Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Red Hills in Blue Mountains

Emerald Lake - as seen from Red Hills

I’ve always wondered about the origin of the name Nilgiris, which doesn’t sound like a typical Tamil name. For the matter of fact it doesn’t even have any similarity with the names of any of the forests or hills like Madumalai, Wayanad, Makurti, Bandipur etc. in the surrounding areas. In my recent trip to the Red Hills in the Blue Mountains, Nilgiris, my confusion was clarified. There’s a story behind the name ‘Red Hills’ too. Just wait a few moments for that. Let me start with the story of Nilgiris first.

Legend says that long long ago a group of people migrated from the present Rajasthan towards the south. Having stayed in and around the present Mysore in Karnataka for quite some time they started moving further south and finally settled in the present Nilgiris. The first group of people migrated from Mysore some seven hundred years ago and the last phase of migration happened some two hundred years back, during the reign of Tipu Sultan. This group of people, known as the Badagas, is the majority community in Nilgiris. They have been thriving mainly on agriculture. They established an understanding with the Todas, a much older community in the Nilgiris and believed to be the descendants of the Romans who came to India with Alexander in the first century BC but stayed back and eventually migrated to the south and settled in the Nilgiris. The Badagas coexisted peacefully with the Todas for centuries, not trespassing into the latter’s territories and entering into a barter system with them – providing grains and other agricultural products in exchange of milk, butter and other dairy products. Today Badagas have a population of eight lakhs spread across four hundred village. The other tribes which also coexisted along with the Todas and the Badagas are Irulas – the weavers, Kurumbas and the Kothas – the blacksmiths.

Well, enough of the Badagas and the other tribes of the Nilgiris. But how do I know all these and what’s the story behind the name 'Nilgiri'? I learnt all these from Mr. Vijay Kumar, a Badaga, who has, among many other things, a wealth of interesting information about the tribes of Nilgiris. It’s from him that I learned that the Badagas named their new habitat aptly Nilgiris - mesmerized by the blue tinge of the hills when soaked in fog and cloud. They have been speaking a language which is closer to Kannada than Tamil, due to their long association wit Karnataka. Also as they are originally from Rajasthan, their language does have many similarities with the northern languages. That explains the uniqueness of the name “Nil Giri”, or the Blue Mountains.

Well, that’s the story of Nilgiris. But how did I meet Mr. Vijay Kumar?

That’s the next story.

Willie Collins, a planter and hunter, popularly known as Huli Doray - meaning Tiger (Huli) Man (Doray is used to express reverence and respect), by the local Badagas, fell in love with the Nilgiris and started constructing a house near Ithlar, one of the Badaga villages close to a Toda village called Othe-Kal-Mund or the “One Stone Village” – popularly known as Ootacamund by the English people. By 1875 Willie’s house on top of a hill was complete. He named the hill Red Hills because he belonged to Red Hills in England. He stayed in the house for almost sixty years. After his death a Badaga by the name of Muthoor Pillai, a resident of Ithlar village and an affluent planter and potato trader with business interests in Bombay and Calcutta, bought the properties of Willie from his daughter in 1937. All his children were raised in the hosue built by Willie on Red Hills. Mr Vijay Kumar, from whom I’ve learnt so many things about Nilgiris, happens to be the youngest son of Muthoor Pillai. He has inherited this 130 years old house from his father. Over the years the landscape of the surrounding areas underwent huge change. A number of dams were erected in Nilgiris and Vijay’s house now overlooks the beautiful catchment area of the Emerald dam. Out of the 250 acres of tea estate belonging to Vijay’s family he owns about 70 acres. He became a professional tea planter. His tea gardens surround his house. After his mother passed away in 1990 and his children went abroad for studies Vijay and his wife Banu were getting bored at their huge house. That’s when they thought of an innovative idea. They decided to invite tourists to stay with them in their house. This way they would get to meet new people every time and also have some extra work to keep them busy. That’s how the first Home Stay in the Nilgiris started. It’s now called the Red Hills Nature Resort and that’s where I went for the third time during the Christmas of 2008. The undulating hills covered with tea gardens and draped in the clouds and fog, the calm and serene waters of the catchment areas of the dams idling through the curves and cracks all around creating fascinating shapes of water bodies, the cool weather and above all the hospitality of the Vijay Kumars create the perfect ambience and aura for a relaxed vacation. The 130 year old house, almost three fourth of which has been retained and maintained perfectly till now, adds to the excitement of the stay. The natural grandeur all around is so mesmerizing that it attracts me from time to time and that’s why I’ve been to the place already three times in the past four years.

