Mountain Magic: Chimagalur: Destinasian: August 2009

I am hiking up the lush Baba Budan Hills of Karnataka, carrying little more than a flask of freshly brewed coffee. It’s a bright February morning and the temperature is hovering around 20°C, perfect conditions for a scenic ramble in the mountains. But for caffeineloving me, this is as much a pilgrimage as a nature walk, for it was on these slopes that South India’s favorite beverage first burst forth. As the late, great Tamil novelist R. K. Narayan once noted, “The origin of Indian coffee is saintly. It was not an empire builder or a buccaneer who brought coffee to India but a saint, one who knew what was good for humanity.”

Narayan (no relation of mine, alas) was referring to the 17thcentury Sufi mystic Baba Budan, who, returning from a pilgrimage
to Mecca, encountered coffee at the port of Mocha in Yemen. Beguiled by its taste, he spirited away seven seeds in his waistcloth, brought them back to India, and planted them in the hills that now bear his name, perhaps along the very trail that I’m following. That thought makes me smile as I plow uphill along a narrow track that winds through coffee estates. Most of Karnataka’s coffee is shade-grown, which means the estates appear more forest than farm. Above me, sunlight filters through a canopy of rosewood, ficus, and silver oaks onto the arabica and robusta bushes that carpet the hillsides. Birdsong fills the air, as do the scents of wet earth and eucalyptus. I spot barefoot villagers balancing deadwood on their heads as they pick their way downhill; occasionally, college students bound past in sweatpants and sneakers. There are waterfalls and burbling mountain streams. And through the trees, I can see cars winding their way up a distant road toward the summit.
An hour later, I reach the top of Mullayangiri, which, at just shy of 2,000 meters above sea level, is the tallest peak in Karnataka. On its crest is a tiny Shiva temple, complete with a saffron-clad priest. After murmuring a quick prayer, I perch on a ledge and gaze down at the undulating green hills arrayed around me like the folds of a sari. I take a triumphant sip of coffee. The aroma draws jealous stares from a nearby group of sightseers.

FOR THOSE OF US raised south of the Vindhya Mountains, coffee is not just a beverage, a brew, a cup of joe. It is a lifeenhancing elixir; as much a part of the South Indian psyche as Kanjivaram silk saris, Carnatic music,
and coconut-laced curries. In My Dateless Diary, a chronicle of his trip to the United States in the 1960s, R. K.
Narayan recounts ordering a cup of coffee in a New York café.
“Black or white?” he is asked. “Neither,” he replies haughtily.
“I want it brown, which ought to be the color of honest coffee. That’s how we make it in South India, where devotees of
perfection in coffee assemble from all over the world.”

Narayan, who used to call himself “the globe’s best coffee taster,” wasn’t exaggerating. Just as preparing a good pot of tea is a
British obsession, coffee holds an almost mythic sway over the South Indian subconscious. This isn’t espresso as the Italians have it, or Turkish coffee so thick you can stand a spoon in it. Nor is it watery café Americano. In Karnataka, as in the neighboring states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, people drink “filter kaapi”— an aromatic decoction the color of dark chocolate, chicoryleavened and dripped through a perforated brass or stainless steel filter, served with a dash of frothy hot milk and just enough sugar to remove the bitterness.

