The paradisiacal Ooty, which has caught the imagination of generations of travellers across the globe, turns 200.
Udhagamandalam, popularly known as Ooty, nestled in the Nilgiri Hills in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu is a sought-after countryside retreat that has made its presence felt on the world tourism map.
Interestingly, this mountainous region, once upon a time, was considered uninhabitable due to the presence of the Malaria (which was considered a life-threatening disease), and the thick mist. Only tribal people lived in isolation in Ooty.
There is enough evidence to prove the presence of a network of human settlements in the Nilgiri Hills, which had a verdant tapestry of forests, around 3,000 years ago. Though Ooty was initially part of the Chera Kingdom, historical records show that many battles were fought over its possession among the Vijayanagara Empire, the Mysore Wodeyar Dynasty and Tipu Sultan. Later, the British defeated Tipu Sultan in the fourth Anglo-Mysore War in 1779 and the region was annexed to the Madras Presidency.
The hilly region, which could be seen at a distance from the plains of Mettupalayam, was an enigma for everyone. Though many people took the initiative to learn more about the tall hills, their efforts were in vain.
John Sullivan, who was the collector of British India’s Coimbatore, was particular in studying more about Nilgiris. London-born Sullivan entered the civil services at the young age of 15 and became the collector of Chengalpattu in 1814 and was the collector of the Coimbatore district, which included Nilgiris, from 1815 to 1830.
Though Sullivan had appointed many people to study about Nilgiris, they all returned empty handed. Finally, Sullivan along with British soldiers started an expedition to explore Nilgiris from Mettupalayam. They took hold of the Dimahatti valley after traversing through the Thengumaratta village and climbing the Keezhukamthukaya hills.
Inclement weather forced them to pitch tents at the valley and they built a two-room cottage with the help of local tribal people in 20 days at Kannerimukku, which is 2km away from the present-day town of Kotagiri. And this modest cottage is known as ‘Pethakal Bungalow’.
The bungalow, which was in a dilapidated condition after it changed hands over the period of time, was renovated recently, and now it houses the Sullivan Memorial. The arrival of Sullivan in Kannerimukku could be considered as the first European settlement in Nilgiris.
Sullivan stayed at the cottage and journeyed across the rugged terrain on a horse till March 1823. At that time, the Nilgiri hill was home to people belonging to six tribes such as Toda, Kota, Paniya, Kurumba, Kattunayakar and Irula, and the Badaga community.
The collector struck a chord of friendship with the natives and taught them new farming techniques. He introduced the cultivation of carrot, cabbage, beetroot, turnip and cauliflowers to people belonging to the Badaga community. They were also exposed to the basics of tea cultivation. The climate in the hills was conducive to growing vegetables and tea like the weather back in England. The region had an ever-moist soil as the weather was always damp and cool. Sullivan brought eucalyptus trees to the region as they have the ability to absorb excess water and dampness, and that’s how eucalyptus trees touched the shores of India. He also shipped a peculiar type of grass from London that prevented the small sand tiers from collapsing.
Sullivan first set foot on Ooty in February 1821 and bought the Stonehouse Hill, which was abandoned by the Toda tribal people, for Rs one per acre. He started constructing a house with all facilities to conduct his son’s baptism in 1822 and completed the work in May 1823. It is noteworthy that Sullivan’s son’s baptism was the first such ceremony conducted in Nilgiris. An oak tree was planted near the house then and the tree is still literally standing tall. Later, the building was used for different purposes and was the summer secretariat of the Madras Presidency between 1870 and 1930. The structure became the main building of the Ooty Government Arts College from 1955.
St. Stephen’s Church
The history of Ooty is intertwined with the St. Stephen’s Church on the Ooty-Mysore road. Madras Governor Stephen Rumbold Lushington laid the foundation stone of the church in connection with the birthday celebrations of King George IV on April 23, 1829 after a decision was taken to build a church exclusively for the English in Ooty.
The church was consecrated by Calcutta bishop John Mathias Turner on November 5, 1830 and was opened to public communion on April 3, 1831, an Easter Sunday. The church came under the Church of South India after 1947.
The history is replete with eventful stories relating to the origins of Ooty and the development of Nilgiris. Though there were directions to lay a railway line connecting the plains with the Coonoor ghat in 1854, even before the road was constructed, the project was in limbo till 1876. It was indeed a tall order to lay a rail line through the mountain ranges with thick forest.
In the meantime, Nilgiris was separated from Coimbatore and came under the control of the commissioner. And the first commissioner was James Wilkinson Breeks. The Breeks Memorial School, one of the biggest schools in Ooty having more than thousand students, was founded in memory of James Wilkinson Breeks.
Railway line with a difference
The initial rail line, which was a far cry from a proper railway track, was laid after cutting through the hilly terrain and had a crude machine that pulled up and pushed down things to be transported. The brain behind this adventurous transportation system was Swiss engineer Riggenbach.
The first railway line was laid for 5km from Mettupalayam in 1882 but later the project was shelved. After many companies were formed and dissolved to lay the rail line, the Nilgiri Railway Company took up the challenge and inked an agreement with the Secretary of State of India in February 1895. And finally the construction of the mountain railway in Nilgiris began in right earnest.
The track-laying work till Coonoor was completed and a railway station with all facilities was put in place at Coonoor in 1897. Later, the railway line was extended up to Ooty in 1908.
It is interesting to note that the ‘toy’ train touches an altitude of 2,197m above sea level when it reaches Ooty from Mettupalayam, which is 325.83m above sea level. It shows that the steep rail line has an average gradient of 1 in 12.5 meaning that when the train travels 12.5ft, the altitude increases by one foot.
The Nilgiri mountain railway boasts of the rack and pinion system that could not found in any other rail track. A rail with teeth is fixed in the middle of the two main rails and the train engine will have a wheel with teeth. The wheels with teeth are a safety measure to make sure that the train engine and bogies literally stay on track while climbing steep slopes.
It is noteworthy that the maximum speed of the mountain train is just 13km per hour. The ‘toy’ train that has been running services for more than 100 years got the UNESCO World Heritage Train tag on July 15, 2005.
The popular Government Botanical Garden is located in the valley of the Doddabetta peak, which is the highest peak in Ooty.
The land where the botanical garden is located was earlier used to cultivate vegetables. Sullivan constructed a bund to conserve water that flowed from the hills for agricultural and other purposes. The water body that was built like a check dam later became known as a lake and the genesis of one of the main attractions of Ooty, the Ooty Lake, lies here. Presently, many boats are available for boating on one side and a boat house on the other side of the lake.
After clearing many hurdles, the road and rail connectivity was established and a township was also developed. Later, there was a surge in the development of Nilgiris and the region witnessed the arrival of quality schools and hospitals within a short span of time.
Many government offices were also opened to cater to the needs of the people. Slowly but surely people from the plains and other regions started to migrate to Nilgiris.
Ooty with its majestic natural wonders, cool climate, green rolling hills and mesmerizing valleys is the best spot to chillax. Though the hill station would shiver under the grip of cold conditions for nine months, the best time to visit Ooty is between the months of March and May.
One of the major events of Nilgiris is the flower show that begins by the end of May every year at the botanical garden. As the dream town of Ooty is awash in bicentenary celebrations, the hugely popular flower show is churning out its 125th edition this year. It will be held at the Government Botanical Garden from May 19 to 23.