Nilgiri Hills is a region of mountains, forests and tea plantations located in southern India where the states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka all come together and rise to a height of 2,400 meters. The highlands are rolling grasslands with patches of temperate forest known as shoala. The Nilgiri Hills — also called the Nilgiri Mountains or the Nigiliris — receive over 14 feet of rain a year, the second highest rate in India. Over 80 percent of this rain falls during the monsoon season which runs from June to August. On the southern, windward side of the hills the forests are wet and lush. The forests on the northern, leeward side are arid and scrubby.
The Nilgiri Hills is home to some unusual tribal groups including the Toda, Kota, Badaga and Kurumba. The steep slopes and the thick forests and high rates of malaria and other diseases that used to exist in the hills below kept these groups somewhat isolated from other groups. The main town in the area is Ootacamund (Ooty). Sometimes called the "queen of hill stations," it is located at an elevation of at 7,200 feet in the Nilgiri Hills of Madras state and was founded in the early 19th century.
The Nilgiri Mountains are part of the Western Ghats. At least 24 of the Nilgiri Mountains' peaks are above 2,000 meters (6,600 ft). The highest peak, Doddabetta, at 2,637 meters (8,652 ft), I sone of the highest mountains in the Western Ghats. The word Nilgiri, coming from Sanskrit neelam (blue) + giri (mountain). The term has been in use at least since the early 12th century. It is thought that the bluish flowers of kurinji shrubs gave rise to the name. [Source: Wikipedia]
The Nilgiri Hills are separated from the Karnataka Plateau to the north by the Noyar River.Three national parks border portions of the Nilgiri mountains. Mudumalai National Park lies in the northern part of the range where Kerala, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu meet, covering an area of 321 square kilometers. Mukurthi National Park lies in the southwest part of the range, in Kerala, covering an area of 78.5 square kilometers, which includes intact shola-grassland mosaic, habitat for the Nilgiri tahr. Silent Valley National Park lies just to the south and contiguous with those two parks, covering an area of 89.52 square kilometers. The Nilgiri Hills are part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve (itself part of the UNESCO World Network of Biosphere Reserves).
Tribal Groups in the Nilgiri Hills
The Nilgiri Hills is home to some unusual tribal groups including the Toda, Kota, Badaga and Kurumba. The steep slopes and the thick forests and high rates of malaria and other diseases that used to exist in the hills below kept these groups somewhat isolated from other groups. The Badaga, Toda, Kota and Kurumba tribes have traditionally relied on each other for different goods and services in a complex trade network. The also trade with the Irulas, Uralus. Pniyans and Chettos on the surrounding hills. The Badagas often traded cloth and food with the Kota, who supplied with music for funerals and thatching and carpentry and other services. The Kurmabs were employed for protection from sorcery from Other Kurumbas.
The Toda are tribal pastoral people who live in the Nilgiri Hills. Also known as the Todava, Ton and Tutavar, they have received a great deal of attention over the years from anthropologists because of their unusual marriage customs and other cultural features. They have always been a small group. A Jesuit priest said there were “about a thousand” in 1603. In the 1950s there numbers fell below 500. There are around 1,100 today, with another 100 or so Christian Toda, some of whom have intermarried with non-Todas. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]
The Toda practiced polyandry in the old days because there was a shortage of women. A woman took several husbands (as opposed to polygamy, where a man has several wives). According to anthropologists the Nilgiri Hills and the Himalayas are the only places on earth where polyandry has been practiced. One of the problems with polyandry is that it leads to an increase in venereal disease. In 1871, four percent of the entire Toda population had syphilis.
Under Toda polyandry women married brothers, and the first child born going to the oldest brother, the second child to the second oldest and so on. The first husband was usually a cousin picked out for the bride when she was three-years-old. Once she was an adult she could an choose her own additional husband. Men were expected to bring gifts to the marriage: a shawl the first year, gold the second year and a buffalo the third year. Often times the father of a child was not known and a special ceremony was held in which the woman selected one of her husbands to care for the child even though he might not be the natural father. The ceremony was conducted at night and the selected "father" gave the pregnant mother a bow and arrow, symbolizing his willingness to care for the child.
The Nilgiri Hills are part of the Western Ghats is a range of gentle green hills and low mountains that run for more than 1,600 kilometers along India’s southwestern coast. The slopes are covered by forests, grasslands, small farms, rice paddies and tea, cardamon, coffee, cashew, pepper and rubber plantations. The average height is 900 meters. The hills and mountains slope steeply to the west and more gradually to the east. The highest peaks range between 1,800 and 2,400 meters. The mountains run parallel to the west coast of India in the southern-central states of Maharashtra and Karnataka and provide a natural barrier between Kerala and Tamil Nadu in the far south of India, helping to make sure the cultures there are separate and distinct.
Known for its spice-rich slopes and green swaths of rice fields, the Western Ghats occupy the western side of southern India. The Eastern Ghats — a less distinct and organized mountain range — are on the east side of southern India. The Deccan Plateau separates the northern part of the Western Ghats and Eastern Ghats. “Ghat” is Hindi word describing a stairways that leads into river used in sacred bathing. Anamudi, in Kerala, is the highest peak of the Western Ghats, with an elevation of 2,695 meters (8,842 ft).
The Western Ghats was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2012. According to UNESCO: Older than the Himalaya mountains, the mountain chain of the Western Ghats represents geomorphic features of immense importance with unique biophysical and ecological processes. The site’s high montane forest ecosystems influence the Indian monsoon weather pattern. Moderating the tropical climate of the region, the site presents one of the best examples of the monsoon system on the planet. It also has an exceptionally high level of biological diversity and endemism and is recognized as one of the world’s eight ‘hottest hotspots’ of biological diversity. The forests of the site include some of the best representatives of non-equatorial tropical evergreen forests anywhere and are home to at least 325 globally threatened flora, fauna, bird, amphibian, reptile and fish species. [Source: UNESCO]
“The Western Ghats are internationally recognized as a region of immense global importance for the conservation of biological diversity, besides containing areas of high geological, cultural and aesthetic values. A chain of mountains running parallel to India’s western coast, approximately 30-50 kilometers inland, the Ghats traverse the States of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra and Gujarat. These mountains cover an area of around 140,000 square kilometers in a 1,600 kilometers long stretch that is interrupted only by the 30 kilometers Palghat Gap at around 11°N.”