The Indian gentleman at the table next to me at The Serai, however, is sipping a milky chai tea, as sure a sign as any that he’s
from the north. Poor thing, I think as my decanter of coffee arrives. He doesn’t know what he’s missing. But he does know how to choose his accommodations. The Serai is a new resort outside Chikmagalur, a hill town of some
100,000 people situated smack in the middle of Karnataka’s coffee country, about a five-hour drive from my home in Bangalore. It is owned by the Coffee Day group, whose chain of cafés—789 at last count—has emerged over the last dozen years as the local equivalent of Starbucks, minus the stigma. Situated on one of the company’s coffee plantations, The Serai is what Bangalore software engineers might approvingly call “vertically integrated”: its superb coffee comes
straight from the surrounding estates; the rosewood floors in the 30 tropical-minimalist villas were fashioned from
dead and fallen shade trees; and the activities program includes plantation walks.
I’m shown to my villa by a smiling young man named Vijay. Set on two levels with a small attached pool, my lodgings are
larger than the Upper West Side apartment where I once lived in Manhattan. In addition to the usual trappings of luxury—kingsize bed, silk cushions, flat-screen TV, white linens that manage to be both crisp and soft—there are picture windows framing soothing greenery and a cavernous bathroom with a pebbled outdoor shower. The tea-scented toiletries strike me as a misstep, but every other detail seems well thought out. Chikmagalur—the name of both the town and the district that
surrrounds it—grew up around the coffee trade, which began in earnest here (and in the highlands of Coorg, 185 kilometers to
the south) in the mid-1800s with the arrival of European planters. It’s a sleepy place with a hodgepodge of buildings; fertilizer
depots and trading offices line the main roads, while processing factories and garbling sheds pepper its outskirts. But even here, you can feel the reverberations of Bangalore’s economic boom.

Over the past few years, coffee planters have begun converting their massive bungalows into homestays that cater to freespending young techies who drive down for the weekend. The Serai, however, is the area’s first upscale resort.
The next morning, I gorge on fresh fruit, croissants, hot masala dosa (savory crepes), and countless cups of coffee at the breakfast buffet. Then, after making an appointment at the spa for an afternoon massage, I set off in one of the resort’s jeeps for a guided tour of the surrounding property.
Coffee estates can be experienced on many levels. For those who seek nothing beyond postprandial exercise, the plantations
afford a pleasant walk amid coffee shrubs that, depending on the season, are bright red with berries, snow-white with flowers, or an eye-cooling green. On my visit, the coffee berries have just been harvested. Lithe young men wearing nothing but dhotis shinny up the shade trees and cut away branches to let in more sunlight for next season’s growth. Other workers are daubing a white paste around the base of coffee plants to guard against pests. Women with colorful headdresses and bamboo baskets scour the bushes for any remaining berries, leaving their toddlers to play in the sand at their feet.
At Kudregundie, a nearby estate owned by The Serai’s parent company, I’m introduced to Dr. Sreenivasan, a horticultural
consultant with magnificent Albert Einstein eyebrows and an encyclopedic knowledge of coffee. He talks to me about bugs and
soil erosion and the efficacy of a weed called—at least according to my notes—Uryinaria cordat, which he extols as an admirable ground cover. He also explains that Chikmagalur, along with the districts of Hassan and Coorg, accounts for almost 75 percent of coffee production in India, which is in turn among the world’s top 10 producers of the bean.
Yet while its recent history is rooted in coffee, Chikmagalur can look back on a much more glorious past. It was once part of
the mighty Hoysala Empire that ruled over a wide swath of southern India between the 10th and 14th centuries. The
Hoysalas were great warriors, but more than that, they were patrons of the arts and architecture, building stunning temples in
nearby Belur (their erstwhile capital) and Halebid. Chikmagalur was, in fact, part of the wedding dowry of the younger daughter of a Hoysala chieftain. In Kannada, the local language, its name literally means “younger-daughter town.” (Nearby Hiremagalur, or “elder-daughter town,” was presumably given as dowry for her older sister.)
Three types of tourists gravitate toward this area. History buffs come to admire the Hoysala temples, which, though filled with the usual curvaceous nymphs and elephants of Hindu lore, present a dazzling geometry of design. Adventure buffs rock climb, rappel, or hike up hills with musical names like Kemmangundi (“Red Earth Valley”) and Kudremukh (“the Horse Face”).
Pilgrims base themselves in Chikmagalur town and make day-trips to the famous temples in Sringeri, Horanadu, Kalasa,
and Amruthapura. Coffee maniacs like me, it seems, are the exception.
Later that afternoon, after a relaxing aromatherapy massage that leaves my skin as soft as coconut pulp, I visit Chikmagalur’s
Coffee Museum. It turns out to be an uninspired place with one redeeming feature: a superb documentary on coffee
by acclaimed Indian filmmaker Santosh Sivan. Charts on the wall tell me about South India’s specialty coffees, none of
which I can sample locally because they are all exported. Monsooned Malabar, a docent explains, is made by storing the
beans in sacks and exposing them to humidity. “Very popular in Scandinavia because they like lighter coffees,” he adds.
Can I buy some in town? “Not available, madam.” Also unavailable is the unfortunately named Mysore Nuggets, or
any of the organic coffees displayed in tiny glass bins as raw coffee beans. “Try the specialty stores in Bangalore,” the docent
suggests half-heartedly.

