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.