Shangri-La in India’s Hill Station Country

Published on Apr 12, 2018 by Sheila McLeod Arnopoulos

Filed under: India

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Visiting India over many years I have seen most of the country’s highlights, but I never experienced a famous hill station reminiscent of the British Raj. However, after a recent visit to Chennai, I was fortunate to discover a charming boutique bed and breakfast called Clive and Curzon a short flight away in the heart of the Nilgiris hills.

From this gorgeous little retreat sitting atop a mini tea plantation near Ketti village, with the mists of tropical rainforest mountains in the distance, I was able, like the British in the past, to escape the heat and also enjoy sumptuous Indian food prepared by cook Sisilya who knows how to take care of guests. 

In keeping with the region’s history, the B and B is playfully named after General Robert Clive who established political supremacy of the East Indian Company in Bengal, and George Curzon, the last great British Viceroy at the height of the British Raj.

At an adjoining cottage, ready with ideas on what to explore, was resident writer Vithal Rajan, an Indian/Canadian who won an Order of Canada for his work as a community development volunteer empowering poor women in India.

In retirement, he has written plays and published ten books of fiction. Holmes of the Raj which reveals captivating aspects of the Raj not found in British history books is the most famous.

His daughter Diia and son-in-law Jasraman Grewal are the Clive and Curzon creator/owners who pop in and out on school holidays with their six-year-old son Azad, but run things through the Internet from their city home in Hyderabad.

The Nilgiris region is famous as a protected biosphere, with nature reserves of tropical flora and fauna sheltering tigers, elephants, leopards, bison and bears as well as peacocks and monkeys. My first excursion therefore was a visit to the Jungle Retreat, a set of simple lodgings with all the amenities, built around an informal dining area in the middle of the tropical forest jungle an hour and a half drive away from the Clive and Curzon.

It was started by Rohan Matthias twenty-one years ago on thirty-five acres of land that he acquired. His aim is to give international as well as Indian tourists a chance to experience in the most ecological manner the tropical abode of wild animals who live in a protected reserve and sometimes wander onto the Jungle Retreat campus.

Just after I arrived, I got an immediate taste of the jungle when a huge tree next to my cabin began to shake as though hit by a tornado. Terrified, I stood stock-still, fearing a tiger in the branches. Instead I looked up at giant monkey who stared at me with interest and then swung merrily to another tree.

Thanks to Daniel, a staff driver who lives in the nearby town of Masinagudi, and knows the sounds of jungle, I was able to see from an open jeep lumbering elephants, chattering monkeys and a leopard relaxing in a tree. We took this trip at dusk, when animals are most prone to venture close to the road. Along with me was a British woman who had been doing volunteer work as an accountant for a non-government organization geared to handicapped people in the state.

Back a few days later at the Clive and Curzon, and in the mood for quieter fare, I was ready to explore the hill station of Ooty, fifteen kilometres away.

Here, British Raj official John Sullivan in 1822 built a stone house and began to establish the area as a healthy hill retreat for British soldiers and officials eager to get away from the heat of the plains. Eventually Ooty became the summer station for the Madras administration of the British Raj.

From Clive and Curzon, winding by car over narrow roads past emerald green tea plantations, rainbow-coloured houses along with tiny temples nestled like meadow flowers into the distant misty mountains. Hamlets of Indigenous tribes who first inhabited the Nilgiris sat next to villages of people from across India and abroad. Tourist inns and small cottages, some dating back to the nineteenth century, completed the tranquil scene.

Coming into Ooty, the legacy of the past was evident at every corner with elite international schools, lovely tea houses, exclusive clubs, and a former British military base, now an Indian institution, with facilities for cricket, polo and golf.

Eager to know about the first inhabitants of the region, my first stop in Ooty was at the Tribal Research Centre. There I met an anthropologist and Tamil Nadu government official dedicated to supporting tribal people in the area.

Through him I met Neelasim, a master embroiderer and chief of the nearby Toda tribal hamlet of Manjakkal with twenty two families. Traditionally, Toda have been milk buffalo herdsmen who roamed over vast areas some of which are now tea plantations.

At her village, Neelasim, a widow of forty nine, led me to the conical sacred dairy temple hut which operates under the aegis of milk buffalo priests such as her 25-year-old son. Standing there on a lonely grassy hill next to some lolling buffalo, I felt pulled back in time, far away from the modern hill station milieu.

“My son,” said Neelasim, “has a small herd of just six milk buffalo but he also works as a farmer on a plot of land. My father had ninety milk buffalo. But all that is changing. Now each family owns one to two acres where they grow vegetables.”

For twenty years, from her hamlet, she has been running a Self Help Group of twenty women. They sell exquisite traditional Toda embroidery as well as local products such as honey, eucalyptus oil and tea at a stand I visited close to the famous Botanical Gardens laid out by the British in 1848 on abandoned Toda territory.

“Of the sixty five Toda hamlets in the Ooty area,” she said, “twenty five of them have self-help groups where the women take loans and work together on businesses.”

A few days later I met Venugopal Dharmalingam from the Badaga tribe. A former economist with the Indian Overseas Bank, he heads the Nilgiris Documentation Centre in the Kotagiri area, and is devoting his retirement to preserving the Nilgiris biosphere through an organization he started which stopped a major hydro dam from being built.

“The six main tribes in the region still celebrate tribal festivals and are retaining their language and culture,” he told me. “The Badagas, he added, “are moving the most quickly to integrate into the mainstream Tamil Nadu economy. Growing numbers are going to university and entering professions.”

A week later, also in Kotagiri, I visited a tea plantation which employs about 180 Badaga people from their nearby village of Gatgulli.

“My great grandfather bought land from tribal people back in 1885, said the owner, Balvinder Singh over a tea in his charming gazebo overlooking his boundless rolling valley of thickly growing tea plants. “The British moved into tea planting here back in the 1850s.