BANGALORE AND Chennai, the state capital of Tamil Nadu, are where the art of South Indian coffee reaches its acme. In both cities, countless cafés pour shots of first-rate coffee to a devoted, if opinionated, clientele, each of whom has a view on what constitutes a good brew. In Bangalore, Dakshin at the luxurious ITC Windsor hotel serves very good filter coffee in silver
tumblers, albeit at five-star prices. At the other end of the spectrum, Brahmin’s Coffee Bar, a tiny self-serve eatery near the
Bull Temple of Basavanagudi, offers excellent coffee for pennies, while some swear by the Mavalli Tiffin Room, where generations of Bangaloreans have ducked in after taking a morning walk at the nearby Lalbagh Botanical Garden.
In Chennai, too, good filter coffee can be had at pretty much any hole-in-the-wall eatery. Roadside stalls also do what we affectionately call “meter coffee.” The vendor will mix the coffee and then pour it in dramatic arc-like motions between
two stainless steel tumblers, much like his teh tarik (“pulled tea”) counterparts in Singapore and Malaysia. This serves to
cool the beverage down and add a layer of froth on top; it has the added benefit of putting on a good show for customers.
But the best coffee, everyone agrees, is to be found in homes, especially planters’ homes. And while that may not sound like
particularly helpful advice to travelers looking for a caffeine fix, it’s actually a straightforward proposition. In the last few
years, with coffee prices turning volatile, more and more planters in Chikmagalur have opened their bungalows to paying
guests.
I am headed to one of them. It is called the Thippanahalli Home Stay, and I’ve chosen it because it is brand new. The quality of Chikmagalur guesthouses—and I’ve stayed at many over the years—varies widely. Some charge per person and cater to price-conscious bachelors who spend all day hiking the backcountry and come “home” just to sleep. Others lure honeymooners with promises of solitude, comfort, and good food. Some, like Thippanahalli, prefer families and reserve the right not to admit “hard-drinking bachelors who stay up all night and scare the owls,” as my host delicately puts it. Thippanahalli is owned by Ravishankar Araluguppe and his wife Meera, fifth generation planters who are happy to share stories of their life on a coffee plantation. Their “bungalow” turns out to be a twostory red-brick mansion built in the 1930s. It’s a rambling affair with a colonnaded porte cochere out front, a tranquil courtyard out back, and 28 rooms filled with antiques and memorabilia, including a Bohemian chandelier, Chinese wall hangings, and, most interesting of all, a neatly drawn Araluguppe family tree going back to the 18th century. The house is beautifully maintained and fronted by manicured lawns lined with flowering shrubs and— improbably in this cool region—an enormous cactus.
After freshening up, I head to the small dining room for lunch with the Araluguppes. The food is excellent. Unlike at The
Serai, the menu here incorporates local specialties that are hard to find outside private kitchens. Meera starts us off with
dollops of chutney and akki roti, a flatbread of rice flour, shredded coconut, chopped onion, cilantro, and green chilies,
sprinkled with cumin seeds. (Unlike dosas, which are spread on the pan using a ladle, akki rotis are typically hand-patted, a
technique that leaves impressions of the cook’s fingers in the dough. It’s a personal, handmade touch that I find delightful.)
We also have balls of steamed rice known as kadubu, which we dip in a gravy made from horsegram, tamarind, and freshly
ground pepper, and Meera’s specialty: engai palya, a tangy dish of bell peppers stuffed and simmered with spices.
Later that afternoon, after sampling my hosts’ coffee, I hike into the foothills of Mullayangiri. It’s a bracing walk that makes
me feel better about overindulging at lunch. When I return, a campfire has been built. The other guests are honeymooners
who don’t show up except for rushed meals. I sit with Ravishankar and catch up on the local gossip before turning in.
It is not, alas, a good night’s sleep. Owls hoot, dogs bark, and, even more infuriating, the night watchman feels compelled to
ring a bell every hour. Ravishankar confesses sheepishly the next morning that this is on his instructions, something to
ensure that the man stays awake during his vigil. Trying to make amends, he arranges for me to visit the Kadur Club, a membersonly hangout founded more than a century ago by British planters. I recommend it only to the most die-hard coffee historian. Though the membership now is wholly Indian, it remains a mothballed testament to—to what? A time when managing coffee plantations was still an elitist occupation, I suppose. In the half-timbered bar, the walls are covered with faded photographs of long-dead revelers; in a dining room accessorized with a grandfather clock and a stuffed gaur buffalo head, waiters in starched jackets still serve roast chicken, bread-and-butter pudding, and “white soup.” Amid the ghosts of the Raj, even the coffee tastes stale.