We started from Bangalore on 25th morning, exactly at 5am. We created a perfect cozy bed for Prithu in the back of our Tavera, folding the back seat. We expected that Prithu would sleep for sometime. But he was as excited as we were and never slept in the car. Previously when we visited Red Hills he was just one year old and he barely remembers anything of that trip. We expected the traffic to be heavy, especially because of the long weekend and hence decided to reach Mysore as soon as possible. I zoomed through the Mysore Road and reached Mysore by 7:15am. We headed to our favorite Royal Orchid Metropole Hotel for a breakfast and the morning ablutions. We’re back on road by 8:30. The traffic was not much after Mysore and the NH212 between Mysore and Gundalpet is quite good. After Gundalpet the condition of the highway is quite bad for about 10KMs after which it improves considerably through the Bandipur National Park. The drive through the forest is really very scenic though you shouldn’t expect to see even a stray cow or dog, forget the tiger!! Little after crossing the Karnataka-Tamil Nadu border we took the Kalahati Ghat Road through Madumalai National Park, a short cut to Ooty compared to the regular bus route via Gadalur. The Kalahati Ghat Road can be dangerous for novice drivers. It has around thirty six steep hair pin bends between Masinagudi and Ooty. The sorroundings are also quite barren compared to the lush green mountains along the longer route through Gadalur. We reached Ooty by 11:30am. Bypassing the main city we directly reached the Bus Station and turned right into the Avalanche Road just after the Bus Stand. Red Hill is about 25 KM from Ooty. The initial 10 KMs on this road is not good. Keeping the Fern Hill Palace to the right, the Good Shepherd International School to the left and crossing the Ithlar village, from where the Vijay Kumars hail, we reached Emerald, the last town and place to buy necessities before Red Hills. At Emerald we turned right towards Red Hills, which is roughly 7 KM from Emerald. The road skirts around the Emerald and Avalanche lakes through a few scarcely polulated villages and treks up gradually amidst lush green tea gardens. There’s a bridge over a narrow stretch that joins the Emerald and the Avalanche lakes. This spot has a magnificient view with sloping green banks of the reservoirs on both sides of the bridge. It’s a good picnic spot. You can drive your car to some extent on the slopes of the banks quite close to the water when the level is high. The condition of the road deteriorates gradually and you have to drive really carefully if you don’t want the suspension of your car to be damaged severely. When you really start feeling that you’re perhaps lost or the road is never ending you see the board of Red Hills on the left. The seven kilometer journery from Emerald can take near to half an hour. From the board it’s around ½ a kilometer on an untarred road before you finally reach Vijay’s 130 year old house overlooking the blue waters of Emerald Lake. It’s really tough to believe that the house is so old. Vijay Kumars have done a good job in maintaining it.

Lush Green sorroundings of Red Hills

We relaxed for the rest of the day after a sumptuous lunch. Though we’re the first to reach Red Hills on 25th, by afternoon all the eight rooms were full.

The next morning a total of eleven people, including two kids aged ten and six, started for the trek to the Red Hills peak, which shouldn’t take more than three hours to climb up and down. The trek is not very hard but it’s advisable to take a guide. We had Mohan, the manager of the resort and Mobby, the sweetest ever dog of the Vijay Kumars, guiding us. Some part of the trek is through jungle and it’s very easy to get lost because the trail is almost invisible for most part. The trek provides an awesome view of the Emerald and Avalanche lakes and the surrounding hills of the Silent Valley and Makurti National Parks. Vijay Kumar has arrangements for night-stay in tents for six people in the Red Hills Peak. We didn’t know about this but could very well feel the excitement of such an experience.

That same evening we visited the Parsons and the Parthimund Valley and Lake, quite close to Red Hills. We took Mohan with us because otherwise there's every possibility to get lost in the innumerable turns in the Mukurti National Park. Parthimund Valley Lake provides a very good place to watch the sun set. Both the valleys are picture perfect and the lakes serene and tranquil. Each and every place appears to be a picnic spot. The Parsons Valley Dam was the site for the last scene of the film Roja, filmed by Mani Ratnam. It’s a rare spectacle to see so many lakes languishing alongside the hills at a single place.

