[Book Review] A walk down the Nilgiri hills

  • An anthology of writings on the Nilgiris, The Nilgiri Hills — A Kaleidoscope of People, Culture and Nature, reflects on the past and the present of the south Indian hill district.
  • The book talks about colonisers and the two dominant communities of the Badagas and the Todas as well as delves into the other tribal communities such as the Kotas, the Irulas and the Kurumbas and their altering occupations and lives.
  • From stories as interesting as Hollywood potboilers on personalities in the British Raj to moving accounts of indigenous anxiety, the book gives a thorough look at a delicate landscape in flux.

The Nilgiri Hills — A Kaleidoscope of People, Culture and Nature, edited by anthropologist Paul Hockings begins​ with what’s now a pressing concern in the landscape, its changing nature. So much so, a three-day conference was held in August in Ooty, titled Nilgiriscapes, bringing stakeholders and researchers together to discuss multiple challenges the hill district is facing including climate change, urbanisation and biodiversity loss.

The year 1819 was a year of transformation for the Nilgiris, with a British official John Sullivan arriving there and deciding to stay on for its breathtaking rolling grasslands, the English weather and the hospitality of the local people. He is credited with transforming a portion of the Nilgiris into the thriving Ooty town that we know today. He did that by initiating the British idea of modernisation such as infrastructure development in the form of roads, lakes and a marketplace, a cash economy, schools for modern education, courts, hospitals, churches and agricultural innovations that subsequently, completely altered the face of the land. As someone who is uncomfortable with attributing the “discovery” of indigenous lands to foreigners, the idea of Sullivan “founding” Ooty or “Sullivan’s Ooty” never sounded like the truest representation of the history of this magical hill town.

Hocking’s book, a compendium of modern, post-colonial thoughts on the landscape by a variety of writers and scholars including ecologists, filmmakers, musicologists, local writers as well as overseas experts, however, provides enough objectivity and agency to the real custodians of the land — the indigenous communities.

Homage to the transformation of the Nilgiris

The year 2019 marked the bicentenary of this transformation. The 264-page book has been put together as a homage to the Nilgiris district that, despite being so diminutive at just 1000 square kilometres, has its special place in South India. The Nilgiris or the Blue Mountains is one of the oldest mountain ranges, located at the tri-junction of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Karnataka states. The first UNESCO-declared biosphere reserve in India, the mountain range in the Western Ghats is a crucial habitat for native biodiversity and is home to many indigenous communities including Tamil Nadu’s six particularly vulnerable tribal groups. The Nilgiris is one of the better researched and documented part of India with voluminous literature available on every aspect of the region. That notwithstanding, the book has some original essays and lesser-known stories.

Jeep track to Mullimunth Toda Village. Photo by Indianature SG/Flickr
Jeep tracks to Mullimunth Toda Village. Photo by Indianature SG/Flickr

Once the British had established themselves in the late 1800s, the tropical montane grasslands, or the sholas were deemed “wastelands” and were converted into “productive” agricultural lands. These changes deeply affected the indigenous communities, especially the pastoralist Todas, whose lives were integrated into the grassland ecosystem. In Toda scholar Tarun Chhabra’s Twenty-first Century Recollections of the British Raj, the many cultural clashes that the Todas had with the British are mentioned. For instance, the initiation of the now UNESCO-designated narrow-gauge Nilgiri Mountain Railway left the Toda community in the doldrums. “Just before the train reaches its final destination of Ootacamund, it passes along a hillside located directly above the dairy temple at the Küšu hamlet. Since the Toda females are not allowed to enter the hallowed area above this temple, the location of the railway tracks presented the community with a predicament, one that they finally resolved by declaring that henceforth, no Toda females were to ride on the train over this stretch of track,” Chhabra writes.

So, what do the Toda women do? If they were to commute by train, they get on or disembark at the Lovedale station (depending on the direction) before the Ooty station. The article also mentions instances of acquisition and submergence of Toda sacred lands due to the establishment of townships and the construction of the Pykara dam respectively. However, Chhabra writes that the colonisers met their match in the Todas who had nothing but condescension for the foreigners. A rather frosty relationship later thawed into mutual admiration for each other.

