Ian Lockwood


Times Change…Devil’s Kitchen Then and Now

with 5 comments

Photinia integrefolia ssp. Sublanceolata, in Devil’s Kitchen (a.k.a Guna Caves) in the Palani Hills. The picture on the left was taken in 1998 with a panoramic camera on TMX 100 120 format film. The picture on the right, actually a composite image, was taken in June using a digital camera. The iron fencing was erected after the spot became a popular destination and was an attempt to keep tourists from venturing near to the edge.

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.

Rubbish from tourists dumped into a natural cavity in the shola at Devil’s Kitchen.

Main entrance to Devil’s Kitchen with memorial vandalized and turned over by visitors. This was taken on a quiet weekday and is usually filled with large crowds of boisterous tourists.

Gnarled roots and branches of the shola edge at Devil’s Kitchen.

Vegetation above the deep cavern that is the “kitchen” of Devil’s Kitchen. This area, because of its dangerous chasms is off bounds tourists and still retains the feel of the undisturbed caverns.

Written by ianlockwood

2011-07-24 at 5:12 pm

Posted in Palani Hills, Western Ghats

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5 Responses

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  1. Devastating changes indeed. The question remains – how to facilitate exposure to nature at its best while at the same time maintaining pristine conditions? For starters, can the municipality not start fining those who trash and piss on the premises?

    Gayatri Jayaraman

    2011-07-28 at 3:58 pm

  2. Fines should be a good solution to start off with.The fines should be considerably high also, inorder to deter the vandals and trash throwers.Another area in which India lags far far behind is maintainence of traffic discipline. We still have drivers driving on the wrong track on our expressways.I’ve heard that this would never be possible anywhere in the west.Huge fines could help but the problem here is , the bigger the penalty the higher is the bribe.Tougher laws dont always mean better discipline.Often such deterants are encashed by the corrupt officials.

    Soruban Santhagunam

    2011-07-28 at 4:27 pm

  3. Roots remind me Ta Prohm, Angkor, Cambodia


    2011-09-21 at 10:07 am

  4. Yes, I visited this place recently. The number of tourists wasn’t
    that high even when it is a Sunday (may be because it is
    off-season) but the simian menace was high. I think one solution
    to this may be to rate-limit the tourists to eco-sensitive places like these
    (like they do for Berijam lake – 25 per day). Regarding the
    grates/frames, I heard they started putting it after tourists
    ended up injuring/killing themselves by slipping into caverns.
    Also, in general, the govt. should become stricter (heavy fines etc.) with plastic
    ban in kodaikanl (and Palani hills).


    2014-02-04 at 11:14 am

  5. Thanks for this wonderful post. I visited this place recently and saw those big iron grills preventing us from reaching the caves. Always wanted to know the reason behind them not allowing us any closer to the caves. Thanks to your blog I know the reason now 🙂


    2016-03-14 at 9:27 pm

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