The Nilgiri Plateau

The famous Nil-giri or “blue-mountain” plateau is a tiny hilly district of Tamil Nadu, South India. To the north and west it borders the states of Karnataka and Kerala. Its major towns are Ootacamund (or Ooty), Coonoor, and Kotagiri. The plateau is one of South Indias major tea-producing areas today while tourism constitutes another economic mainstay. Whith an elevation ranging from  about 1600 to 2600 meters above sea level the rugged plateau receives two monsoons and provides a micro-climate that was often compared with that of Europe (which is not entirely true but still remarkable for a place so close to the equator). The plateau is famous today, partly because  it became one of the first and major British hill-stations in colonial times. It was a retreat for British soldiers, settlers and colonial officers who sought relief from the tropical heat of the South Indian plains. From 1878 to 1939 Ooty became the regular summer seat of the Madras Presidency while the plateau was soon a coveted destination for many prominent travellers, artists and authors. Moreover, its unique geography, flora and fauna as well as the in many respects remarkable features of the plateau’s pre-colonial society have  fostered numerous kind of research. In fact, as Paul Hockings points out:

“It is no exaggeration to assert that the Nilgiris district has been more closely and thoroughly studied … than any other district in Southern Asia” (Hockings 2012: 29). – “The total of some 3000 books and articles yields a density of over three publications per square mile – one could almost literally paper the district with them” (Hockings 1989: vi).

There is indeed much to say about the way in which the plateau’s unique geography and landscape, climate, flora and fauna as well as the comfortable pleasures of the growing Hill Stations combined into narratives of “British” discovery and pre-colonial isolation. This also had a tremendous impact on the anthropological representation of the plateau’s indigeneous inhabitants. However, the area was long inhabited by the “tribes” of the Toda, Kota, Kurumba and Badaga and of course it was never really isolated from the plains. Instead there was frequent immigration, particularly of the Badagas (which literally means “Northerners”), as well as economic exchange while the plateau was also of strategic importance for various ancient and medieval chiefdoms.

I mention all this in particular because the Nilgiri Plateau became inevitably one of the areas in the world where the tales of colonialism and imperialism where constructed – and as I relate in another post, this includes above all the story of monetization.

However, here are  some general impressions of a truly facinating place: