As the summer sun beats down upon the planet mercilessly, people scour the Internet and travel sites for getaways – preferably where the sun’s rays do not shine as intensely. From hill stations and resorts to mountain ranges and offbeat islands; a wide spectrum of destinations are receiving increased footfall from tourists and settlers from all over. Like them, if you are also seeking an escape, consider adding the majestic Nilgiri Hills to your bucket list.
Sprawling across undulating mountains of Southern India, the Nilgiri Hills is considered the epitome of nature’s sheer beauty and diversity. The region forms part of the formidable Western Ghats, which cover 6 Indian states through a colossal 1,600 kilometres mountain range. Nilgiris, translated to English means ‘Blue Mountains’, credited to two unique characteristics of the range; the azure haze that envelopes the mountains, offering enchanting views, and the beautiful blue Kurinji flowers that paint the hills a special shade of blue each time they bloom.
But the breathtaking views are simply the cherry on top of the cake. The Nilgiris has a little something for everyone.
One not only absorbs the vivid scenic splendour of the Nilgiris, but also has the opportunity to experience plantation life from the many tea estates, interact with the indigenous tribal communities and marvel at their practices, customs and handicrafts, embark on challenging yet highly rewarding treks and hikes, ignite an adrenaline rush from a variety of adventure activities, marvel at the myriad flora and fauna, and of course, rejuvenate the soul amidst the serenity of these hills.
Although the Nilgiri Hills are a highly sought-after destination today, its popularity spans back several centuries – as a cool escape during summers, a home to many indigenous communities, and more.
A Brief History
One of the earliest mentions of the expansive range dates back to the 11th and 12th centuries – in a Tamil epic known as Silapathikaram. The mountain range, which spans across the states of Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu was ruled by various prominent kingdoms and rulers, including the Cholas, the Pandiyas, the Cheras and the Hoysalas.
Throughout history, the Nilgiris were home to an array of indigenous tribes; the Todas, Kotas, Badagas, Irulas and Kurumbas. Culturally and genetically diverse, all the indigenous tribes not only nurtured generations within the Hills but also cultivated a deep bond with their surroundings, harmonizing with the flora and fauna and practicing sustainable living.
The Nilgiris were also a part of the illustrious Vijayanagar Kingdom from 1336 to 1565, after which it came under the control of Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan from 1760 to 1799. It was during 1799, that the range was ceded to the East India Company thanks to the Treaty of Srirangapattanam. But it took nearly 19 years for the British to fully acquaint themselves with the mountainous region and its many treasures.
John Sullivan, Collector of Coimbatore and an admirer of nature, was one of the first British officers to settle in the Nilgiris by constructing a bungalow, Stone House – which is now a popular tourist destination. Incidentally, he also founded the town of Ooty (also referred to as Udhagamandalam or Ootacamund), one of the most famous locations in the Nilgiris. After Sullivan, many British officers sought refuge in the Hills during the hot summers. Even today, many towns within the region are reminiscent of colonial architecture and attractions, offering an authentic, historical experience to tourists.
For naturalists, botanists and ecologists, the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve (NBR) is a biodiversity paradise – one of the 18 biosphere reserves of India and a UNESCO heritage site. Over 3000 square kilometres of the reserve is under the protected area status and is home to wildlife sanctuaries, national parks and tiger reserves. Considerable tracts of forests also fall under the reserved forest category, where surviving indigenous tribes continue to live. The tribes are known for their honey-hunting skills, innovative cultivation practices, traditional medicines and handicrafts.
Along with the tribes, endemic flora and fauna dot various stretches of the NBR, such as the Bengal Tiger, Nilgiri Tahr, King Cobra, Lion-Tailed Macaque and Indian-Pied Hornbills. It is estimated that at least 5,000 varieties of plants are found in the Western Ghats, out of which 1.7 species are endemic, including Cycas circinalis, Strobilanthes kunthiana, and more. The diverse flora and fauna are sustained by several major tributaries and rivers, from the Bhavani and Moyar to Kabini and Chaliyar.
Given that the NBR covers 3 states, one can expect a wide and distinctive range of ecosystems and topographies. While Karnataka hosts predominantly dry deciduous forests, semi-evergreen and scrub jungles, Kerala and Tamil Nadu hosts consist of most deciduous montane forests, along with evergreen and semi-evergreen vegetation. Ultimately, most of peninsular India’s vegetation types can be found in the NBR.