DURING THE LONG DRIVE BACK TO Bangalore, I stop at some of the smaller Hoysala temples en route. Their cool interiors and carved black granite columns seduce me with their beauty. Villagers point me to a tiny temple of the monkey god Hanuman, and on impulse, I visit it too. Heritage: check. Hikes: check. Temples: check. I register with satisfaction that I have accomplished all the things that travelers come to Chikmagalur for. Plus, I have sampled some very good coffee. But
I have one more cup to go. Two hours outside Bangalore, I stop at a Coffee Day café right beside the highway. My filter
coffee arrives: dark, aromatic, piping hot. Blowing gently on its frothy cap of milk, I silently raise a toast to Baba Budan—saint,
smuggler, and, like me, someone who evidently appreciated one of life’s simple
pleasures.

DESTINASIAN AUGUST/SEPTEMBER 2009
KARNATAKA
114
GETTING THERE
Bangalore, the gateway to Karnataka, is well connected by air to other major cities in India. Internationally, Singapore
Airlines (singaporeair.com) flies daily to Bangalore, as does Dragon Air (dragonair.com) from Hong Kong. The 250-
kilometer drive to Chikmagalur takes about five hours.
WHEN TO GO
Chikmagalur’s cool climate is pleasant year-round, even
during the June–September
monsoon season, when the
scenery is at its most lush.
WHERE TO STAY
By far the best accommodation
in the area is at The Serai (KM
Rd.; Mugthihalli; 91-8262/
224-903; doubles from
US$185, including breakfast),
where 30 modern villas, some
with private pools, are set
amid a working coffee estate.
The resort can arrange
everything from plantation
tours to highland treks and
jeep safaris to the Bhadra
Wildlife Sanctuary.
Chikmagalur is also home
to many bed-and-breakfasts
operated out of planters’
houses. The newest and most
inviting is Thippanahalli Home
Stay (91-8262/210-730;
thippanahallihomestay.com;
doubles from US$82), where
you can stay in either the main
residence or in comfortable
outlying cottages.
For stopovers in Bangalore,
consider staying in either the
heritage wing of the
sprawling, century-old
Taj West End (Race
Course Rd.; 91-80/
6660-5660; tajhotels
.com; doubles from
US$250) or at the fauxhistoric
Leela Palace
Kempinski (23 Airport
Rd.; 91-80/2521-1234;
theleela.com; doubles
from US$470), home to
358 rooms, Bangalore’s
best sushi, and a highend
shopping arcade.

