Standing on the creaking wood-panelled floor of the Pethakal Bungalow in Kotagiri, eyes transfixed on honey-toned photographs, I drifted into John Sullivan’s Nilgiris. This bright young collector with the East India Company had taken on the task of exploring the Western Ghats in 1819. My friend and I were standing in his former home, now a documentation centre and museum.
Initially, Sullivan was assigned the task of surveying the Nilgiris and making them more accessible to travellers. Over the years, however, his focus shifted to the local community and he devoted himself to experiments on growing barley and potatoes. Who knew that my first trip of the year would be an ode to British enterprise!
It was easy to skip Ooty when we were planning a trip to the Nilgiris. We were in no mood to be wedged amidst trigger-happy tourists and crammed sightseeing spots, as if someone had opened a lid on humanity and everyone had dropped in on one destination. We were looking for something more secluded and Kotagiri seemed to fit the bill. It is the lesser-known sibling of the Nilgiri stalwarts Ooty and Coonoor, a third node of the triangular travel loop; 30km from Ooty and about 17km from Coonoor. It was once the haven of leisure for British troops. The unrestrained explosion of greenery continues to endorse it as a great place to unwind.
On the first morning, Bhoopathy, our guide, suggested we begin from a point that just drives home Kotagiri’s “hill-station” status—the Kodanad View Point. A small platform that would have been a selfie shrine if it had been located in Ooty, it offers dramatic vistas of India’s largest earthen dam, the Banasura Sagar Dam in Kerala. Admittedly, it was just a speck in the distance but, thanks to a cloudless valley, it was a squint and concentration away. We could also see the meeting point of the Western and Eastern Ghats and the Moyar river twisting into the shape of a horseshoe. We must have spent a good 2 hours gazing at the hills, and enjoying a tea-break at a shanty close by, before we decided to drive back.
The Nilgiris are the land of seven major tribes, the Todas and Badagas being the most numerous. Though most of their members now live in urban areas, it’s in Kotagiri that one can still see tribal settlements with the traditional Toda huts. On the way back from Kodanad, we stopped to peek inside one. Thatched roofs, a semi-circular shape and tribal motifs set it apart. It was unoccupied, but it was heartwarming to see some part of the tribal history intact.
Our next stop was Banagudi Shola, or sacred forest, a 21-hectare grove in Kotagiri. There we spotted dolmens, burial sites going back thousands of years, trying to keep our eyes peeled for birds on trees and snakes in the bushes—it’s an Herculean task to keep necks craned for a view of tree-tops and drooped for the leafy dirt paths.
Hoping that the Banagudi Shola will be declared a “critical wildlife habitat”, Bhoopathy says he has identified 96 species of birds, 50 reptiles, 14 species of mammals and about 52 different varieties of trees. We only saw a black-and-orange flycatcher. For me, the highlight was the dolmens—it was overwhelming to see the megalith tombs, standing strong as memorials of ancient life. The day ended with us listening to the thrum of cicadas on the balcony of our room.
We decided to laze around for part of the next day, spending the first half with a rolling supply of tea, savouring a view of clumpy carpets of tea plantations. In the afternoon, we headed out to the Pethakal Bungalow. Photographs of Ooty, taken in 1870 and then in 1970, showed vast expansion. Something that Sullivan may have envisioned. If only he knew how the influx of tourists had eaten into the attractions of Ooty.
His home Kotagiri, however, still remains idyllic.
Weekend Vacations offers suggestions on getaways that allow for short breaks from metros. The author tweets from @supsonthemove.