Lake Forest Hotel, Yercaud: A throwback to what was once an English settlement
Frankly, I never knew that the Lake Forest Hotel in Yercaud was part of the INDeco Hotel chain (the other hotels are in Swamimalai and Mahabalipuram). The three facilities are the creation of Steve Borgia (more about him later); the Steve Borgia Indian Heritage Museum in Swamimalai (Tamil Nadu), I understand, is a fascinating showcase of Tamil lifestyle, art and culture.
The Lake Forest Hotel in Yercaud also offers traditional herbal care, yoga and meditation. Like most modern hotels, you will find a telephone, a refrigerator, a television set, an attached Western bath with shower etc, but what makes it strikingly different, apart from the rich collection of period furniture, artifacts and bric-a-brac, is that no two rooms are identical. There are standard rooms and suites, too.
The hotel, itself, is located on a coffee estate on the bunds of the Yercaud Lake. The original bungalow was once occupied in the early part of the 19th century (1820s) by Henrietta Charlotte Rosario, a resident of the Shevaroy Hills, one of the first British settlers here (pictures will appear in next blog). Her fortunes were said to have come from coffee nurseries. Indeed, today’s Eastlynne Farm Estate was once called ‘Rosar’ after the owner. Currently, it forms a part of the private estate of Rathnam Prakash, who is a descendant of a Mudaliar family in Salem. The estate has been leased to INDeco Hotels.
I have always loved Yercaud. Unlike the more popular Ooty and Kodaikanal, Yercaud is quiet and there’s really nothing you can do except trudge up and down some lane or street or the other. This time, however, I found Yercaud crowded a bit, but what was more disconcerting was the pile-up of rubbish in several places. It’s sad that even our hills are slowly beginning to resemble our cities.
The other thing that struck all of us was the fact that it was quite warm in Yercaud – remember the hill station in the Shevaroy (Servarayan) range is at an altitude of 1,500 metres. The town incidentally gets its name from ‘Yeri’, which in Tamil means lake, and ‘Kaadu’, forest. The place decades earlier was known for coffee plantations and orange groves. I don’t believe there is much of wildlife left here, what with the way we destroy our environment. Perhaps in the virgin areas, if there are any left, you might find bison, deer, rabbits, hares, foxes, mongoose, squirrels, partridges, snakes etc. But we didn’t chance upon any this visit. Someone told me elephants were common in the Kolli and Shevaroy Hills but had disappeared by the turn of the 19th century. So early! That’s indeed surprising.
I understand that coffee was first cultivated on the Grange Estate in 1820, the year in when coffee plants were brought from Africa to Yercaud by M.D. Cockburn. Jackfruit, orange, guava and spices such as black pepper and cardamom were also raised on the coffee estate. Even today, you can see sandalwood, teak and silver oak.
Was there a John Sullivan for Yercaud. Yes, there was, if what I read somewhere is right. The name is David Cockburn, the Scottish Collector of Salem between 1820 and 1829, who is fondly referred to even today as the Father of Yercaud. Expansion of coffee to the Nilgiris and other coffee growing areas of Tamil Nadu is said to be from the Shevaroys. The first survey of the hills was conducted in 1827.
In 1842, after the death of Pattakarar, the tribal chief of the Shevaroys, trouble erupted among the malaivasis or mountain people and it finally resulted in the British bringing the area under their rule in 1842. In 1857, the Grange was fortified and ramparts built to accommodate gun placements and canons. Also built was an underground cellar to store food for six months and more in the event of a siege.
In 1866, David Arbuthnot, Salem Collector, granted land for coffee cultivation to a number of Englishmen. He was responsible for demarcating village boundaries and village land and establishing village greens exclusively for Malayalis so that the plantations did not encroach on their land.
As is typical of Steve Borgia, the construction of the Lake Forest Hotel around Henrietta’s original home, each building adhering to the same architecture, has been done with great sensitivity to ecology. The wood used in hotel, for example, has been recycled from old buildings and not an ounce of fresh wood was purchased from the market. Wow! Not a single tree was cut to accommodate the hotel and you can still find trees growing and healthy – in corridors, bedrooms and bathrooms. What’s more, roots, waterways, birds and even insects have right of way here.
The first picture is of a typical cottage; look at the lush vegetation in the background. The second gives an idea of the period furniture present in all the rooms; furniture varies from room to room. The third shows how modern equipment can gel wonderfully with the old. See the kind of heritage pieces on display in the fourth and fifth.