Coonoor and Nilgiris: A Higher Calling: Destinasian Magazine Feb 2009 issue

A Higher Calling

The cool Blue Mountains of Tamil Nadu may not be as sedate as they were a generation ago, but they’re still a very special place, as one returning devotee discovers

By Shoba Narayan
Photographs by Martin Westlake

Residents of the Nilgiris will tell you that the highlands they call home have good vastu—a harmonious alignment of energies that sets them apart from anywhere else in India. I for one have long been mesmerized by the mountains’ ethereal beauty. As a child, I used to sit on the porch of my grandparents’ house in the plains of Coimbatore and stare up at the mist-shrouded peaks for hours. To a 10-year-old schoolgirl, the Nilgiris—literally, “Blue Mountains” in Sanskrit—seemed otherworldly. My grandma used to say that they sent out positive vibrations; that gazing at them could soothe the wounded soul.

Covering an area of roughly 2,500 square kilometers in Tamil Nadu where the state’s borders rub up against Kerala and Karnataka, the Nilgiris are but a fraction of the Western Ghats, the mountain range that separates much of India’s west coast from the dry and dusty Deccan Plateau. With a population of fewer than 800,000 people, the district is practically uninhabited compared to the rest of the country.

I vividly recollect family trips to the mountains during my school holidays. We’d pack into my granddad’s battered blue Ambassador sedan and brave the two-hour drive north, navigating steep roads that twisted through the folds of windswept hills. As we climbed, we’d pass through tiny whitewashed villages where kids with neatly parted hair and shining faces trudged uphill to school. I’d wave to women picking leaves in the undulating, emerald-green tea plantations, and press my nose against the car window as we motored past estates named in colonial times by homesick Scottish planters: Glendale, Glenburnie, Adderly. We’d stop to picnic by the side of the road, on grassy verges where mushrooms grew wild and thrushes and flycatchers swooped overhead. I wouldn’t want to leave.

Returning to the Nilgiris a quarter century later with such nostalgic memories, I find that life in the hills has changed. On the plus side, there are now organic farms and gourmet tea lounges, and shops stocked with artisanal Camembert and chocolate truffles. But there is also a lot more traffic than I remember, more sad concrete buildings, and too many tourists to count. And yet, the mountains have retained much of the magical, sleepy allure that I first fell for all those years ago. And they’re still blessed with the keen, salubrious climate that encouraged the British to build hill stations here in the first place—an atmosphere immortalized by the great Victorian poet Alfred Lord Tennyson as “sweet half-English Neilgherry air.”

On this visit, my journey begins not in Coimbatore but 340 kilometers to the northeast, in Bangalore (officially Bengalaru) where I now live. But in keeping with tradition, I’ve made it a family trip, bringing along my daughters, 12-year-old Ranjini and 7-year-old Malini. I’m hoping to give them a taste of the cool Blue Mountains that I remember as a child.

***

Surrounded by tea plantations at the head of the Hulikal Ravine, Coonoor is the second-largest town in the Nilgiris. Once the sleepy sister of Ooty—dubbed “the Queen of Hill Stations” by Jawaharlal Nehru—Coonoor has come into its own in recent years, and is now the retreat of choice for Bangalore’s beau monde. Although guesthouses and homestay cottages dot the highlands, a number of my wealthier compatriots have taken more permanent digs, snapping up vast estates and building luxurious villas—and driving up real-estate prices in the process.

The British began their foray into this hitherto untamed region in 1799, after the defeated kingdom of Mysore was forced to surrender much of its territory to the East India Company. Even then, exploration of the mountains proved arduous. It would be another 20 years before a surveying party led by the chief officer of Coimbatore, John Sullivan, scaled the Nilgiris’ eastern plateau. Near the present-day township of Kotagiri, they discovered a tableland of “extraordinary grandeur and magnificence: everything that a combination of mountains, valleys, wood and water can afford.…” Sullivan immediately commissioned the building of a bridle path into the hills, and in short order became the highland’s first European resident. By 1822, he had discovered the fertile basin around what is now Ooty, founding what was to become the greatest hill station in southern India.