While the proper exploration and appreciation of the NBR could consume months of one’s time, tourists can catch glimpses of the biodiversity through various avenues.
Trekking enthusiasts can partake in the many trekking packages offered by organizations, catering to different skill levels. From short hikes to multi-day treks, one can experience the marvels of nature through Nilgiris’ scenic routes. Some of the most favoured routes include the Doddabetta Peak – the highest peak in the Nilgiris at 2,637 metres, the Mukurthi National Park and the Mysore Trail.
Apart from soaring mountain trails, tourists can soak in the sceneries and sights at one of the Hills’ wildlife sanctuaries – including Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary and Mukurthi National Park.
When in the Nilgiris
When in the Nilgiris, there is much to explore, behold and relish. If you have already experienced the lofty peaks and their natural wonders, there are further adventures for your itinerary.
The Nilgiri Mountain Railway
Bollywood buffs may remember the iconic ‘Chaiyya Chaiyya’ song from Dil Se, in which Shahrukh Khan and Malaika Arora danced to the rhythm atop this heritage moving train. Fondly referred to as the ‘toy train’, NMR’s blue-and-cream coaches take travellers through the Nilgiri foothills, through dark tunnels, mountain trails, colourful towns and lush landscapes. A piping hot cup of tea and some fritters at the local stations make for the perfect accompaniment.
Whether your day depends on a cup of oolong tea or green tea, the Nilgiris’ tea plantations have it all. The first tea plantation was established in 1845 by the British. Today, the region boasts several hundred plantations, widely known for their CTC (cut-tear-curl) teas.
The region’s cool weather snd rich soil enhances the tea’s aromatic compounds while allowing factories to wither and oxidise the teas slowly – drawing out notable fruit, floral and spice notes. Tea lover or not, a visit to the plantations or a tea factory is a must!
Have an appetite for adventure? Worry not! There is no dearth of adventure activities in the Nilgiris – from scaling rocks to braving the rapids. Cyclists can challenge their boundaries with the annual Tour of Nilgiris 900-kilometre odyssey through the 3 states. Yes, covering 900 kilometres within 7 days. From cycling past verdant valleys to spotting wildlife, it is the experience of a lifetime.
People with an affinity for water can go rapelling by emerald blue waters or go bungee jumping off a cliff. Whether it’s the rush from an adventure activity or spotting a leopard, there is a little something for every thrill seeker.
Locations of some distinction offer rock climbing activities. A great avenue to test one’s physical strength and mental acuity, or simply hike through the forested trails to get a glimpse of the magnificent Malabar squirrel. Or for a bit of an emotional rush, drop in to the Elephant Feeding Camp at Theppakadu to see Raghu, the star of the Academy winning documentary, The Elephant Whisperers.
Tourists can enjoy the best of different worlds within the Nilgiris. Towns such as Ooty and Coonoor maintain the charm of their colonial past, from the famous St Stephen’s Church to Sullivan’s Stone House. Places like Lamb’s Rock and Ketti Valley offer views that will leave one breathless in awe.
On the other hand, organizations such as Make It Happen transport tourists to authentic experiences amongst the Toda and Kurumba tribes. It is a holistic experience that delves into the tribes’ customs, cuisines, lifestyles and arts. Toda embroidered products are a must buy, as is locally produced tea and honey.
No matter the kind of cultural experience one pursues – you are guaranteed to leave enriched and full of memories.
When in the Nilgiris, live each moment to the fullest – and the wisest. The vast valleys, landscapes and natives have always welcomed tourists and travellers with open arms. As a traveller, it is important to travel as responsibly and sustainably as possible. The district is a no-plastic zone and visitors are encouraged to preserve the environment…littering is taken quite seriously in this neck of the woods.
After all, it is vital that future generations also receive the chance to find a little slice of nirvana amidst the magnificent, flourishing, vibrant Nilgiris. A place where old and new, young and old, adventure and peace, and history and progress come together in one enticing package that few other places around the world can offer.
The closest airport is Coimbatore. Air Arabia flies direct from Sharjah. And a two hour journey takes you to this little slice of life. Trains from almost everywhere in India get you to Coimbatore and the Nilgiri Express takes you from Chennai to Mettupalayam, to the Nilgiri foothills.