This special series invites you into homes of interesting people in interesting places. Read the other stories here.
A little more than five kilometres southwest from the manmade lake in the heart of Kodaikanal, the urban sprawl of the town thins out and the forest takes over. Buildings are replaced by trees and the colours of the landscape start to transition from grey to green. Amidst all this, one road winds up a slope backed by forest and it is here that Madhur Khanna has her second home.
“Mountains and forests have fascinated me from early childhood,” says 69-year-old Madhur Khanna. “As an army brat, I had lived in Wellington [Tamil Nadu] and other hill stations, and was all too familiar with the beautiful epitaphs of our repressive colonial past. Kodaikanal, however, was refreshingly different, and therein lay its attraction,” she says. Madhur has seen the town change over multiple visits over five decades. Her primary home is in Chennai, and Kodaikanal was accessible from there, which made it “The ideal mountain getaway,” Madhur says, adding, “I eventually bought a piece of land in an abandoned pear orchard.”
Designing the dream home
The decision to build a second home in Kodaikanal was an easy one for Madhur—her concern was finding the right architect. And then serendipity stepped in. Madhur found out that her neighbours were architects, and her very first meeting with Meenakshi Srinivasan and Harshan Thomson of the Chennai-based architectural design practice CALM Studio, sealed the deal. “I found in them architects with design and aesthetic sensibilities of the highest order, and more importantly, two very good people who have become family to me,” she says.
Madhur’s two children are both settled abroad so when it came to designing the home, she had only her requirements to consider. “I wanted a house that brought nature in,” she says, adding, “and I greatly value my privacy.” Calm Studio addressed these almost contradictory needs with an inventive solution—they oriented the house such that it faced south, towards the forest, and additionally, used floor-to-ceiling glass that fulfilled three functions: it perfectly framed the views; helped the house blend into the landscape; and regulated the home’s temperature in this mostly cool hill station.
The architects made it a point to build along the lay of land, not against it. As a result, the house, built over two levels using a lightweight steel structure, local timber and stone, sits lightly on the site. So lightly, in fact, that the local wildlife is completely unthreatened by it. Madhur recounts an incident where a bison calmly sauntered onto the site and was peering into her living room. “I was peacefully sitting and having coffee when the sight made me jump out of my skin.” By way of explanation she adds, “It was pear season, and bison love pears!”
The main floor has the entrance over a water feature, the living and dining spaces, a deck, the kitchen, service areas, and Madhur’s bedroom suite with its own small courtyard. The guest rooms, a lounge and deck are at the lower level. “The plan works perfectly for me because I have privacy, and my operating level does not necessitate navigating stairs since I have a knee problem,” Madhur says.
“I use the living space and the deck extensively during the day,” Madhur says, adding, “Most mornings are spent on the study of Vedanta or listening to talks, and the deck with its peaceful vibrations serves as the ideal spot for this pursuit.” While she considers the days perfect, Madhur particularly enjoys twilight in this house. “Just before the sun goes down behind the hills to the west, it bathes the entire place with this ethereal golden light, which is a wonder to behold,” she says.
Is Kodaikanal for you?
The town is pleasant largely throughout the year, but the monsoons are when, if you are so inclined, you can go chasing its many waterfalls. Shops and restaurants are near the town center, at the Seven Roads junction.
Last year, the town announced a ban on the entry of plastic items, which can be seen as a good sign, but Madhur has a word of caution: “Kodi [sic] was a small town, but is bursting at the seams now. Indiscriminate construction activity and small houses on poramboke land have mushroomed.”
Madhur briefly considered making this home her primary residence, but the lack of good medical infrastructure made her reconsider. “It is essential as one gets older and this is something most of our hill stations are woefully lacking in,” she says.
Kodaikanal has long been known for its homemade chocolates and cheeses, but in the last few years, the town has upped its artisanal foods game and is now home to number of local brands that produce high-quality cheeses (the Kodai Cheese Store, Caroselle), award-winning coffees (Nandan Coffee), wild honey (Hoopoe on a Hill), and organic jams and sauces (George’s Gourmet Kitchen). Some homestays even offer pear picking in their orchards if you arrive in season (July to September)—you might have to share with a bison though.