Today, most visitors to the Nilgiris pretty much follow Sullivan’s route, either in cars up curving ghat roads or as passengers aboard the Nilgiri Mountain Railway’s century-old “toy train,” with its smoke-belching steam engine and royal-blue compartments. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005, the line runs 46 kilometers from the town of Mettupalayam, at the foot of the Nilgiris in Coimbatore, on a rack-and-pinion system that pulls its locomotive up the steep gradient to Coonoor, 1,858 meters above sea level. For the onward journey to Ooty, the railway employs a prosaic diesel engine—not quite as romantic an experience, but equally scenic.

As we’re approaching from the north, the train is not an option. Instead, we settle in for a seven-hour drive to Coonoor through the magnificent Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. Spread-eagled across the borders of Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu, the reserve encompasses 6,000 square kilometers and six national parks. As you might expect, its forests and grasslands abound with wildlife; there are more than 100 species of mammals—including elephants and the rare, mountain goat-like Nilgiri tahr—as well as countless birds and a mind-boggling array of plants and ferns. These slopes are also home to the iridescent blue neelakurinji flower, which blossoms just once every dozen years and turns entire hillsides into a blanket of indigo: hence the Blue Mountains.

Our first night is spent in the middle of all this, at the Kurumba Village Resort, which lists its address as being “between the fourth and fifth hairpin bend” on the Ooty–Mettupalayam Road. Having been in the car for the better part of the day already, I’m cursing myself for picking such a remote location to bed down; the extra 14 kilometers from Coonoor to Kurumba takes almost an hour to navigate. But my misgivings evaporate as soon as we arrive at the wide estate. From the resort’s dining room, all we can see is pristine forest, devoid of buildings and even telephone poles—a rare sight in India. I linger over drinks until dusk swallows the view.

The next morning we set out to explore the hills with a team from the resort: a garrulous naturalist named Srinivasan, a silent Irula tribesman, and a wolf-size tracking dog. “If the dog stays ahead, you know all is well,” Srinivasan tells us. “If he smells an elephant or a tiger, he will come back with his tail between his legs. The dog we had before this one was eaten up by a leopard!” The girls find all the talk of exotic animals exciting and forge on ahead of me. I quickly forget my own concerns; the countryside is a stunning distraction. Herbs scent the air, and tinkling waterfalls spill over rocks and cool our feet.

Back at the resort, afternoon tea is waiting. We feast on freshly baked cakes and bhajjias, fritters made with sliced onions and potatoes. There’s also Mysore bonda, a type of spicy coconut ball, deep-fried and served with peanut chutney. And tea, of course—a superb Silver Tip. We lie back on the lawn afterward and stare up at the mountains. Whispering in my ear, Ranjini says that it feels like floating in a hammock in the clouds.

***

People are drawn to the Nilgiris for all manner of reasons: to escape the heat, to escape the big-city crowds, to get back to nature. For Mansoon and Tina Khan, it was a combination of all three that persuaded them to pack up life in Mumbai and move to Coonoor. It was an easy decision, Mansoon tells me, made easier by the educational opportunities for their children. Unlike many small mountain towns, Coonoor and Ooty have world-class schools like St. Hilda’s, Breeks, and Hebron. Many Indians choose to send their kids to boarding school here, seeing a stint at the Lawrence School in Lovedale, for example, as the Indian equivalent of Eton or Exeter.

Tina is an accomplished cheesemaker and sells a variety of organic cheeses under the brand Acres Wild, which is also the name of the Khans’ family farm. Made with milk from hybrid Jersey and Holstein cows, Tina’s cheeses range from a creamy fetta and piquant ricotta to smoky hard cheeses, gooey Camembert, and flavorful herb and pepper moulds.

As I sample a caraway-spiced Gouda in the Khans’ dining room, Mansoon informs me that their neighbor is a chocolatier. Who can resist? We stop by to pick up a box of silky truffles to tide us over on the drive to our lodgings for the night, the Gateway Hotel Church Road in residential Upper Coonoor. Owned by the Taj group, the hotel was once the priory of the adjacent All Saints Church, although it feels more like a planter’s bungalow than a monastery. I leave the kids playing volleyball on the lawn and wander over to the church, a pretty Gothic structure with stained-glass windows and a turreted belfry. In the cemetery outside, the sexton shows me graves marked with quintessentially English names like Stevens and Frost. I inspect the epitaphs until daylight fades and the evening air turns chill, then bolt back to the cozy bar at the hotel.

