By Vithal Rajan
Once a Hyderabadi, always a Hyderabadi”, they used to say. No question, it was the favoured metro city in India, with its ganga-jamuna culture. But times are a-changing, with urban sprawl, cancerous growth of pollution and garbage, noise, dust and irritability all round. When my grandson arrived, we started a determined search for a haven — but where? We first thought of Quebec’s eastern townships, of New Zealand’s south island, and Ireland’s west coast. Then a serendipitous thought struck us: why go far when the Nilgiris are just an hour’s flight from Hyderabad? Everyone of us has a special fondness for these hills. I am reminded of my happy central-Indian childhood. The north Indian son-in-law has loved the Nilgiri wilderness since a school trek in the stunning Upper Bhavani region. The daughter is a mountain person, happiest on a hill, sitting under an ancient tree, looking out at vast green vistas. Her mother, who resisted leaving Hyderabad, is drawn to the healthful tranquillity of the Nilgiris.
We began our search among the beautiful undulating blue hills just east of the Western Ghats and its Silent Valley rainforest. Our first base was the 3,000 acre Craigmore tea estate. In present times, when much is written about the woes of tea plantation workers, this estate is a model of thoughtful care of workers and their families. Craigmore is also a haven for wildlife, ranging from elephant herds to inquisitive bisons coming up to the guesthouse, and if you are lucky, you may even see a tiger! Later, we set out on our search from the hoary Ootacamund Club, with its parquet flooring, wood-panelled walls, strict dress codes, and photos of bygone days. English lords and ladies glared down on us seated on horses of the famed Ooty Hunt.
We discovered an engaging history of these mysterious hills written long ago by Frederick Price. The Nilgiris were unknown to any of the kingdoms of south India for millennia. Only the reclusive Todas and a few other scattered tribes made their home there. News about this hidden mountain was dismissed by the people of the plains as myth. The only one who took it seriously was John Sullivan, collector at Coimbatore in the early part of the 19th century. His “discovery” of the Nilgiris led other English officials to trek up on foot and horseback, away from the heat of the plains to this paradise that was even better than their Lake District. Ooty was founded at a higher elevation than Simla and became the summer capital of the government of Madras. The 100-year old Nilgiri Mountain Railway still collects passengers from Chennai, and takes them meandering up the hills, through Coonoor, the heart of the tea estate country, and past Ketti in a long beautiful valley, to its terminus at Ooty.
Maharajahs built their palaces in these heights, and manicured tea estates grew all round. Its famous garden was laid out by William McIvor in 1848 to a plan prepared by no less than the Marquess of Tweedale. Every year, its flower shows bring tens of thousands to Ooty, clogging the roads for hours. Several schools were established in the salubrious area, the best known being Lawrence School, named after Sir Henry Lawrence; Breeks after the first commissioner of the Nilgiris; and Stanes, after Sir Robert Stanes, the coffee planter. The Lawley Institute boasted of “Assembly Rooms,” like those in Bath of Regency England. I still remember the magic of 60 years ago when a girl and I took a pine-scented evening stroll to see a 1930s classic film there!
Post Independence, Ooty and the Nilgiris have suffered much the same fate as many other beauty spots of India. Land grabbing, coupled with unscrupulous political conniving, led to much destruction of the original shola forests. Fortunately, good sense has now set in and strict environmental regulations are in place. The same cannot be said about urban planning. Unplanned growth has been thoughtlessly permitted and the tourists who come up every weekend, from Coimbatore to the east or Kochi to the west, only see a clustered and dusty township. However, some of the past beauty may still be recovered. Switzerland, which was a poverty-stricken environmental disaster in the early part of the 19th century, has reinvented itself as a tourist paradise through strict planning and community action. Strong citizens’ groups now exist in the Nilgiris too.
We had almost given up hope of finding a haven in the Nilgiris, when by a fortunate stroke of luck, we happened upon just the spot near Ketti. The sunrises and sunsets were magnificent with the valley shelving away to the woods around The Laidlaw Memorial School, and St George’s Homes, and rising on the other side towards the majestic Doddapetta peak. The place is conveniently within 20 minutes drive from Ooty or Coonoor, or the Wellington Gymkhana’s picturesque golf course. The pace of life in the Nilgiris is unhurried, calming for the city dweller. The people you meet are courteous and friendly, and we are reminded how enjoyable real community life can be. The historian in you comes to life as every old bungalow has a charming story to tell, and if you are not yet a photographer, you will soon be. We are learning to appreciate the varied fragrances of all the different kinds of tea there are, and how exciting it is to make your own cheese. Here, the fruits and vegetables, unpolluted with chemicals, bring back a taste we had forgotten.To keep us cheerful company, we are building a boutique guesthouse for travellers looking for peace, beauty, and gracious living. We have light-heartedly named it The Clive & Curzon, in acknowledgment of the British strand in our colourful history, which helped us rediscover the enchanting Nilgiris.
Vithal Rajan is now a writer, after a lifetime of social activism
Peak Season: This summer, leave the city behind and step into a comfort zone. The hills are alive with birdsong, the air is crisp and the flowers are in bloom. In this special issue, we bring you destinations where you can learn to be still