Some say they were chasing tobacco smugglers. Some say they were on a shooting expedition. Whatever be the reason, the young assistant collectors of Coimbatore—J.C. Whish and N.W. Kindersley—couldn’t believe their eyes when they got to the “Neilgherry” mountains in 1818. They brought back with them stories of an unexplored land, kissed by cool winds and teeming with wildlife. A year later, the East India Company asked John Sullivan, the collector of Coimbatore, to find out the truth behind the “tales concerning the Blue Mountains”.
Sullivan, too, was swept off his feet when he reached Dimbhatti, north of Kotagere, where he set up camp. “This is the finest country ever,” he wrote to Sir Thomas Munro, who later become the Governor of Madras. “It resembles, I suppose, Switzerland more than any other part of Europe… the hills beautifully wooded and fine strong springs with running water in every valley.”
Although much of the wood has been replaced by lush green tea plantations and the strong springs of running water by man-made lakes, many a person who has been to the Nilgiris still seems to share Sullivan’s sentiment. The journey to the Blue Mountains braving the sharp hairpin bends and mist on the roads is an experience in itself. The air, lighter as you climb higher, is rich with the aroma of tea leaves and eucalyptus.
But once you reach the bustling town of Ooty, the main tourist hub in the Nilgiris district, all that serenity you absorbed on the way will be lost. The narrow streets of Ooty are lined with busy and noisy shops selling everything from home-made chocolates to exotic tea, vegetables, toys and clothes. During summer, the peak tourist season, it is almost impossible to navigate through the scenic town. We found a huge crowd assembled right in the middle of one of the main roads of Ooty. What looked like an accident scene turned out to be a long winding queue of tourists waiting to enter the Botanical Gardens.
So, we decided to give all the usual sightseeing spots a miss and head for Avalanche Lake. Situated 28km from Ooty, the lake earned its name because it was formed by a huge landslide in the 1800s. The point that offers the best view of the lake is Surukipalayam, a bridge that divides the waters into two lakes—Avalanche and Emerald Lake. One look at the pristine, emerald-hued waters, and you would know where the lake got its name from.
Till a few years ago, you needed special permission from the Tamil Nadu forest department to enter the Avalanche forest reserve area. But now, the ecotourism spot is open to all. But for carelessly strewn water bottles and plastic pouches, the scenery looks like a picture postcard. The state also runs a jungle safari from the foot of Avalanche to Upper Bhavani Lake.
While we were waiting for the safari van to return from its trip to the forest, we chatted up with Neha, 10, who helps her mother, Kavita, run a canteen near the ticket counter. They belonged to the Toda tribe, the original inhabitants of the Nilgiris. Legend has it that the East India Company bought land from the Todas, who were cattle rearers then, at very cheap rates to build their summer capital here. Kavita served us hot tea and invited us to visit a nearby Toda mund (hamlet). After the safari, which did not yield any leopard sightings that the pictures stuck on the windows of the ticket counter promised, they treated us to a sumptuous lunch.
A trip to the Nilgiris is never complete without some tea tasting. Instead of visiting the tea factory we took off to Coonoor, located 16km from Ooty. If you do not want to drive, you could take the Blue Mountain Express that passes through 16 tunnels, 250 girder bridges and 208 curves to reach Coonoor.
The train, named in the Unesco World Heritage list, also crosses a bridge that is bang in the middle of the Glendale Tea Estate. One of the first estates to come up in the Nilgiris, Glendale started its activities by planting coffee. “Fortunately or unfortunately, towards the end of the 19th century, the coffee estates were destroyed by a massive attack by black bugs,” said Binu Vincent, the estate’s plantation manager, who took us around the estate in his jeep. “It was in the 1890s that the coffee bushes were uprooted and replanted
with tea.” Dressed in shorts, T-shirt, pullovers and Reebok sneakers smeared with mud on their sides, Vincent, 42, was a no-nonsense man. He talked in short sentences, his eyes glued on the road as he drove, occasionally raising his hand to acknowledge the workers who greeted him.