The next day we take to Coonoor’s gourmet trail once again. Sandeep Subramani is the amiable owner of the Tranquilitea tea lounge, located in an old bungalow on the verge of Sim’s Park, a sprawling botanical garden planted in 1874. We sit outside sampling freshly brewed teas—floral and herbal infusions perfumed with fresh mint, thyme, and rosemary—and nibbling on home-baked walnut bread and cinnamon cookies. Subramani kindly offers to take me to the nearby Glendale Tea Estate, which is owned and managed by his friend Udayakumar.

Born into the tea business, Udayakumar has the deliberate gait of a man who knows that the world will wait for him. His company, Glenworth, has plantations in Sri Lanka and across the Nilgiris, and is today one of the largest and most forward-looking businesses in the area. Udayakumar’s staff have access to a hospital and a childcare center, and his tea pickers receive a generous medical allowance that covers everything from common colds to open-heart surgery.

After touring the 450-hectare estate and factory, we sit with Udayakumar for a tea tasting. I pretend to understand the jargon: first flush, silver frost, CTC (crush, tear, curl), BOPD (broken orange pekoe dust). I sip, swirl, and spit dozens of brews, letting the fragrant, smooth, and robust flavors roll around in my mouth. My host tells me that although Nilgiri teas, first planted by the British in the 1860s, aren’t as well known as those from Darjeeling, they’re often more flavorful. He says that one of his black teas recently fetched US$600 per kilo at auction in Las Vegas. “The cognac of tea,” Udayakumar calls it.

***

From Coonoor, we cross the Ketti Valley and follow the winding road to Ooty. Perched at an altitude of 2,240 meters amid stands of mature cypress and yet more tea plantations, Ooty (which is short for Ootacamund, though its official name today is Udhagamandalam) is the capital of the Nilgiris district, home to some 90,000 people. Built around an artificial lake, it served until India’s independence as the summer retreat of the Madras Presidency, a colonial province that incorporated present-day Tamil Nadu, northern Kerala, and parts of Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, and Karnataka. Alas, Ooty seems to have lost some of its charm with the influx of day-trippers in recent years. In the center of town, a lone policeman is futilely attempting to direct traffic. Horns honk, cows walk absentmindedly across the street, tourists drop litter on the roadsides. After the quiet pulse of Coonoor, Ooty seems raucous and unruly.

We ensconce ourselves in Kluney Manor, a handsome brick villa built by a British Army captain in 1828 and set high above town overlooking the Ooty racecourse. Its wrought-iron beds, wood-paneled rooms, and manicured lawns are suitably quaint, but tonight being my birthday, we elect to dine at another slice of Victoriana, the Savoy, Ooty’s poshest hotel. Originally built as a school for European children, the main building dates back to the hill station’s earliest days, and is surrounded by carefully tended flower beds and prim cottages. I wander the corridors gazing at the lithographs and taking in the period features in the rooms. A fabulous barbecue dinner in the garden ends with cake and numerous renditions of “Happy Birthday” sung in warbling falsettos.

The next morning, we explore Ooty’s Botanical Garden, a 22-hecatre park laid out in 1847 by the Marquis of Tweedale, then the governor of Madras. With its manicured lawns and rose gardens, ponds and pergolas, it’s a pleasant enough spot; but by 10 a.m. it’s quickly filling up with other visitors, so we make our way to the Honey and Bee Museum. Located near the old Ootacamund Club—said to be the birthplace of snooker—this low-key museum is run by the Keystone Foundation, a grassroots NGO founded a decade ago in Kotagiri. It pays homage to indigenous honeybees and the hill tribes who harvest them, but more fascinating is its Green Shop on the ground floor, which is dedicated to selling tribal produce and crafts. The mountains’ original inhabitants are still integral to the Nilgiris community. The Todas are pastoralists, known for their hand-woven shawls and buffalo-milk products; the Badagas cultivate the land and have a bard-like tradition of folk music that can be heard wafting around the mountains; the Kotas are renowned for their pottery; and the Kurumbas gather wild honey and herbs. Recognizing a good excuse to shop when I see one, I dutifully stock up on jars of bitter honey, eucalyptus oil, and beeswax balm.