The other dominant community of the Badagas too had witnessed a similar predicament of cultural and economic upending with the arrival of the British. The book mentions instances where large tracts of Badaga lands were usurped by the British Raj for the plantations reducing the community to near penury.

A peek into indigenous anxiety

Though the book talks in length about the colonisers and the two dominant communities of the Badagas and the Todas, it also delves into the other tribal communities like the Kotas, the Irulas and the Kurumbas and their altering occupations and lives with time. A section of the book is dedicated to honey hunting as a livelihood activity of the Irulas and the Kurumbas. Ecologists Pratim Roy and Anita Varghese give us a glimpse of indigenous anxiety through honey hunter Rāsu who worries about the future of the traditional occupation as the younger generations show little interest in the delicate operation of climbing the steep cliffs and gathering honey from rock bees.

A medical camp for Kurumba tribals near Banagudi Shola. Photo by Gopikrishna Warrier
People from the Kurumba tribe with a doctor near Banagudi Shola. One of the tribal communities in the Nilgiris, the Kurumbas are engaged in honey hunting as their main occupation. Photo by S. Gopikrishna Warrier/Mongabay.

The elderly Rāsu also worries about the disconnect his people have from the ancestral land and trees. The anxiety is palpable as he says, “The jackfruit trees gave us fruit and so we ate some and took the rest to the market. Today, a vehicle comes down and all the fruit is gathered at one time and sold off, and now they are talking about selling the trees. If the tree that my grandfather planted has to be cut down, then I don’t feel like I belong here.”

Anthropologist Maria-Claude Mahias’s essay titled Among the gems from the Nilgiris, the Kota women potters, talks about the exceptional bodily intelligence and skill of Kota women which is evident from the dexterity with which they do a true “throwing” of the lump of clay on the wheel-head using kinetic energy. It’s an exceptional craft and one that is denied to women of other potter castes. The author rues the lack of recognition the Kota women potters get and the need to give them their rightful place in the history of ceramics and technology.

Harking back to the British Raj

One cannot miss the deftness of Hockings’s writing as he pieces together reasons for British administrator Sir Frederick Price’s omission of the noteworthy Victorian architect R.F. Chisholm from his famous and elegant-looking book, Ootacamund, A History based completely on probabilities. In his The sadist who sired a South-Indian administrator, Hockings indulges us in hypothetical scenarios that may have led Price to cold-shoulder Chisolm and his contributions in his book, thereby taking the readers through the dubious past of Price, his father’s impossible cruelties on the convicts of the penal establishment in Norfolk island as the Commander and his probable gay liaisons and sodomy charges. This story, not any less than a Hollywood potboiler, may not be fitting well with the book’s larger theme but it is entertaining nonetheless and contains nuggets of history we may not have known otherwise.

Mullimunth Toda temple in the Nilgiris. Photo by Indianature SG/Flickr
Cover of the book, The Nilgiri Hills (l). Mullimunth Toda temple in the Nilgiris (r). Photo by Indianature SG/Flickr.

Author and social activist Indu K. Mallah’s The symbiosis in the Nilgiris sets the tone and tenor of the book and should’ve ideally been the opening essay. She shares multiple scenarios and stories that bring together the symbiotic relationship between the various indigenous communities in the Nilgiris as well as their links with nature without giving the readers false hopes that the Nilgiris is a paradise on earth. She asks, “Is there a meeting point between legend and history? Is there a meeting point between conservation and development? And is there indeed a meeting point between exploitation and expiration?” I guess there aren’t any definite answers to these questions.

Like many historical narratives of the region, this book too holds a mirror to the past. While there’s much to learn from history, there is a need to ponder more on what the future holds for the Nilgiris. The region, which has lost so much to colonisation and mindless development post-independence, is already in the throes of another challenge, climate change. The book sticks to the familiar, leaving something to be desired.

Read more: The Todas may have moved up the Nilgiris 3500 years ago: study


Banner image: The Todas are the indigenous people of the Nilgiris. The barrel-shaped houses are typical designs of Toda homes. Photo by Indianature SG/Flickr.

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