Western Ghats Ecosystem
According to UNESCO: The Outstanding Universal Value of the Western Ghats is manifested in the region’s unique and fascinating influence on large-scale biophysical and ecological processes over the entire Indian peninsula. The mountains of the Western Ghats and their characteristic montane forest ecosystems influence the Indian monsoon weather patterns that mediate the warm tropical climate of the region, presenting one of the best examples of the tropical monsoon system on the planet. The Ghats act as a key barrier, intercepting the rain-laden monsoon winds that sweep in from the southwest during late summer. [Source: UNESCO]
“The Western Ghat at also help keep all of southern India going by absorbing rains during the monsoon and slowly releasing it through groundwater and rivers to the regions around them. Some places in Western Ghats receive almost 10 meters feet of rain a year. More than 60 rivers and hundreds of streams flow out of them. The Godavari, Krishna and Cauvery are important sources of water for drier eastern side of southern India.
“The Western Ghats region demonstrates speciation related to the breakup of the ancient landmass of Gondwanaland in the early Jurassic period; secondly to the formation of India into an isolated landmass and the thirdly to the Indian landmass being pushed together with Eurasia. Together with favorable weather patterns and a high gradient being present in the Ghats, high speciation has resulted. The Western Ghats is an “Evolutionary Ecotone” illustrating “Out of Africa” and “Out of Asia” hypotheses on species dispersal and vicariance.”
Wildlife and Plants in the Western Ghats
More than 1,400 plants, 23 mammals. 17 birds, 89 reptiles and 90 amphibians are found here and nowhere else in the world. Among the flagship species that are threatened are Asian elephants, tigers, the lion-tailed macaque and the Nilgiri tahr (a kind of wild goat).
According to UNESCO: “A significant characteristic of the Western Ghats is the exceptionally high level of biological diversity and endemism. This mountain chain is recognized as one of the world’s eight ‘hottest hotspots’ of biological diversity along with Sri Lanka. The forests of the Western Ghats include some of the best representatives of non equatorial tropical evergreen forests in the world. At least 325 globally threatened (IUCN Red Data List) species occur in the Western Ghats. The globally threatened flora and fauna in the Western Ghats are represented by 229 plant species, 31 mammal species, 15 bird species, 43 amphibian species, 5 reptile species and 1 fish species. Of the total 325 globally threatened species in the Western Ghats, 129 are classified as Vulnerable, 145 as Endangered and 51 as Critically Endangered. [Source: UNESCO]
The Western Ghats contain exceptional levels of plant and animal diversity and endemicity for a continental area. In particular, the level of endemicity for some of the 4-5,000 plant species recorded in the Ghats is very high: of the nearly 650 tree species found in the Western Ghats, 352 (54 percent) are endemic. Animal diversity is also exceptional, with amphibians (up to 179 species, 65 percent endemic), reptiles (157 species, 62 percent endemic), and fishes (219 species, 53 percent endemic). Invertebrate biodiversity, once better known, is likely also to be very high (with some 80 percent of tiger beetles endemic). A number of flagship mammals occur in the property, including parts of the single largest population of globally threatened ‘landscape’ species such as the Asian Elephant, Gaur and Tiger. Endangered species such as the lion-tailed Macaque, Nilgiri Tahr and Nilgiri Langur are unique to the area. The property is also key to the conservation of a number of threatened habitats, such as unique seasonally mass-flowering wildflower meadows, Shola forests and Myristica swamps.
Western Ghats Conservation
The Western Ghats has been designated a biological hot spot because they are rich in wildlife and plant life and are threatened by the encroachment from people. Of the 62,000 square miles of forest that once covered the mountains only about 5,000 square miles remains undisturbed. The primary threats are expanding settlements and agriculture, dams and mines. In some places large tracts of forest have been cut down for tea plantations and groves of eucalyptus trees to fire tea-processing factories.
According to UNESCO: “The property is made up of 39 component parts grouped into 7 sub-clusters. The serial approach is justified in principle from a biodiversity perspective because all 39 components belong to the same biogeographic province, and remain as isolated remnants of previous contiguous forest. The justification for developing a serial approach rather than just identifying one large protected area to represent the biodiversity of the Western Ghats is due to the high degree of endemism, meaning that species composition from the very north of the mountains to 1,600km south varies greatly, and no one site could tell the story of the richness of these mountains. The formulation of this complex serial nomination has evolved through a consultative process drawing on scientific analysis from various sources. The 39 component parts grouped into 7 sub-clusters together reflect the Outstanding Universal Value of the property and capture the range of biological diversity and species endemism in this vast landscape.
The 39 component parts of this serial property fall under a number of protection regimes, ranging from Tiger Reserves, National Parks, Wildlife Sanctuaries, and Reserved Forests. All components are owned by the State and are subject to stringent protection under laws including the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972, the Indian Forest Act of 1927, and the Forest Conservation Act (1980). Through these laws the components are under the control of the Forestry Department and the Chief Wildlife Warden, providing legal protection. 40 percent of the property lies outside of the formal protected area system, mostly in Reserved Forests, which are legally protected and effectively managed. The Forest Conservation Act (1980) provides the regulatory framework to protect them from infrastructure development.