***

On our last day, we make a detour to the lakeside village of Avalanche, named, somewhat dauntingly, after an 1823 landslide. On the map it doesn’t look far: a mere 28 kilometers south of Ooty. But the roads are narrow and tortuous, and it takes us two hours to get there. The alpine scenery offers ample compensation. We drive through forests of oak and cypress, passing fields of rhododendrons and wild orchids. This mountainous backcountry looks more Swiss than South Indian, and by the time we stop to eat at a homestay called Tiger Hill, I’ve almost convinced myself that we’ve been magically transported to Interlaken.

After lunch, the highlight of which is a curry made with young bamboo shoots, we walk off our meal with a hike around the looming twin peaks of Kudikkadu and Kolaribetta. It’s a strenuous climb, and we’re exhausted by the time we reach the lookout, but again our efforts are rewarded by the views.

Back in Ooty, I have one last appointment: I’m to meet my mother-in-law’s pen pal, Indu Mallah, a respected writer, literary critic, and activist for the Badaga community. Mallah welcomes me into her gracious home and chats about the book club and the poet’s society she oversees in town. But as she talks about upcoming readings and book launches, I again wonder whether the sleepy Nilgiris of my childhood haven’t entirely vanished. Mallah, ever the poet, sighs and reminds me of what’s important, echoing what my grandmother use to tell me all those years ago: regardless of what changes time has brought to these highlands, they possess a special, immutable aura. The Nilgiris will always be a source of regeneration—not once every 12 years like the blossoming of the blue neelakurinji flower, but every time you visit.

Nilgiris, Blue Mountains: Destinasian March 2009

A Higher Calling

While not as sedate as they were a generation ago, the cool Blue Mountains of Tamil Nadu are still a very special place, as one returning devotee discovers between visits to tea estates and hill stations

story by Shoba Narayan photographs by Martin Westlake

Residents of the Nilgiris will tell you that the highlands they call home have good vastu—a harmonious alignment of energies that sets them apart from anywhere else in India. I for one have long been mesmerized by the mountains’ ethereal beauty. As a child, I used to sit on the porch of my grandparents’ house in the plains of Coimbatore and stare up at the mist-shrouded peaks for hours. To a 10-year-old schoolgirl, the Nilgiris—which in Sanskrit means “blue mountains”—seemed otherworldly. My grandma used to say that they sent out positive vibrations; that gazing at them could soothe the wounded soul.

Covering an area of roughly 2,500 square kilometers in Tamil Nadu where the state’s borders rub up against Kerala and Karnataka, the Nilgiris are but a fraction of the Western Ghats, the mountain range that separates much of India’s west coast from the dry and dusty Deccan Plateau. With a population of fewer than 800,000 people, the district is practically uninhabited compared to the rest of the country.

I vividly recollect family trips to the Nilgiris during my school holidays. We’d pack into my granddad’s battered blue Ambassador sedan and brave the two-hour drive north, navigating steep roads that twisted through the folds of windswept hills. As we climbed, we’d pass through tiny whitewashed villages where kids with neatly parted hair and shining faces trudged uphill to school. I’d wave to women picking leaves in the undulating, emerald-green tea plantations, and press my nose against the car window as we motored past estates named in colonial times by homesick Scottish planters: Glendale, Glenburnie, Adderly. We’d stop to picnic by the side of the road, on grassy verges where mushrooms grew wild and thrushes and flycatchers swooped overhead. I wouldn’t want to leave.

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