I am standing on the creaking wooden floors of the Pethakal Bungalow in Kotagiri. This is the very place in which John Sullivan, a young administrator with the East India Company, planned his explorations of the Blue Hills in 1819. From here, he plotted to transform the Nilgiris into a resort for the British, most likely with a touch of imperial arrogance. As I look at the old photos on the wall, I am uncomfortable with undue applause being accorded to a colonial upstart.
But my hesitation soon evaporates. As I make my way through the tea-carpeted hills of Ooty and Kotagiri, I grow sympathetic to Sullivan’s ambitions. By undertaking an arduous journey from Coimbatore to the Nilgiris, braving wild animals, crossing harsh terrain, and losing several men, he opened access to one of the most salubrious spots in South India. He went on to build and live in Pethakal Bungalow.
In addition, Sullivan’s horticultural experiments with potatoes and barley increased the food options for the locals. Today, the towns of Ooty and Kotagiri are dotted with evidence of Sullivan’s enterprise. A few days of neat tea-lined valleys and a walk through the historical events that shaped the Nilgiris make for a tasteful break.
Start the journey at Udhagamandalam (Ooty), the most popular destination of the Nilgiris, and immortalised in Indian cinema. Though the lake and the low hills skirting the town promise tranquility, Ooty is hit by a barrage of tourists during summer. Stay at the town’s outer fringes to experience the relaxing ambience that the hills promise. The town can be a repertoire of hill station clichés, but should not be missed. Ooty needs at least two whole days to explore.
Standing at the edge of Ooty Lake, one can’t help but appreciate Sullivan’s foresight in creating a large tank for irrigating the region. Built in 1825, the lake is now a recreational spot with a bustling Boat House. It’s recommended only if you have an appetite for boating, carousels, horse riding, and cotton candy, or if you are travelling with children. In the same area, you can also see Thread Garden, the brainchild of the Keralite artist Antony Joseph. Sixty million metres of thread have been used by 50 ladies over 12 years to create a sumptuous array of 150 varieties of thread flowers, packed in a spartan gallery (0423-2445145; www.threadgarden.com). For a bit of history, head to St. Stephen’s Church, where you can still see the graves of Sullivan’s wife and daughter. The Stone House, which is now the residence of the Principal of the Government Arts College, was the first mansion John Sullivan built in Ooty. Sadly, visitors are not allowed inside.
Next on the tourist pilgrimage is Doddabetta Peak, at 8,652 ft the second-highest mountain in the Nilgiris. A placid 9-km trail flanked by towering ferns and eucalyptus trees leads to a lone telescope, frayed children’s swings, and snack food joints. Regardless of the chartered-holiday feel of the place, the view of the Hecuba, Kattadadu, and Kulkudi summits is breathtaking. Another laudable educatory effort is the Tea Factory and Museum. A guided walk through the factory gives you a brief insight into the tea manufacturing process, ending with some tea sampling. From here, you can also see the Lego-like houses between acres of undulating tea plantations.
The most photographed place in this town is the Botanical Gardens. Established in1848, its highlights include a glass house, a 20-million-year-old fossilised tree, and over a thousand species of exotic flora spread around well-manicured gardens. Find a long bench to absorb this dazzling landscape.
Beyond the overlapping hills of Ooty, make a short detour to more peaceful Coonoor. Stalls selling fresh carrots and turnips line the road, and a moss-like layer of tea bushes covers the hills. Coonoor too, fostered colonial interest, evident in the style of architecture, club culture, and distinct plantation life.
Kotagiri is 29 km/1 hour from Ooty. It is not just the melting point of the region’s colonial history, but also a tourist-free getaway with wonderful hiking trails. When tracing the trajectory of colonial footsteps into the Nilgiris, this is the most relevant stop. Sullivan Memorial or Pethakal Bungalow (Kannerimukku Village, outskirts of Kotagiri) helps you condense the events of 17th- and early 18th-century colonial rule, right from the time a Jesuit priest named Father Fininicio set foot in the hills in 1603, to its becoming a possession of the British East India Company in 1799. The museum and library also focus on the history of the region’s indigenous people. Their histories are bound together by General Gibson, the man who kept the European haven alive after Sullivan. The town has several Christian establishments: Christ Church, St. Luke’s Church and Kota Hall, the latter a sanctuary for young boys that was built by missionaries. Gibson lived in Kota Hall and erected Christ Church, which stands close to the bus stand. After it was destroyed in an earthquake in 1906, he built St. Luke’s Church.
Kodanad View Point offers dramatic vistas, including views of Bhavanisagar (one of Asia’s largest earthen dams), Tipu Sultan’s garrisons (Ali Rani Koli), the meeting point of the Western and Eastern Ghats, and the Moyar River twisting into a horseshoe. If you want to see Coonoor’s Dolphin Nose, head to Catherine Falls. Another scenic spot in the town is the 21-hectare grove, Banagudi Shola (Sacred Forest), with its 1,000-year-old dolmens (megalithic tombs), a host of birds, reptiles and animal species, as well as a Kurumba tribal settlement.