Integrating the management of 39 components across 4 States is a challenge, for which a three-tier governance mechanism is required that will operate at the Central, State and Site levels to provide effective coordination and oversight to the 39 components. A Western Ghats Natural Heritage Management Committee (WGNHMC) under the auspices of the Ministry of Environment of Forests (MoEF), Government of India to deal with coordination and integration issues is already functional. All 39 components in the 7 sub-clusters are managed under specific management / working plans duly approved by the State/Central governments. The livelihood concerns of the local communities are regulated by the Forest Rights Acts, 2006 and their participation in governance is ensured through Village Ecodevelopment Committees (VECs).
Nilgiri Mountain Railway (Nilgiri Toy Train)
Nilgiri Toy Train is a narrow-gauge “toy” train that runs from the Nilgiri Hills foothill town of Mettupalayam to Ooty. Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005, the train switchbacks and goes through hairpin turns and passes through mountains, tea plantations, forests villages, jungles, spice farms, jack fruit orchards and villages inhabited by Toda tribesmen. The journey takes almost five hours.
According to UNESCO: “The construction of the Nilgiri Mountain Railway, a 45.88 kilometer long meter-gauge single-track railway was first proposed in 1854, but due to the difficulty of the mountainous location the work only started in 1891 and was completed in 1908. This railway, scaling an elevation of 326 meters to 2,203 meters, representsed the latest technology of the time and uses unique rack and pinion traction arrangement to negotiate steep gradient. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site website]
“The Nilgiri Mountain Railway consists of of a 1 meters gauge single-track, partly rack-and-pinion railway that connects Mettupalayiyam to Udagamandalam in Tamil Nadu State. The railway can be divided into three sections: Some 7 kilometers, from Mettupalaiyam to Kallar (elevation 405 meters), across the central plain of Tamil Nadu, with its betel-nut palm and other plantations. Maximum speed is 30 km/h called the Blue Mountain Express, the name of which was changed recently to the native Nilgiri Express.
“The rack section of the line, from Kallar to Coonoor (elevation 1,712 meters). There are 208 curves and 13 tunnels, and 27 viaducts. The Kallar Bridge over the River Bhawani, the Adderley Viaduct and the Burliar Bridge are examples of such composite bridges. Here, the railway climbs through almost uninhabited, tropical jungle. A stretch of 18 kilometers runs through a landscape with dominant eucalyptus and acacia forest. The railway continues to climb across the Nilgiris until it reaches the summit, just before the terminus of Udagamandalam at 2,203 meters.
History of Nilgiri Mountain Railway
According to UNESCO: Protected by wild, jungle-covered escarpments and located at an elevation of roughly 2000 meters, the Nilgiris hills were isolated until the 19th century with their tribal inhabitants, the Todas. The name of the hills means Blue Mountains in Sanskrit and reflects the perspective of a person looking at them from below. British settlement in the hills began in 1820. By 1830 there was military commandant, and British families from Madras began building summerhouses, especially in Udagamandalam (Ootacamund). By 1870, the Madras government as a whole was moving there for the summer, in imitation of the annual migration of the viceroy's Government from Kolkata to Shimla. [Source: UNESCO]
“The history of NMR dates back to 1854 when proposals were first made by the British to build a railway up the hills. Work began on the Madras-Coimbatore line (5'6") in 1853, and the branch to Mettupalaiyam opened in 1873. The problem was how to replace the tedious ascent by bullock-cart or pony to Coonoor. In 1873, the district engineer of the Nilgiris, J.L.L. Morant, proposed building a rack railway, but the first offers were reclined. Sir Guildford Molesworth, the former engineer in chief of the Ceylon Government Railway, acting as consultant to the Government of India, advised a rack and adhesion line on the model of the Abt system built in the Harz Mountains in Germany.
“In 1882, M. Riggenbach, the Swiss inventor of Rigi rack railway, submitted a proposal for the construction of the railway line. This was accepted, and the Nilgiri Rigi Railway Company Ltd was formed in 1885. The work was inaugurated in 1891, and finally completed in 1908. Subsequently the railway was run by different companies, and was then incorporated into the Southern Railway in 1951. The British began to move into this region of India in around 1820, and the first railway projects were particularly early, in the 1840s. However the broad gauges then used (1.67 meters) were basically incompatible with any idea of providing rail transport to the hill regions.”
Mountain Railways of India: UNESCO World Heritage Site
Mountain Railways of India were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999, 2005 and 2008. According to UNESCO: “The Mountain Railway of India consists of three railways: the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway located in the foothills of the Himalayas in West Bengal (Northeast India) having an area of 5.34 ha., the Nilgiri Mountain Railways located in the Nilgiri Hills of Tamil Nadu (South India) having an area of 4.59 ha. and the Kalka Shimla Railway located in the Himalayan foothills of Himachal Pradesh (Northwest India) having an area of 79.06 ha. All three railways are still fully functional and operational. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site website]
“The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway was the first, and is still the most outstanding, example of a hill passenger railway. Opened in 1881, its design applies bold and ingenious engineering solutions to the problem of establishing an effective rail link across a mountainous terrain of great beauty. The construction of the Nilgiri Mountain Railway, a 46-kilometer long meter-gauge single-track railway in Tamil Nadu State was first proposed in 1854, but due to the difficulty of the mountainous location the work only started in 1891 and was completed in 1908. This railway, scaling an elevation of 326 meters to 2,203 meters, represented the latest technology of the time. The Kalka Shimla Railway, a 96-kilometer long, single track working rail link built in the mid-19th century to provide a service to the highland town of Shimla is emblematic of the technical and material efforts to disenclave mountain populations through the railway. All three railways are still fully operational.
