ground at the end of the log, we proceeded further into the cave and rested on a rock, lighting a cigarette, which I smoked in silent contemplation of our conquests so far, and an anxious anticipation of what else the Devil had in store for us in the darkest parts of his kitchen that lay ahead. After a relatively easy climb up a rock, the cave shrank into a narrow tunnel, where not a single beam of the sun’s rays could reach – neither the slanting rays when it shone in the horizon, nor the vertical rays from the zenith; neither in summer, nor in winter. It was a place of eternal darkness (except for the occasional torch light shined by those that ventured into the caves, making it across the quicksand).
I shoved my body, headfirst into the hole with the cellphone torch in my mouth, and crawled over my stomach and chest, pulling myself up the sloping tunnel by gripping the sides with hands and feet. Yash followed right behind. The thought of finding a python in this hole, that was so small that there was not enough space to even crawl on my knees, let alone maneuver or turn back, suddenly crossed my mind, making me terribly uncomfortable and claustrophobic. Carrying the cellphone in my mouth, I was salivating. So I wiped the phone to my T-shirt, and carrying it in my hand, I slogged the next ten minutes without covering much distance, for the upward slope had increased sharply, making the climb slow and tiring.
Further narrowing of the hole as we kept on crawling, made us worry about getting stuck in a place from where we can neither proceed nor head back the way we came. It was, of course, already too late to head back. Just when I had started wondering where this tunnel would lead us to, and whether it was a mistake to crawl into a hole without knowing where, and if, it opened on the other end, I was reassured by the wind, gently blowing down the tunnel, that I had almost made it to the other end. This reassurance boosted both our morales, and with revived energy, we hurriedly scrambled the last few meters, and Voila! – “light in the end of the tunnel.”
The sight of light had given me a confirmation that we were making it out this place alive, but with it came a feeling of disappointment with the sudden realization that this place, like all other places that had gained a legendary status, has been over-estimated and over-feared. Apart from the quicksand, I could see no other explanation for the mysterious disappearances in this cave. At the end of the tunnel, we put our heads out of one of those many dark ditches, into the familiar bright world with green trees and blue sky again.
Resting beside the hole we had crawled out of, I pointed to the three leaches that had bloated on the blood they were sucking out of my left hand. “Don’t be surprised”, he said in a disinterested tone, focusing hard with drawn brows on the leech he was pulling out from in between his fingers. “Remove your shoes and look for more.”