The Lost Gardens of the Raj

4 March 2008

Mike Kielty discovers the beauty of Indian colonial gardens

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It was rude to stare, but I could not take my eyes off this boy. His skin was of the same dark tinge as the other Tamil people that I saw in this crowded bus station, but his hair was a mass of flaring ginger, and his eyes were a deep blue. His body projected a set of physical attributes that could have hailed from anywhere between the city of Madurai where I now found myself, and the west of Ireland where my own family was from. Standing patiently by a bus stop as a mass of rickshaws, bicycles and sacred cows driven by Hindu priests passed in the thoroughfare before him, he seemed to represent a side of India that is often hidden now by its rush towards ever greater progress and prosperity. It is to be glimpsed in the grand Victorian buildings that grace most towns, in the English spoken by the upper and middle classes, and through small, poignant symbols, like the ginger hair of a young Indian lad. It is the lingering presence of the British and the Raj.

The bus was ready to go, and I was at the end of my tether. It was 40 degrees outside and I was sweating so much that my neighbour on the bus had frantically started buying me and my sister water bottles for the journey ahead. With the great Hindu temple of Meenakshi at its heart, Madurai remains the most popular pilgrimage site in southern India, but today I couldn’t wait to leave the place. A look out of the window at the bus station revealed a scene reminiscent of a Dickens novel. Crippled beggars stood at the station gateway, raising their hands to the passing buses just like the temple worshippers did before their gods, except here they were looking for money or food as well as divine aid. Every so often, a loud ring of car beeps could be heard from the streets outside, and the beggars would run for cover as a Mercedes or BMW breezed into the station. A member of the wealthy local elite would move quickly from the car to one of the deluxe buses heading for Delhi or Mumbai and ignore the pleas for a few rupees. The heat, the dust and my own sense of guilt for having avoided these beggars were overwhelming. I shut my eyes and decided I would not open them until we had left the city.

The wonderful feeling of a fresh breeze on my face made me open my eyes. The beggars, the BMWs, the smell of incense and animal faeces; all had disappeared. The hot, dusty plains around Madurai had given way to green paddy fields fringed with palm trees. On the horizon lay a set of hills covered in bush and forest. These were the Western Ghats, the hills that run up the spine of India as far north as Gujurat on the Arabian Sea, and the home of the old colonial station that was my final destination.

As the bus ascended the one-track road into the hills, the air began to cool and my companions on the bus began to reach for their cardigans or shawls. The banana trees of the plains gave way to tall Eucalyptus, while wild purple flowers carpeted the forest floor. At a bend in the road, the bus driver shouted something in Tamil and pointed to his left. Half of the bus passengers turned to follow his gaze, while the others shouted back at him to keep his eyes on the road as a lorry came round the corner. We avoided a collision by a hair’s breadth and I was just recovering from the excitement when my sister called to me to look across the valley. There on the steep, wooded slopes on the other side of the valley was a high waterfall, where the water swept down some 50 metres to a small lake beneath. “The Silver Cascade”, my sister said, reading from her guidebook, “that means we should nearly be in Kodaikanal”. I turned to look at the bus driver, who was now happily talking to some passengers as another lorry began to loom on the horizon, and could not wait to arrive.

Founded by American missionaries in 1845, Kodaikanal is a town steeped in history, a place in which the relics of the ancient Paliyan people who once lived in these hills exist alongside the colonial mansions which provided a holiday retreat for wealthy British officials in the days of Empire. Nowadays, it welcomes thousands of rich Indians every year, who delight in its cool mountain air after suffering the heat and bustle of growing cities like Madurai and Chennai.

We arrived in the town to be greeted by orchards of pear trees in full bloom and a lake filled with families out in rowing boats. We jumped from the bus, dusted ourselves off after the eight-hour journey and made for the nearest cheap hostel. The receptionist was an efficient if boisterous lady, who was determined to play the role of travel guide. After my sister mentioned in passing her interest in some of the beautiful plants that we had seen, the receptionist began to wax lyrical about one in particular, the Kurinji. This shrub grows only in the Western Ghats and blooms just once every 12 years; the Paliyan tribes apparently even used it to calculate their age. We must have both given the receptionist a look reminiscent of kids desperate for a present on Christmas Eve. “I’m afraid you’ve been unlucky”, she said, “the Kurunji bloomed last year.” Even travel writers don’t get it right every time.

It was evening now and after a late-night curry, I went and stretched my legs around the town. Memories of the colonial past were everywhere. On one street corner lay the Kodaikanal Indian Club, founded during the heyday of the British Raj in 1915. The doorman was not impressed by my bedraggled appearance, so my interest in the club was limited to peering in through the windows. The leather chairs, polished oak tables and delicate china tea cups would not have looked out of place in the Ritz, but where colonial governors had once sat with their cigars, now modern Indian businessmen were typing away on their laptops. I turned to look at the beggars across the street. They were also gazing in at the warm rooms of the club as they bedded down for an evening on the streets. The Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has said that “India happens to be a rich country inhabited by very poor people”; it is a nation of wide social disparities, and these were set before me here by this colonial relic.

On the way back from the club, I passed a sign for Coaker’s Walk. After weeks spent trying to decipher the Tamil alphabet while travelling, these English signs were a pleasant relief, especially with the comic hyperbole of the local dialect. This sign advertised “the most superb and most delightful views and the most aromatic gardens in Kodai”. It seemed apt to end this long, strange day with something this bizarre, and so I followed the short path out along the steep mountainside.

On one side of the path lay a sign that lauded Lieutenant Coaker as “the man who prepared the most exceptional, the most descriptive map of Kodai”. Aside from this, it gave no information about his life or where he came from, let alone whether he was a devotee of the India Club or, like Fielding in Forster’s A Passage to India, one of those colonial recluses who prefers the locals to his own countrymen. The garden itself was a mix of well-trimmed lawns and flowerbeds which overlooked a fine view of the plains heading east towards Madurai. Whoever this mysterious Coaker was, he clearly had an eye for natural beauty.

I stood for a moment, alone on the hillside. During the day I had seen and heard many of the sounds and smells that make India unique. Yet as I stood in this garden, amongst the orchids and the Eucalyptus trees which Coaker himself may have planted, it was impossible not to feel that however far I was from home, there was still something oh-so-very-British about this Indian scene.