“The Mountain Railways of India are outstanding examples of hill railways. Opened between 1881 and 1908 they applied bold and ingenious engineering solutions to the problem of establishing an effective rail link across a mountainous terrain of great beauty. They are still fully operational as living examples of the engineering enterprise of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
“The Mountain Railways of India are outstanding examples of the interchange of values on developments in technology, and the impact of an innovative transportation system on the social and economic development of a multicultural region, which was to serve as a model for similar developments in many parts of the world. The Mountain Railways of India exhibit an important cultural and technologicaly transfer in the colonial setting of the period of its construction, particularly with regard to the eminently political function of the terminus station, Shimla.. The railway then enabled significant and enduring human settlement, of which it has remained the main vector up to the present day.
“The development of railways in the 19th century had a profound influence on social and economic developments in many parts of the world. The Mountain Railways of India are outstanding examples of a technological ensemble, representing different phases of the development in high mountain areas. The Mountain Railways of India are outstanding examples of how access has been provided to the plains and plateaus of the Indian mountains. They are emblematic of the technical and material efforts of human societies of this period to disenclave mountain populations through the railway. They are well-maintained and fully operational living lines. They are used in a spirit and for purposes that are the same as those at its their inception.”
Coimbatore (250 kilometers south-southwest of Bangalore and 175 kilometers northwest of Madurai as the crow flies) is one of the largest cities of Tamil Nadu with a population of 1.6 million people. Situated on the Noyil River at an altitude of 425 meters (1,400 feet), the city skirts the Western Ghats and is near the Nilgiri Hills and serves as a convenient jumping off point for places in these mountains. Coimbatore itself has traditionally been known as a textile town and the source the of 'Village Cot' saris and exquisite gold and diamond cut jewelry. It is sometimes called Manchester of the South. Surrounded by rolling green hills, dotted with scenic waterfalls, Coimbatore enjoys a pleasant climate throughout the year, thanks to the Palghat Gap in the Western Ghats that ensures there is an uninterrupted stream of cooling wind blowing through.
Earlier, Coimbatore was called Kongunadu and today, it is called Kovai. Before its modernisation, Coimbatore was a village ruled by tribal chiefs called Koyan or Kovan. Later, the region was ruled by several dynasties like the Rashtrakutas, Chalukyas, Pandyas, Hoyasalas and the Vijayanagaras. During the colonial rule, the Britons transformed Coimbatore into an industrial city and set up several textile mills that paved the way for the city's textile development. which is the capital of the state and can be reached from the city via bus, train and plane.
Coimbatore is a major commercial and industrial hub based on the hydroelectric complex on the Pykora River. Coimbatore is the largest cotton-milling center south of Mumbai. A majority of its residents are Hindu Tamils. The famous Hindu-Dravidian-style Temple of Perur is located the city.
Getting There: Coimbatore is about 510 kilometers away from Chennai and 40 kilometers from Ooty in the Nolgiri Hills. A railway connects the city with Madurai and Tuticorin, and air service links it with Cochin, Bangalore, and Chennai. By Air: Coimbatore International Airport is located about 15 kilometers away from the city center. It is connected by direct flight services to major Indian cities like Mumbai, Bengaluru, and Chennai. By Road: The city is serviced by the Coimbatore Junction railway station, which is connected by regular train services to many cities in India. By Train: Coimbatore is connected by Government-run and privately-owned bus services to cities like Chennai (about 510km), Madurai (about 213km), and Bengaluru (about 363km).
Sights in the Coimbatore Area
The Coimbatore area is dotted with scenic waterfalls, the most popular of which are the Kovai Kutrallam falls. Lying in the Suruvani Hills, this grand waterfall lies amidst a lush forest, and visitors have to trek their way up to the pristine falls. An ideal spot for birdwatchers, the falls are 35 kilometers west of Coimbatore, Siruvani Waterfalls are another a popular tourist destination. The falls lie close to the Siruvani Dam, which offers picturesque and sweeping views of the surrounding areas. Since the falls are located deep into the forest, one needs to trek to reach them. Camping, nature-walks, birdwatching etc., are popular activities here. The best time to visit the falls is after monsoon when they flow in full glory.
Marudhamalai Temple (on the outskirts of Coimbatore) is elieved to be the abode of Lord Murugan. The 1,200-year-old temple sits on a small hillock and can be accessed via a long flight of steps, and from the top you can get sweeping views of the surrounding landscape. The hill is also home to a multitude of medicinal herbs that are used in the preparation of various Ayurvedic medicines. Two festivals that are celebrated here with much fanfare are the Thai Poosam, in January and February and Thiru Karthigai, in November or December. Other attractions nearby include Thaan Thondri Vinaayakar, a temple for Pillayar or Lord Ganesha that lies at the foothills and a cave temple, called Paambaatti Sitthar Kugai, which is dedicated to a sitthar, a saint believed to have supernatural powers, who lived in the area.
Pollachi (40 kilometers south of Coimbatore) is famous for coconuts. Tender and ripe coconuts are sent from here to many cities and towns across India. The main attractions are the Subramanyar Temple, one of the largest jaggery markets in Asia and the largest cattle market in South India. Pollachi is also famous for shooting of South Indian films. About 1,500 movies have been shot here.
Ootacamund (Ooty) (75 kilometers northwest of Coimbatore, 100 kilometers south of Mysore, and 300 kilometers southwest of Bangalore) is sometimes called the "queen of hill stations." Located at an elevation of 2,200 meters (7,200 feet) in the Nilgiri Hills, it was founded in the early 19th century by English escaping the heat and the mosquitos in the plains. Perched against the backdrop of Doddabetta (2,637 meters), the highest peak in the Nilgiris, Ootacamund, in Tamil Nadu, is lined with traditional and colonial-style buildings. Clear blue skies, lush green hills, deep verdant valleys and pleasant weather make it the gem of the Nilgiris and one of the most attractive tourist destinations in South India.