It’s interesting to learn about the background of all these manmade lakes or rather catchment areas in this part of Nilgiris. Mr. Vijay Kumar provided me with all the information. Many valleys around Ooty have been provided with a number of dams to reserve the waters of Nilgiris and drain all of them into the Bhavani Sagar Reservoir on the river Bhavani which finally drains into Cauvery. All these valleys and the associated catchment areas, at various altitudes, provide spectacular views. Each of these pristine valleys and lakes, surrounded by hills and forests are fantastic and unique tourist spots which are still not that infested with the insensitive and irresponsible tourists. That adds more to the charm of these places. The Western Catchment 1 flows into the Upper Bhavani Reservoir. The Western Catchment 2 & 3 flow into Porthe Mund Valley Lake, which in turn flows into Emerald & Parsons Valley Lakes. Parsons Valley also flows into Emerald which has a Hydel Power Plant. Emerald & Upper Bhavani flow into Avalanche where again there’s a Hydel Power Plant. Avalanche and Emerald Lakes are in same height. They flow into Kunda, where again there’s a Hydel Power Plant. Kunda flows into Piloor, then to Geddai and finally into Bhavani Sagar from the south eastern side. Beyond Porthe Mund is the Mukurti Lake which flows into Pykara Lake, which has Hydel Power Plant. The water from Pykara Lake, off the Ooty-Gadalur-Mysore NH67, flows till Singara, which has an underground turbine, and then into Moyar River, which finally flows into Bhavani Sagar from the western side. Thus almost all water of Nilgiris go into Bhavani Sagar and then finally to Cauvery!! If time permits each of these lakes and valleys is worth visiting. Upper Bhavani requires permission from Forest Department and Electricity Board of Tamil Nadu because it’s the gate-way to the Makurti National Park. Vijay Kumar can take care of the permissions with prior intimation. The trip to Upper Bhavani, which we did the next day, can be clubbed with a Jungle Safari of Mukurti National Park for a half day trip from Red Hills. The Upper Bhavani Lake is the most tranquil and serene out of all the lakes. It skirts the Makurti National Park and is visible for a long time along the Jungle trail. There are several interesting trekking routes in the Makurti National Park. All treks can be organized by Vijay.

The Upper Bhavani Lake is the most tranquil and serene out of all the lakes

I’d decided this time that I’d surely write about the trip in my blog. The last evening I sat with Vijay Kumar to take notes about the history of Red Hills and I ended up gathering a lot of information also about the people and culture of Nilgiris. I learnt some fascinating facts about the Badagas – like their tradition, which they follow still now, of collecting money for any fellow villager who’s ailing, their traditional ritual to make someone free to marry again in the event of death of his or her spouse or their tradition to not take any dowry – to mention a few.

The journey back to Bangalore was not that great, not because of the fact that the traffic was quite heavy, but because of the sadness that had engulfed all of us on leaving the serene Red Hills. No wonder that Red Hills has been featured in Outlook publications like 52 weekends from Bangalore/Madras, 100 Hill Stations of India and 50 Trekking Holidays, 50 Driving Destinations in Autocar India, Go Now, Rave and Lonely Planet!!

Useful Information

  • Distance from Bangalore: Around 300 KM
  • Distance from Ooty: 25 KM
  • Route from Bangalore: NH212 for Mysore-Gundalpet-Bandipur, Kalahati Ghat Road through Masinagudi-Ooty, Avalanche Road from Ooty through Ithlar till Emerald, Right towards Red Hills at Emerald
  • Number of Rooms: 8
  • Tariff: Peak Season 5K per couple and 4K in off season. Price includes accommodation and all meals
  • Places to see (Close by): Parsons Valley Dam/Lake, Parthi Mund Valley Dam/Lake, Avalanche Dam/Lake
  • Day trips: Upper Bhavani (30KM) & Makurti National Forest Jungle Safari and all other places around Ooty-Conoor
  • Treks: Red Hills Peak & multiple routes in Makurti National Park. Refer to this site for more information about Upper Bhavani and treks in Makurti Natinal Park: http://www.forests.tn.nic.in/WildBiodiversity/np_muknp.html
  • Contact: Vijay Kumar +919442254755, vijayredhill@yahoo.co.in

Red Hills
(Few snaps courtesy Tathagato)

Emerald Lake from Red Hills Peak, Parsons Valley Lake & Sunset from Parthi Mund Valley Lake

Direction to Red Hills

1 comment:

Abhishek Vaid said...

Great description.
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