A virtual walk back through Nilgiris colonial plantation town

Heritage gallery in Coonor, a tea plantation town near ooty displays the enchanting oil paintings of colonial times, visiting the gallery is no less an experience to relive a dreamy past when a significant portion of land was used for coffee, tea and mulberry cultivation by a slim population of hardly few hundered denizents and some British residents. Ghat Road of this lush green town sequestered in Nilgiri Hill western ghats is connected the railhead at Mettupalayam with Udhagamandalam (Ooty), passed through what was then no larger than a Badaga village. Today, that village, about 20 kilometres from the popular hill station Ooty, is Coonoor with a population of not more than fifty thousand inhabitants.

The earliest account of Cooonoor was recorded by European visitor, Italian Jesuit, Giacomo Finicio who wrote to his superiors (the original letter is in the British Museum), while visiting Nilgiris in 1603 who wrote, referring to the shola forests and grasslands on the plateau and higher slopes, “Barren mountains and valleys without a fruit tree or wild tree except in certain damp places where there were a few wild tree, the whole country is a desert and the land and the climate are cold”. Between 1804 and 1818 a number of Englishmen, firstly, John Sullivan, the Commissioner of Coimbatore, led an army contingent up the steep slopes of the Neilgherries along with the set of explorers and ventured up the hills and reported the existence of a tableland with European climate.

A Toda family outside their home.
Lithograph of the Old Coonoor Ghat (Captain Stephen Ponsonsby Peacock, 1847)

By and by as more sholas and grass lands came under cultivation, later the teas were dispatched to Mincing Lane in London, (the world’s leading center for tea, opium and spice trade) where the teas were remarked as ‘good’ and ‘very good’. The planter’s lifestyle also improved. Beautiful bungalows overlooking pristine valleys, waterfalls and mountain peaks were built to accommodate the managers.The estate gardens became a place for soiree for manager’s wives, Where they relished, played, planted tea and had a relatively merry life.

A not for profit organisation along with the municipality, recently inaugurated a Coonoor Heritage Gallery. Set in a municipal building near Bedford, it has the elusive collection of meticulously sourced maps, sketches, lithographs, watercolours and photographs that trace the history of the town. It appears as if in the dream to imagine a municipality with hundreds of plantations, grew into the heritage site which was once the place of gaiety rustic life.

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