A popular summer retreat for Britons, as well as the capital of the Madras residency in British India, Ootacamund or Ooty or Udhagamandalam (as it was earlier called) has been bestowed with many architectural wonders,thanks to its colonial heritage. The most prominent of these is the Raj Bhavan or the Government House, which is a cream-colored sprawling bungalow, with a stunning ballroom. It was the residence of the governor of Madras.
The Ooty area has traditionally been inhabited by the Toda, a tribe that used to practice polyandry (women taking multiple husbands). Around the town are coffee and tea plantations, forests of eucalyptus, conifers and pines, and a thick cover of shola trees. The most interesting way to get to Ooty and explore the area around is via the toy train, which runs from on one of the steepest tracks in Asia and stops in Coonoor, Wellington and Lovedale (See Below). For information on Ooty’s history read Barbara Crossete's “Great Hill Stations of Asia”.
Getting to Ooty
Nilgiri Toy Train is a narrow-gauge “toy” train that runs from the Nilgiri Hills foothill town of Mettupalayam to Ooty. The train switchbacks and goes through hairpin turns and passes through mountains, tea plantations, forests villages, jungles, spice farms, jack fruit orchards and villages inhabited by Toda tribesmen. The journey takes almost five hours.
The Nilgiri Rail Line was started in 1899 from Mettupalayam to Coonoor and eventually expanded to Udhagamandalam (old name of Ootacamund) in 1908. One of the steepest rail lines in Asia, the toy train on this line takes passengers from a height of 325 meters (1,069 feet) to 2,203 meters (7,228 feet.) The line covers a total distance of 48 kilometers between Mettupalayam to Ootacamund, covering Kellar, Coonoor, Wellington and Lovedale on the way. The route is extremely scenic and breathtaking. The view is particularly picturesque owing to the surrounding rocky terrain, ravines and lush green hills that one passes by.
Getting There: By Air: The Coimbatore International Airport is at a distance of 88 kilometers from Ootacamund. One can take a cab from there. By Road: Well-constructed roads and reasonably good national highways connect Ootacamund to most cities of South India. Bus, taxis, cars are all available. By Train: Ootacamund's nearest railway station is in Mettupalayam, 47 kilometers away.
Food, Tea and Shopping in Ooty
Ootacamund has plenty of tea estates that provide one with the most authentic of flavors. A steaming cup of tea with a delectable pastry from one of the quaint bakeries, is the perfect way to enjoy the picturesque view. Even though kebabs are not particularly a South Indian speciality, thanks to a few brilliant food joints in the city, they are a very popular dish here. While in Ootacamund, head to any of the roadside kebab stalls or dhabas and indulge your palate with these oil-dipped yummies. Tear into grilled, succulent chunks of chicken meat or lamb, or the equally fantastic soya and paneer kebabs. A butter naan (Indian leavened flatbread drenched in butter) goes nicely with kebabs.
There are plenty of things one can buy in Ootacamund. While soaking in the sights, breathe in the aroma of tea wafting through the entire town. You can shop for varieties of tea and products like incense sticks, eucalyptus oil, scented candles, flower-produced perfumes and more. At the junction of NH 67 is Charring Cross where you can indulge in shopping for woollen clothes while interacting with the locals.
The nearby Tibetan Market deserves a special mention for the handmade bead jewelry sold there. You can also shop for Toda embroidery handicrafts and antiques. Those with a green thumb can find a plethora of horticultural indulgences, from flower seeds to house plants and equipment. For home-made chocolates, head over to Pykara Road and you'll see shops lining the street that sell white, caramel and dark chocolate and plenty of dry fruit-filled delicacies. Like every town, Ootacamund too has a Commercial Street crowded by tourists who shop leather products. There are also cinchona products, Toda jewelry and shawls and variations of coffee and Nilgiri honey to be bought, just keep a lookout for shops selling these. If nothing else, you can always head to the nearby Poompuhara outlet (by Tamil Nadu State Government) to shop for Kairali fabric and Tamil handicrafts and antiques.
Sights in Ootacamund (Ooty)
Places worth checking out include a wonder terraced botanical garden, an artificial lake, a children's park, Klahatty Waterfalls, and the Hindustan Photo Films Factory. The most prominent example of Ooty’s colonial heritage. is the Raj Bhavan or the Government House, a cream-colored sprawling bungalow, with a stunning ballroom. It was the residence of the governor of Madras. There are some lovely hikes in the Nilgiris Hills around the hill station.
Government Tribal Museum (the Ooty-Mysore Road) is housed within the Tribal Research Center in Ootacamund. Funded and protected by the government, it opened in 1989 and contains exhibits aimed at projecting the history and heritage of the 18 tribes live in the Ootacamund area at various points in time, especially the Toda tribe. The museum houses displays of daily life tribal objects, ecological details of the district and miscellaneous sculptural works and Arts and Crafts of Tamil Nadu. Artefacts such as skulls of buffaloes sacrificed during Toda tribal funerals and model tribal huts have been set up with placards giving detailed descriptions in English for convenience.
Ooty Lake is an artificial Ooty Lake and a central attraction in this part of the Nilgiris. A popular recreational spot, this L-shaped lake provides boating facilities. You can sail a boat in the dazzling blue waters yourself or hire a boatman to row you through. The lake is surrounded by lush greenery and eucalyptus trees that add to the serenity of the spot. With an exotic backdrop of the Nilgiris, the lake makes for a beautiful photography point. The lake also holds some appeal for birdwatchers as it shelters a variety of birds. The lake is the venue for several boat races that take place throughout they year. In close vicinity, lie a mini-garden and an amusement park. The 65-acre lake was formed in 1824 under the supervision of John Sullivan, the then Collector of Coimbatore.