Kotagiri’s most popular hiking trails are the ones to Rangaswami Pillar, Elk Falls, and Catherine Falls. Since the area is a bio-diversity hotspot, hikers are bound to encounter an array of flora and fauna. Day-long hikes or advanced treks through the jungle can be organised by Kotagiri-based Nature Watch. Plan ahead as they need at least eight days to obtain permission from the Forest Officer (97869 71735; 4/100, Sackatha, Aravenu Kotagiri; ₹2,000 for groups of five or less).
Back in Pethakal Bungalow, pictures of Ooty taken from the same spot in 1870 and 1970 show the region’s development. Still, Sullivan is unlikely to have known that his legacy of stone cottages, churches, and buckets of tea would attract thousands of visitors each year.
Lymond House is a British-style cottage built in 1855 that retains its colonial ambience with high ceilings, fireplaces, a lush garden, and a small driveway (0423-2223377; www.serendipityo.com; 77 Sylks Road, The Nilgiris; doubles from ₹4,500 plus taxes, includes all meals).
Red Hill Nature Resort offers wonderful views of Avalanche and Emerald Lakes from verandas and the garden. The resort, which is a little away from town, has a great location and an organic kitchen garden. Guests can spend their days hiking, or in the company of Moby, the dog (094422 54755; redhillnatureresort.com; Emerald, The Nilgiris; doubles from ₹9,000; includes all meals and taxes; closed during the monsoon from June-August).
I-India is a refurbished 100-year-old cottage that offers great value for money. The rooms are no-frills, but the attention is personalised. There is a bright, cheerful common area with wide French windows (0423-2448959; www.ooty.i-india.in; 273 Grand Duff Road, Valley View; doubles from ₹2,000; including breakfast).
Lazy Hills offers a choice between a cosy tree house and a single luxury room. Only guests over 21 years are allowed (99419 43921; www.lazyhills.in; 4/657/3, Adubettu, Arvenu, Kotagiri; doubles from ₹4,000).
La Maison is a cheerful, luxury bungalow that offers the perfect homestay experience with fresh-from-the-garden veggies and evenings of wine and cheese with the hosts, Anne and Benoît. The open Jacuzzi by the tea plantation is the most coveted spot on the property (04266-273347; www.lamaison.in; Hadathorai, Nihung Post Office, Kotagiri; doubles from ₹7,900).
Chocolates Home-made chocolates are an essential part shopping in Ooty. Pick up a box from King Star, the town’s oldest shop started in 1942 (54, Commercial Road).
Nilgiri tea Fragrant local brews from tried and tested brands like Chamraj, Tranquilitea, and Glendale make for good gifts.
Indigenous products The Green Shop is the place to get locally sourced souvenirs like paintings, honey, oils, clothes, and organic foods made in the Nilgiris (www.lastforest.in; Johnstone Square, Kotagiri).
The Nilgiri Mountain Railway’s toy train is on UNESCO’s World Heritage list and worth all the effort required to find a seat. Started in 1908, the train still runs partially on steam locomotive engines (Coonoor-Mettupalayam is the more scenic route) and puffs along from Ooty to Mettupalayam over 3 hours, 30 minutes. It winds over 250 bridges and 16 tunnels, narrow gorges, across thick forests and tea plantations. Book ahead on IRCTC, though having a ticket may not actually mean that you get a great seat.
Appeared in the October 2013 issue as “Sullivan’s Nilgiris”.
Ooty (Udhagamandalam) is located in the Nilgiri Hills in western Tamil Nadu, at a height of 2,240 m. It is 265 km southwest of Bengaluru and 98 km northwest of Coimbatore. Kotagiri is located at a height of 1793 m, 29 km east of Ooty.
Air The closest airport to Ooty is Coimbatore, 94 km/3 hours away.
Rail There are four trains that ply daily between Bengaluru and Coimbatore (8 hours) and 12 more options through the week. However, the fastest buses (5 hours) are more convenient.
Road Bengaluru is 265 km/6 hours southwest of Ooty on SH17 via Mysore. Several KSRTC buses from Kempegowda bus stand in Bengaluru do overnight, non-stop trips to Ooty. Local buses, autorickshaws and taxis are easily available for the 29 km/1 hour trip to Kotagiri.
Located at the westernmost edge of Tamil Nadu at a height of 6,000 feet, the Nilgiri Hills defy the sweltering heat of the state. Ooty enjoys mild weather throughout the year, with day temperatures in the range of 17-23°C. Winter (Dec-Feb) nights can be chilly at about 5°C. During the rest of the year, night temperatures are 8-10°C. Mar-Jun is probably the ideal time to travel, though the monsoon months (Jul-Oct) have their own charm. Kotagiri’s weather is largely similar, though it is shielded from the brunt of the southwest monsoon by the Doddabetta range.