“The Badaga families all have three to five acres to grow vegetables,” so they make a living from the land as well as working as tea pickers.”

Mr. Singh said that as a young person he had almost no connection to the plantation. “I was completely urbanized,” he said pointing out that he went to a top residential school in the Ooty Township and then did a degrees in economics and information technology in India, England and Canada. From there he moved into the corporate world in the U.S and later in India.

However, at the age of twenty-seven he felt the pull of the tea plantation in Nilgiris, which he had visited only on holidays. He cast aside his urban life and career to live and work in one of the most inspiringly beautiful places in rural India. Now, at the age of forty, he is married to a general practioner doctor, has a son of six, and enjoys running his tea plantation.

The Nilgiris hills are noted for their array of small tea plantations. “One acre, ten, fifteen, two hundred like mine, and then there are also the big plantations.”

“Do you like trekking,” he asked after we finished our tea. I was wearing only flimsy sandals, but I was game.  “We have to go quickly because soon there will be a big monsoon rain,” he said, surveying the sky.

Following him as he quickly twisted through the plantation up steep paths pocked with slippery stones and monsoon mud, I made it up to the Badaga village of Gatgulli. In an open area, stood a colourful Hindu temple and next to it a white tribal shrine. 

We hiked quickly up a road away from the village, and the monsoon rains started to pelt down just as I opened the door to the car waiting to take me back to Ketti.

A few days later, I was able to drop into a plantation of 3,700  acres in the middle of nowhere with monkeys and donkeys on the road and bison up in the bushy hills. 

Suddenly, coming out of the mountain mists, I was inside a modern jangling factory belonging to the Chamraj Tea Estate, which began in 1922 and produces a whole range of high-quality teas for India and for export. 

But the most inspiring thing about this tea estate, which has a total staff of fourteen hundred, including pickers, is its commitment to its workers and the surrounding community.

Here is a major company that is devoting a sizeable chunk of profits to a first-rate school from kindergarten to grade twelve, charging very low fees for twelve hundred children primarily from twenty-six villages in the area. A hospital next door with fifty beds offers virtually free services for its employees and in 1984 opened to the general public.

The Sivasailam Chamraj School, which operates in English and Tamil as a second language, boasts pristine labs for biology, chemistry, physics, and maths but it also teaches the social sciences as well as art and dance.

“Only one third of the parents of the students went to school,” said Greaves Henriksen, a member of the Badaga tribe, and administrator of the school and the adjoining hospital.

It was a cool day and I saw how a class of smiling three year-old children in warm uniforms were learning to read. In response to a question about what they planned to do later in life, enthusiastic students in a grade ten class talked about wanting to become doctors, engineers and teachers.

Years ago, between 2002 and 2008 I spent time in Indian villages in Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat researching how poor Indian women were using microcredit and community development schemes to advance their economic and social situations.

Here in the mesmerizing Nilgiris biosphere in the state of Tamil Nadu I got a taste of life dating back to the British Raj, but I also saw jungle life, visited tea plantations, and met Indigenous people.

I could not leave the area until I took a short ride on the famous Nilgiri Mountain Railway, built by the British in 1909. Coloured blue and yellow, it is sometimes referred to as “the toy train”.

I boarded at Coonoor station which was used as a location in David Lean's film “A Passage to India” and got off three stops later at Ketti. From there I walked three kilometers down hill past the small village of Ketti to the Clive and Curzon.

The Nilgiris attracts not only tourists but also a lively artistic and intellectual community which I encountered at an Ooty Literary Festival at the city’s heritage Nilgiris Library. Titus Gerard Pinto, director of the Chamraj Tea Estate, in keeping with the company’s social commitment, provided some of the funding.

Indian writers and thinkers, including Mahatma Ghandhi’s grandson Gopalkrishna Gandhi and Vithal Rajan, spoke about the country’s political challenges. “We’re talking not so much about literature,” Rajan said, “as the existential conditions of India today.”

In keeping with this theme, a star at the event was children’s writer and publisher Geeta Dharmarajan. She received a lifetime achievement award from the festival for her work in addressing the problem, she said, of “the 150 million Indian children who cannot read.”

She is accomplishing this through Katha, a not-for-profit publishing house of children’s books she started in 1988 as well as a massive learning program she has developed for children in 1000 slums. Her special school in Delhi uses the art of storytelling as well as the performance arts to teach very poor children.

At the grassroots level, she is coaching children who can read to help those who can’t.

“My big project now,” she told the audience, “is getting marginalized children in the slums to write their own stories. All part of empowerment.” Soon, Katha will publish several books of stories by these children. “They will be in Hindi, accessible to 45 million children who read Hindi,” she said, “and available in print as well as in digital form.”

The literary festival was attended by notable Indians from all over the country. Some, like Vithal Rajan, have retired or live part time in the Nilgiris region. Many belong to high class clubs first started by the British. I was treated, along with my host, to a lavish lunch composed of continental and Indian cuisine at the Ootacamund Club famous for members who, like the British of the past, liked to hunt.

I also met Westerners who live in the area. The Nilgiris has always attracted foreigners who see the region as a Shangri La where as writers and artists they can work in peace and tranquility away from expensive Western cities.

Tina Dickey, for example, is a Canadian/American artist and writer who for many months settled into a delightful village called Lovedale near Ooty. She has written a fascinating in-depth book called Color Creates Light about the famous German artist and teacher Hans Hofmann.

Clive and Curzon and the village of Ketti is accessible by air into the Tamil Nadu city of Coimbatore which has connections to key Indian and international cities. From there guests can be met by a Clive and Curzon’s driver Kishan for a two and a half hour ride that becomes an enticing visual initiation to the region.