Tea Estates can be found all over the Ooty area. The hill station has been home to vast tea estates since the colonial era and is a hub of the tea-growing industry. In addition to gorgeous views and pleasant weather, another attraction is the Tea and Tourism Festival, which was launched in 1994 to promote tourism in the hill station. The grand celebration attracts tourists from all over the country. Giving recognition to Ootacamund's tea industry and its vast varieties, the festival sees tea gardens decorated beautifully, several cultural programs like folk music and dance performances conducted by the locals, and varieties of tea available for tasting and buying. Promoted and organised by the Tamil Nadu Tourism Department and Ministry of Tourism, the festival is usually held in January. One can also participate in guided tours of the tea estates.
Gardens and Parks in Ootacamund (Ooty)
Government Botanical Garden is perched at a height of 2,500 meters and sprawls along slopes of the Doddabetta mountain. This serene garden is divided into six different sections: Lower Garden, Italian Garden, New Garden, Conservatory, Fountain Terrace and Nurseries. Housed here are lush, manicured lawns, exotic and rare species of flora and a vast variety of flowering bushes and plants in myriad hues. The garden is a living gallery of the Nilgiris' natural flora and is an ideal place to spend the day. Keep an eye out for the garden's special features like the Cork Tree (one-of-its-kind in India), a Monkey Puzzle Tree, a 20 million year old fossilised tree and much more! The Italian Garden borders a pool of clear water and the Fern House hosts a vast variety of orchids and ferns. Every year, the Tamil Nadu Horticulture Department hosts a Flower Show here in the month of May, showcasing the rare plant species and the abundance of flora present in the garden. Government Botanical Garden was established in 1848 by renowned architect William Graham McIvor. It was set up with the purpose of supplying vegetables at a reasonable cost to the British residents. The garden is currently maintained by the Tamil Nadu Horticulture Department.
Rose Garden (lower slopes of Elk Hill) is maintained by the Tamil Nadu Horticulture Department. Set up to commemorate the 100th Flower Festival of the Botanical Garden in 1995, it sprawls over four hectares (10 acres) and has over 2,500 varieties of roses, said to be the largest collection in India. Take a leisurely stroll in the garden, and soak in the sights and the smells of beautiful roses across a five-terrace setup. The garden is decorated with rose creepers, boasts varieties like hybrid tea roses, miniature rose, florbunda and ramblers. There are even green and black roses here! To captivate the senses, there is a viewpoint in the garden called Nila Maadam, from where one can get a breathtaking view of the entire landscape.
Sim's Park is an extremely popular sight in Ootacamund. Spread over 12 hectares (30 acres) of undulated land, the park hosts a plethora of floral species, not commonly found anywhere else in Ootacamund. In the month of May, the park plays host to the annual Fruit and Vegetable Show that attracts tourists in large numbers. This park-cum-botanical-garden also has several species of foliage, brought in from various parts of the world, coinhabiting the space with trees, shrubs and creepers. Two major highlights of the garden are a Rudrakasha ped (bead tree) and a Queensland Kerry pine tree. Adjoining the park are the Pomological Research Station, Silk Worm Seed Station and the Pasteur Institute. The park was laid out by and named after JD Sim, the then secretary to the Government, and Major Murray, the acting superintendent of the Nilgiri Forests in 1874. Sim's was initially a pleasure resort for the British Government's officers and visitors. Later, it was transformed into an exotic garden.
Deer Park (On the periphery of Ooty Lake) is India's highest altitude animal park. Sprawling across 22 acre of lush greenery, it opened for public in 1986 and is maintained by the Tamil Nadu Forest Department.. In addition to deer, the park is also home to a plethora of naturally-growing rare flora. Observe and educate yourself about the wildlife residing here with guided tours. Several species like sambar deer, chital deer, hare, rabbits and water birds are reared here.
Hill Stations and Villages Near Ootacamund (Ooty)
Among the other Hill Station in the area are 6,000-foot-high Coonoor and Yercaud. Some English say it reminds them of Surrey and it is rumored there is even a pack of fox hounds here. Ketti Valley is 2,130 meters (7,000-feet) -deep and extends from the plains of Coimbatore to the Mysore Plateau. One can get a breathtaking view of 14 neighbouring villages from this valley, which is mostly inhabited by the Toda and Badaga tribes. The small village of Ketti is the gateway to the valley. Thiashola tea, eucalyptus and lemongrass oils are some of the local specialties one can shop for here. To witness the beautiful architecture of the village, one can head to Lovedale and Ketti Stations. Shrouded by a sapphire sky and silver clouds with a frontal view of the mountain ranges and green oaks, walk through the village taking in the sights. One can also visit the Emerald Tea Plantations. There is a telescope house for you to visit and take in gorgeous panoramic views; there is also a World Wax Museum nearby that you can visit. The valley is also a hub for needle-making industries.
Coonoor (21 kilometers away from Ooty) is a popular hill station with all-year-round pleasant weather. A vast variety of wildflowers and birds can be found here. The main attraction is the tea estates that can be found in abundance. The hill station presents the perfect opportunity for adventure activities as well, there are plenty of hiking and trekking trails as well as camping sites. Nearby places of interest include Lambs Rock, Lady Cannings Seat, Dolphins Nose, St. Catherine Falls, Sim's Park. A toy train connects Coonoor to other nearby stations and makes for an enjoyable ride. Annually, in the month of May, the town plays host to a Fruit and Vegetable Show and a Tea and Tourism Festival, sometime between November and December; these festivals attract visitors from all over the country.
Pykara Village (21 kilometers away from Ooty) is a beautiful village with a gushing river and a waterfall. The Pykara is the largest river in the district and is considered sacred by the Toda Tribe in the region. Rising from the Mukurthi Peak, it passes through hilly tracts and keeps going north. Majestically going down a series of waterfalls, the river's last two cascades are 55 meters and 61 meters respectively. These then come together to form the region's famous Pykara Falls, from where several adventurous trekking trails can also be taken. A major attraction is the Pykara Lake, set amidst lush greenery. Other attractions include the village's dense sholas, grassy meadows and wildlife. Wenlock Downs is nearby.
