Offbeat in Ooty


Offbeat in Ooty

The Indian hill station makes for the perfect heritage trail

By Rashmi Gopal Rao

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Published: Fri 16 Aug 2019, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Fri 16 Aug 2019, 2:00 AM

Ooty is located within the culturally rich state of Tamil Nadu, known for its Dravidian-style temples, classical music and South Indian traditions. Also known as Udagamandalam and previously Ootacamund, today, the picturesque hill station in India is popularly known as the 'Queen of the Hills', as it sits nestled among the scenic Nilgiri Mountains. At an altitude of just over 7,300 feet above sea level, it is a region of verdant landscapes, sprawling tea estates and stunning beauty. Strategically located about 280km from Bangalore, 86km from Coimbatore and 130km from Mysore, it makes for the perfect weekend getaway.
Colonial roots
Just like many other hill stations in the country, Ooty too was founded by British colonials, who sought respite from the sweltering heat of the plains in the mist-clad blue Nilgiris, which is also home to the virgin Shola forests. It was John Sullivan, posted as the Collector of Coimbatore in 1817, who discovered the hill station of Ooty. He along with his team of European and Indian sepoys set out to explore the Nilgiris in 1819; they found Ootacamund after a treacherous expedition that lasted six days. Before the entry of the British, Ooty was a land of indigenous tribes, such as the Todas, Irulas, Kurumbas and Badagas, who had formed a unique social system based on symbiotic relationships.
Today, Ooty is a bustling town that is popular with tourists almost all year round. With an influx of colourful settlements that appear like Lego blocks from above, Ooty is popular for its tea, homemade chocolates and viewpoints. While the hill station is associated with many travel clichés and prone to the rigours of mass tourism, there are several pockets of the town that retain its colonial charm and reflect its yesteryear heritage. Historic churches, quaint bungalows and vintage buildings are all symbols of the British Raj and 'old world' Ooty.
Get on the heritage trail
An ideal way to start your heritage trail of the hill station is to climb aboard the 'Toy Train' run by the Nilgiri Mountain Railway. A UNESCO World Heritage Site that was completed in 1908, the journey between Ooty and the lovely hill station of Coonoor is a total joyride. The entire route is between Ooty and Mettupalayam and the 1,000mm narrow gaugeline is the steepest in Asia. The railway station in Ooty is charming and exudes pleasant old-fashioned vibes. Most of the equipment used dates back to pre-Independence days and includes a 1907-made weighing scale manufactured by Henry Bromley & Son of Birmingham. Old school wooden furniture, display boards retained from yesteryears, along with doors and windows painted blue add to the station's vintage appeal.
Apart from a tiny Higginbotham's store, the railway station also houses the Heritage Rail Museum that has rare objects, photographs and information boards on display. It is here that you can find railway lamps of various kinds, railway clocks, token pouches, ticket tubes and even typewriters that were used in the past. Details of the Nilgiri Mountain Railway and its unique features are also displayed.
The journey between Ooty and Coonoor takes a little more than an hour with stops at Wellington, Aravankadu, Ketti and Lovedale. You can witness the magical beauty of the surrounding landscapes while breathing in the crisp mountain air. Colourful flowers, tea gardens and tiny houses in between create a setting straight out of a fairy tale. The stations done up in signature hues of white and blue are impeccably maintained.
In the footsteps of John Sullivan
Apart from discovering Ooty, the contribution of John Sullivan to the socio-economic development of this little town is immense. He is credited with introducing the cultivation of 'English' vegetables, including potato, barley and carrots, along with being extremely supportive of the Toda tribal community. Having their interests above everyone else's, he found himself at loggerheads with the British many a time. It is no surprise that his name is taken with great respect amongst the locals in Ooty even today.
Walk in the footsteps of John Sullivan by visiting the first house he constructed in Kannerimukku, which is about 30km from Ooty and just 2km from Kotagiri town. The building has a characteristic brick-red facade and has been immaculately restored and renamed the Sullivan Memorial. It has a wonderful display of info and photos of the life and times of John Sullivan, but also that of the indigenous tribes. Rare pictures depicting the occupation and social life of the Toda, Badaga, Irula and Kurumba tribes are quite a revelation.
In Ooty, John Sullivan started the construction of his residence, aptly named 'Stone House', in 1822 after purchasing the land from the Toda tribals. It was the first bungalow to be constructed in the town and, today, serves as the residence of the principal of the adjoining Government Arts College. The magnificent oak tree standing tall in front of the bungalow is popularly called 'Sullivan Oak'. Constructed in typical European style, a visit to the house is like stepping back in time to the colonial era.
The renowned Ooty lake was also a brainchild of Sullivan, who constructed it between 1823 and 1825. A boat ride is a great way to explore its tranquil waters.
Go back in time
While Ooty is bustling with commercial activity and boasts of modern shopping complexes and lively bazaars, there is a substantial part of the town that hosts magnificent Raj-era buildings on vine-clad streets that ooze a pleasantly old-fashioned character. One of the most historic buildings in the hill station is the Government Arts College that lies in close proximity to the Stone House Hill. Designated initially as the summer secretariat of the British Madras Presidency, the colonial building today houses the degree college. Built predominantly in an Anglican style, the building has archways, a brick-tiled roof and a clock at the top. Despite several additions to the original building, the college - surrounded by grand old trees, some of which are centuries-old - retains an irreplaceable vintage character.
Yet another landmark of Ooty that must not be missed on your visit is the iconic St. Stephen's church. The foundation stone of this church was laid in 1829 and the building completed in 1831. The church exudes serene vibes with its beige and olive-green exterior façade and tall spires. The interiors are replete with teak wood antique furniture, wooden balconies, pillars and stained-glass panels. Just behind the main church complex are a group of tombs of several Englishmen, including that of John Sullivan's wife and daughter, who passed away tragically in quick succession in 1841.
Visiting the Ootacmund Club and its grand ballroom built in 1819 is akin to travelling back in time and reliving the rich English culture of recreation. With photos of Queen Elizabeth and Winston Churchill, the club retains the age-old rosewood furniture. Entry to the club, however, is restricted to members only.
The famous Government Botanical Gardens in Ooty, built in 1848, are also a site of immense heritage value. If you are a diehard fan of history, heritage and architecture, the Raj Bhavan, Sacred Heart Cathedral, Nilgiri Library and Collectorate are some of the yesteryear buildings that are reminiscent of a glorious past as well as a reflection of the true spirit of a tranquil Ooty.

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