Situated in South India (the red dot in the map below) midway between the East and the West Coast, the Nilgiri plateau has an average elevation of about 6,500 feet. On the east/west profile the range extends for about 40 miles, almost linking the two ghat ranges. Along the north/south profile, as part of the Western Ghats, the extent of the Nilgiri range is approximately 25 miles.
The plateau is broken up by several distinct ranges of hills, the Dodabetta and Kundah ranges being the best known. The hills and forests are crisscrossed with thousands of pretty streams and rivers rippling and tumbling and always in constant movement to reach the Kaveri River in the plains.
The Name ‘Nilgiris’ literally translates into the “Blue Mountains” (Neelum = Blue & Giri = Mountain). The common belief is that the people living in the plains would have named the hills the Nilgiris, in view of the violet blossoms of the Kurinji (strobilanthes kunthiana), a unique shrub which flowers once every 12 years enveloping the mountain slopes for miles around in a purplish blue carpet.
The Nilgiris remained undiscovered by all but the native tribals till about 1602 when a Portuguese priest named Ferreiri determinedly climbed them and came upon the Todas, a nature loving pastoral community. The next expedition was almost 200 years later when Francis Buchanan attempted to explore commercial agricultural conditions in the hills but failed to reach the plateau. The Nilgiris was ceded to the British in 1789 and became a part of the Coimbatore district following which, in 1812, an Assistant Revenue Surveyor Keys and his apprentice McMahon, were sent up by the Collector of Coimbatore to make a detailed study of the hills to the north of Coimbatore. This duo was the first Englishmen in the Nilgiris.
In 1819, two members of the Madras Civil Service, Whish and Kindersley, pursued a band of smugglers up a small pass to the northeast of Kotercherry (now Kotagiri) and discovered a tableland “possessing a European climate”. Later that year, John Sullivan the Collector of Coimbatore, journeyed into the hills. Taken in by the bracing climate he began work on a home for himself about a mile or so from Kotagiri, thus becoming the first European resident in the Nilgiris. This led to Sullivan drawing the attention of the Madras Government to the suitability of Ootacamund (Ooty) 15 miles further up, for a sanatorium. Europeans started settling in the hills soon afterwards. While Sullivan built the first house in Ooty (Stone House) in 1823, which house being built entirely of stone, survives to this day and is still in use, this led to the Governors of Madras making Ooty a regular holiday resort during the summer months.
The next major development was by the Duke of Buckingham, while he was the Governor of Madras, building a Government House in Ooty and starting the exercise of moving the entire government to the hills for the summer. Regardless of this development in Ooty, since all the earliest explorers of the hills came up via Kilkotagiri, Kotagiri remained the first choice for settlement of the British to the extent that by 1845 Kotagiri boasted of having 15 European bungalows. At a height of 6,500’ and located on the direct access route, while being at a higher elevation to Coonoor though lower than Ooty, made Kotagiri a far healthier locale than either of the other two for the first settlers.
After the pioneering efforts in the North East, when they trained their eyes to the South of the country, it was in the Nilgiris where the first attempts were made by the Europeans to establish tea.
It was this which led to the establishment of ‘plantation townships’. In short time tea became the major plantation crop in the area, which today carpets the Nilgiris for miles around. With the tea industry having spread outwards from this core, the Nilgiris is widely accepted as being the very heart of the tea plantation industry in South India.
In 1821, Lieutenant Evans Macpherson began to construct the first ghat road, “a bridle path” from the plains near Mettupalayam, through the foothills on to Kotagiri. This road was the best route to the hills from Coimbatore side until the first Coonoor ghat road was completed between 1830 and 1833 and realigned in 1871. The opening of the new road eventually led to the neglect of Kotagiri.
While it was in 1854 that the first plans were drawn up, it was only in 1891 that work was actually started on a narrow gauge railway line connecting the plains from Mettupalayam to Coonoor so that, a good 45 years after it was conceived of, in 1899 the first train chugged up this track. The terrain being rather tricky involving the track rising on a gradient of 1 in 12, 208 curves and 13 tunnels, the construction of this line was a major engineering feat. The execution of the project involving challenges galore also resulted in just as many ‘out of the box’ interesting and innovative solutions. Initially the distance covered was only 16 ¾ miles with the line later being extended to Ooty. With the laying of the line being widely accepted as being a marvel of engineering, the train itself is a charming blue and cream with wooden coaches and large windows. The train is hauled up hills by steam engines which, originally, were designed and built by the Swiss Locomotive Works. Twelve of such locomotive engines survive even today.
The train covers the 46 km to Ooty in four and a half hours, averaging 10.4 km/hour making it perhaps the slowest in India.
There are four distinct types of flora in the district: the deciduous forests of the higher slopes where cedars, satinwoods, rosewood and teak thrive; the moist evergreen forests of the lower slope; the sholas and the grasslands of the plateau. While the original vegetation of the Nilgiris consisted of rolling grassland interspersed with Sholas (thick tropical forests) in the folds of the hills, in 1858 a Government initiative led to the widespread planting of Australian varieties of trees. Eucalyptus (blue and red gums), Acacia (wattles); Conifers, Pines and Cypresses were planted in the neighbourhood of Ooty. These trees are now seen all through the Nilgiris District.
Taking advantage of the plentiful rainfall and any number of fast flowing rivers and streams, between the 1920s and 1940s, a number of hydro-electric dams were built in the Nilgiris. The resultant catchment water bodies, all located in the higher reaches of the hills, were found to be ideal for trout which were introduced and stocked in the waters by the Europeans. These lakes are, today, an angler’s delight. The unspoilt, thick tropical forests and sholas are literally alive with a variety of bird and wildlife. Of the latter, tigers, elephants, leopards, bison, sambar, wild boar and many other species can be regularly seen in and around the tea areas.
While tea seeds had been planted in an experimental farm at Ketti in 1835 and though he had first experimented with coffee in 1840 at Hardathorary near Kotagiri, it was not till M.D. Cockburn opened up Kannahutty Estate in 1843 near Kotagiri, that the systematic planting of tea really began in these hills.
The first full scale efforts to establish formal ‘tea estates’ in the Nilgiris was in 1859 with the planting of Thaishola (literally the “mother of all forests”) and Dunsandle Estates.
While the bulk of the tea in the Nilgiris was planted between 1904 and 1911, amongst the earlier estates, 60 acres on Nonsuch were planted as early as the 1860’s. This, in 1881, was closely followed by the planting on Guernsey Division of Coonoor Estate.
Coonoor Estate, incidentally, is the beautifully located plantation from which the unique range of Organic bouTEAque Teas
and the Nilgiri Frost Tea
Blessed with a high elevation, optimum climate, rich soil and a generally well-distributed 100-120 cm of rainfall, the Nilgiris has some of the highest yielding tea estates in the world which are, today, owned by medium and small sized companies as well as proprietary concerns.
Significantly, the Nilgiris has the largest number of small holdings (80,000 at last count) feeding 165 ‘bought leaf’ tea factories in the district so that, out of a total tea production of 130+ million Kgs. In the Nilgiris, the small holders account for over 60% of the production, churning out approximately 80 million kg (the bulk being CTC) of tea every year.