Wenlock Downs (on the way from Ooty to Pykara Village) features endless stretches of lush greenery, dotted with eucalyptus and shola trees. Once famous for the Udhagamandalam Hunt, it is now home to the Ooty Gymkhana Club. One can enjoy a pleasant walk on the quiet roads here, you might even spot some grazing sheep! Wenlock Downs is a wonderful site for golfing enthusiasts. According to popular lore, the place has been named after Sir Arthur Lawley's sibling, Beilby Lawley, the third Baron Wenlock. Wenlock Downs has also been the shooting point for films like Sixth Mile and Ninth Mile.
Mountains and Natural Sights Near Ootacamund (Ooty)
Doddabetta (About 10 kilometers away from Ootacamund bus terminus) is the highest peak in the Nilgiri Hills. Its name , literally means “big mountain”. Standing at a height of 2,637 meters (8652 feet), it lies at the junction of the Eastern and Western Ghats. On clear days, Doddabetta Peak provides panoramic views of lush landscape. Doddabetta mountain is spotted with dense sholas, ferns and eucalyptus plants. Hordes of tourists head straight for the Telescope House set up by the Tourism Department at the peak that gives a bird's eye view of the entire district. The Dodabetta Peak has been well-kept by the authorities and offers a great view particularly of the Hecuba, Kattadadu and Kulkudi summits.
Avalanche Lake (28 kilometers from Ootacamund) is past the Emerald Lake and is surrounded by thick forests. Avalanche Lake lies on the way from Upper-Bhavani to Ootacamund. The journey itself is filled with gorgeous sights and is worth the travel. Avalanche Lake is surrounded by a rolling landscape covered with blooming flowers. From the top of the mountain, one can get an eagle's eye view of the entire area. Thanks to the thick foliages, sunlight is a little difficult to come by and the forest area is mostly covered in shadows, inhabited by vast numbers of birds. One can enjoy trekking, fishing and camping. A trout hatchery has been set up near the lake and one can rent fishing equipment here. One can also go boating on the lake.
Western Catchment (Located 20 kilometers away from the Parsons Valley) is a grassland area where the lower points of valleys are covered in sholas. From the topmost point, one can look at a mesmerising carpet of green spotted with myriad hues. Protected by the Tamil Nadu Forest Department, the catchment has rolling hills dotted with shola trees and gushing streams, and a beautiful lake-like reservoir called Portimund Lake. This is an ideal spot for just strolling around and taking in the sights. While here, one can also spot the Nilgiri tahrs, sambars and mongoose in their natural habitat. To visit this extremely beautiful spot, one needs to take permission from the Forest Department as visitors aren't allowed to freely access the area. A lot of regional films were once shot here, but in keeping with the idea of environmental protection, permission is no longer granted for such documentations.
Needle Rock (eight kilometers from Gudalur, between Pykara and Cuddalore, on the Ootacamund-Gudalur National Highway) is the perfect place to get a 360 degree view of the grasslands of Nilgiri and the beautiful valley bellow. Also called Soosi Malai, Needle Rock is conical in shape and is a very picturesque location. A view of the sunset from here is possible on clear sky days. One can also get a panoramic view of the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary from here, which is one of the first sanctuaries to be set up in South India. The sanctuary is home to many birds, including hornbills, minivets, fairy blue birds and jungle fowls, making it a haven for birdwatchers.
Wildlife Areas Near Ooty and Coimbatore
Biligirirangana Hills (BR Hills) lies at the meeting point of the Eastern and Western Ghats. Blessed with a diverse ecosystem, it gets its name from the Ranganathaswamy Temple perched atop a cliff. Dedicated to Lord Ranganatha, the temple is a major pilgrimage center and houses an idol of the lord with his consort Ranganayaki. It attracts a large number of tourists during the month of April when special festivities are held. Tourists can also explore the rich wildlife of the area by visiting the BR Hills Wildlife Sanctuary. Spread across an area of 539 square kilometers, the natural reserve is home to bears, chital, gaurs, sambhar, leopards, wild dogs, elephants and tigers. The sanctuary is also inhabited by more than 200 species of birds including racket tailed drongo and crested eagle. BR Hills also offers rafting, trekking, fishing, fishing and coracle boat riding.
Mukkurthi National Park (40 kilometers southwest of Ooty) is located in the higher altitudes of the Nilgiris. The depressions of the park are dotted with dense sholas, and its landscape is lush, colorful and extremely picturesque. The peak in its entirety has a vast variety of flora and fauna residing in its habitat, and the main attraction is the Nilgiri tahr that can be seen grazing in large numbers. The 7,846 hectare park shelters populations of sambar, barking deer, Nilgiri marten, otter, jungle cat, jackal etc., in its grasslands. The birds consists mostly of hill birds like laughing thrushes, woodcocks, wood pigeons and black eagles. Butterflies with Himalayan affinity like the blue admiral, Indian red admiral, Indian fritillary, Indian cabbage white, hedge blues and rainbow trouts are spotted frequently. The park offers opportunities for camping and trekking as well. Mukurthi National Park is a part of the popular Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve.
Silent Valley National Park (in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, 50 kilometers west of Coimbatore) is a Nilgiri Hills park encompassing a wt, lush forests with leopards, tigers, elephants, sambar, three species of mongoose, langurs (monkeys), dholes and Nilgiri tahr. The best time to visit is from October to February.