“Chew on this,” said Vincent, offering a tea leaf he plucked off a bush facing the road. We put it in our mouths without batting an eyelid only to be put off by its crude and bitter taste. “This is the real taste of tea,” he said. “The bitterness is extracted and made into tea liqueur.” Vincent went on to explain the manufacturing process of Glendale’s Silver Sparkle, a speciality tea that costs Rs.11,500 a kilo. “The tender buds are plucked, dried in the shade and hand-rolled,” says Vincent. “No machines are used in the manufacturing process, which explains the high cost.”
A valley within a valley is the literal meaning of Glendale, said Prakash K., 60, who works as a supervisor in the estate. When you meet Prakash, you realise that age is, indeed, just a number. An avid wildlife photographer, Prakash chose to spend his retirement life at Glendale. “Once you become a planter, you remain a planter all your life,” said Prakash, caressing the tea leaves. “These leaves brought me back here.”
Just then, we see a bison moving in the tea bushes at a distance. Though we are excited, Vincent and Prakash seem to be used to the sight. “At Glendale, we take extra care to conserve wildlife,” explained Vincent. “That is why we have retained forest cover in some places and planted tea around it. We have also planted graviola trees between the bushes for shade.” So, the estates have a lot of wild visitors ranging from bisons, wild rabbits, wild boars and even bears. Prakash flicked his phone and showed us a 15-second video clip of a wild bear in the estate. “By the time I took out my phone, it had spotted me and started running into the forest,” he said.
It is a different feeling when you reach the topmost point of the estate and look down. All you can see is a widely spread carpet, with patches in different shades of green. There were workers plucking tea leaves, some were in a huddle talking to each other and others were just taking a break from their work. Vincent also gave us a tour of the factory where the laborious tea processing was going on and said goodbye only after serving us a cup of hot, golden-coloured tea.
Before we descended the beautiful Blue Mountains, we made it a point to catch hold of some freshly harvested carrots. Munching on bars of home-made dark chocolate on our way down, we felt the air getting hotter and stuffier and the roads becoming wider. We kept looking at the magnificent Nilgiris till the hills gave way to plains, wishing that the heady scent of the hills stayed with us forever.
Home in the hills
A small detour from the Avalanche ecotourism camp will take you to Mullimund, a Toda village that is home to about a dozen tribal families. They are a primitive tribe, who were among the first inhabitants of the Nilgiri hills. We were hoping to have a good look at their traditional half-barrelled huts with very low doorways called vartarsh, but most of the families were living in cement houses with DTH dishes. We met Soudamalli Amma, 62, who was doing the Toda embroidery called phukoor that has received the GI (Geographical Indicator) status. Phukoor is mainly done with white, red and blue threads. She was working on their traditional shawl called the phutkuli, a white or off-white cotton cloth with thick red or blue borders. Both men and women drape the phutkuli for important functions like marriages, funerals or birth of a baby.
Soudamalli Amma narrated quirky Toda stories in crisp Tamil with a word or two of English. She told us about how the Todas do not swim in rivers as they deem it insulting, how social paternity is determined by a bow and arrow ceremony and how they used to practise female infanticide and polyandry in the past. “All men were called kuttan,” said Soudamalli Amma. “Say, if someone named their son Netaji, they would add kuttan after he joined school.” While Toda men are still cattle rearers and a few work on farms, the women earn their income by selling shawls, purses and mufflers made of phukoor.
Further down the hill, we met Malliga Amma, 64, and her sister-in-law Kamalapoo, 69. They lived in a vartarsh, with a very low door, and we had to crawl to get into their house. There was just one room with a raised platform that served as bed and another side converted to a kitchen. They were more than happy to talk to us and excitedly posed for photographs. There was a Toda temple nearby, but Malliga Amma warned me that women were not allowed to enter it. “Swami will get angry,” she said.
How to reach The nilgiris
By air: The nearest airport is in Coimbatore, 100km away.
By rail: Mettupalayam to Ooty is connected by the Blue Mountain Express, which is a four-hour journey.
By road: Ooty is 535km from Chennai and there is regular bus service to the district.