Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu, to County Westmeath, Ireland, is about 115 hours by road, according to Google maps, 12451 km apart. The mind boggles at this distance today but back in the 17th century, Vere Henry Levinge made a longer journey and did so much for Kodaikanal that he deserves to be called the Father of Kodaikanal.
Levinge is remembered by a Celtic cross in Kodaikanal; his grave is in a quiet spot in St. Georges, Madras. Levinge died just when he was going back to Ireland for good. His castle has since changed hands. During a recent visit to Ireland, out of sheer boredom, I typed in Ireland +Levinge and one of his descendants had a website and a phone number!
Daphne Levinge Shackleton was the quintessence of Irish hospitality. After a few e-mails and phone calls, not only did she give me information on Levinge but also got together a few other relatives. It was a wet and windy day as we drove to her home in County Cavan. Daphne is an acclaimed garden designer and her garden is a testament to her skills. Inside, we passed a few elegantly decorated rooms on the way to meet the Levinge family members. Homemade wine and bread, cake and coffee were all polished off as I told the Levinge family how, even 129 years after his death, people in some villages of Kodaikanal and Tirunelveli remember and worship him in a temple and name their children after him!
Daphne also managed to organise a visit to Knockdrin, the Levinge castle. Knockdrin is a massive Victorian castle inhabited by a nonagenarian. We gasped in awe at the perfectly proportioned rooms lit by tall windows, stained glass, graceful furniture and the beautiful, delicate Gothic style plasterwork. Much of the original furniture had been auctioned away but the library was intact; every book in its place with the Levinge crest emblazoned on it. It was easy to think of a young Henry running around the house. Castles had figured prominently during the earlier meeting. Around the table were owners of two other spectacular castles of Ireland: Markree and Waterford. So from Knockdrin we went on to Markree castle. We drove through scenic countryside, dotted with several small houses in large stretches of land. The Irish love to own land just like the Indians, but sensible building regulations ensure that they don’t construct monstrosities. Instead the cottages blend with the older buildings and the landscape.
Markree is another Victorian Gothic castle. The long flight of stairs watched over by old mounted heads of deer was reminiscent of films in which the hero enters a lonely castle searching for his beloved. The splendid hall with a blazing fire welcomed us and our rooms had period furniture and quaint bathrooms. Over dinner we heard of how the Coopers converted the roofless ruin back into a castle that now welcomes guests; a lesson for heritage property owners in India. The traditional Irish humour was in play as we talked; we loved their potatoes and they love our Bollywood dance moves! Mary and Charles are also the proud possessors of the only portrait of Vere Levinge aged eight and a bronze cow, the only Indian artefact that found its way back after his death.
We bid them goodbye and moved on to attend a friend’s wedding at Waterford, staying in the castle that coincidentally belonged to another Levinge, but that is another story.
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