Anamalai Tiger Reserve (90 kilometers south of Coimbatore) spreads out over an area of 958 square kilometers and is situated in the southern part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve of the Anamalai Hills. The main tourist zone is known as Top Slip, situated at an altitude varying from 350 meters to 2,400 meters above sea level. The landscape is mostly made up of thickly wooded hills, rolling grasslands, plateau and deep valleys, housing rich evergreen and semi-evergreen forests and deciduous covers. There are teak, rose wood and many miscellaneous tropical species in the semi-evergreen and wet temperate habitats. Sheltering about 8,000 species of plants, the sanctuary is home to 500 species of both resident and migratory birds. Some of the popular wildlife you can spot include panther, elephant, sloth bear, flying squirrel, wild bear, wild dog etc. The reserve is also known as the Indira Gandhi National Park and Sanctuary. For many years it was a a sanctuary. It was declared a tiger reserve in 2008.
Mudumalia Sanctuary (20 kilometers northwest of Ooty, 160 kilometers north Coimbatore,) is located at the foot of the Nilgiri Hills and encompasses dry scrub forest with leopards, sloth bears, striped hyenas, chitals, and dholes. Once famous for big game hunting, this sanctuary is an ideal elephant habitat with vast stretches of swampland, thick forests and of teak and eucalyptus and dense groves of bamboo. It is also one of the best places in the world to see spotted deer (herds several hundred strong) and gaurs (herd of 70 or 80 animals). Safaris are conducted in vans and jeeps and on the backs of elephants. There are also towers for bird watching and a large elephant camp.
Among the animals seen here among the thickly wooded hills, plateaus and deep valleys are tigers, leopards, wild dogs, chital, sambar, barking deer, mouse deer, spotted deer, blackbucks, four-horned antelopes (chowsingha), wild boar, bonnet macaques, common langurs, Malabar giant squirrels, flying squirrels, small Indian civet, porcupines, monitor lizards, pythons, crocodiles, snakes, Malabar trogons, Malabar grey hornbills, great black woodpeckers, crested hawk eagles, crested serpent eagles, common scops owls, little scops owls, tiny eared owls, parakeets, cuckoo, minivets, fairy blue birds, jungle fowls. and lots of butterflies. The best time to visit is from October to February. The sanctuary's reception center is in Theppakadu, which can be reached from Ooty
One of the first sanctuaries to be set up in South India, Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary is a part of the Jawaharlal Nehru Park in the region. Spread over an area of 321 square kilometers, Mudumalai lies at the junction of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala. At a height of 1,140 meters, the wildlife sanctuary embraces tropical evergreen forest and moist and dry teak forests. If you're lucky, you can also spot a tiger by the many waterholes here! One can explore the park through elephant rides for a more lot of fun. The Theppakadu Elephant Camp, established in 1972, is a major attraction here.
Bandipur National Park Reserve
Bandipur National Park Reserve (85 kilometers south of Mysore, 70 kilometers northwest of Ooty) occupies 874 square kilometers and is part of the lushly forested Deccan plateau. Covered with a mix of deciduous forest, evergreen forests and scrub, well irrigated by the Moyar river, Bandipur has a fairly open forest floor, making it easy for visitors to spot wildlife. There are lots of chitral and ungulates to provide plentiful food for predators such as tigers, leopards and dholes. People get around in the waters in bamboo-and-buffalo-hide coracles.
Animals seen here include Asian elephant, gaur, sambar, chital, muntjac, mouse deer, four-horned antelope, wild pig, black-naped hare, Indian porcupine, pangolin, giant squirrel, flying squirrel, giant fruit bat, slender loris, Hanuman langur, bonnet macaque, sloth bear, tiger, leopard, Asiatic wild dog, striped hyena, jackal, jungle cat, leopard cat, rusty spotted cat, small Indian civet, palm civet, and otter
Among birds spotted in the park are ospreys, grey-headed fishing eagle, crested hawk eagle, serpent eagle, buzzard, shaheen falcon, king vulture, cormorants, teals, herons, wader, ducks, grey jungle fowl, Malabar trogon, Malabar pied hornbill, great black woodpecker, Alexandrine parakeet, Indian pitta, firy blue bird, Malabar whistling thrush, imperial pigeon and hill myna.
Yercaud (150 kilometers east-northeast of Coimbatore) is verdant hill station popularly referred to as 'Jewel of the South'. Nestled in the Shevaroy Hills of the Eastern Ghats within the district of Salem, it lies at an approximate height of 4,970 feet above mean sea level. The name of the hill town has been derived from its geography. Due to the growth of a large number of trees around its main lake, the locals started calling the place 'Yeri-Kaadu', which literally translates into lake forest. Over the years, both words merged to make the name Yercaud.
Yercaud is spread across an area of about 383 square kilometers, that includes its reserve forests. The rest of its terrain includes the rocky Eastern Ghats. The place enjoys a cool climate for most parts of the year. The temperatures are said to rarely rise above 29 degrees Celsius or reduce below 13 degrees Celsius. This pristine hill station is also preferred by tourists as it is less crowded and has peaceful surroundings that give a respite from the bustle of the city. Adding to its verdant landscape is the Orchidarium (where orchids are cultivated) that is maintained by the Botanical Survey of India. Moreover, there are coffee plantations, orange groves, banana, pear and jackfruit farms, and pepper plantations found in abundance in Yercaud. Guar, Bisons, deer, rabbits, hares, foxes, mongooses, squirrels, partridges, snakes, bulbuls, kites, sparrows and swallows are among the animals that live here.
e By Air: Yercaud doesn’t have its own airport but is serviced from the airport at Tiruchirappalli. This is connected by flight services to Chennai as well as some international destinations like Colombo, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. Tiruchirappalli is about 167 kilometers away from Yercaud. By Road: Several government- and privately-owned bus agencies operate buses from Salem which is about 35 kilometers away from Yercaud. By Train: Yercaud doesn’t have its own train station. It is connected via the two railway stations in Salem, namely Salem Junction and Salem Town. Trains from Chennai and all over South India reach these stations. Salem is about 35 kilometers away from Yercaud.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: India tourism website ( incredibleindia.org), India’s Ministry of Tourism and other government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.
Updated in August 2020