Serenading the hills – a story from the Nilgiris

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In the last few years, many groups and people have come together to keep the pristine glory of the Nilgiris alive through chronicles, heritage walks, books and pictures

Around 40 years back, the Nilgiri valley was being swept by several changes. Over the years, discerning citizens from the district felt that these would have an irreversible impact on the hills. Thanks to cinema, the Nilgiris became the new tourist destination in the country and new public sector undertakings also came up. Amidst these changes, the Save Nilgiris Campaign came up to create awareness to preserve the ecological balance of the hills.

Today, there are several individuals and groups playing an important role in safeguarding the heritage and pristineness of the Nilgiris. Dharmalingam Venugopal, director, Nilgiri Documentation Centre. , has been working on collecting rare details about the hills for the last 35 years, having gathered several books, photos and documents about the Nilgiris. In December, last year, he also brought out a calendar to document its history. “Not many are aware that the year 2018 marks 200 years of modern Nilgiris. This calendar has a running commentary on the history of the region commemorating important events of the valley. The idea was to create a sense of belonging among the people,” he says.

The love for the hills are today being expressed through various means. Samantha Iyana runs the page Coonoorians and the members share several details about the district on the page. “We have a rich heritage but sadly, many of the older buildings have gone and you can’t stop a privately owned property from being demolished. The Bedford Theatre was bought over by someone who demolished it. The Grays Hotel was converted into a hospital. But today, people are trying to restore some order in the chaos,” says Samantha.

One such person trying to restore this order is Vasanthan Panchavarnam, who has painstakingly gone through records and journals dating back to several years. “The history of Ootacamund is well documented, thanks to the painstaking efforts of Sir Fredrick Price which led to the publication of his masterpiece in 1908 – Ootacamund, A History. The same cannot be said of Coonoor,” says Vasanthan, who keeps chronicling little known aspects about the district. “In 1901, the number of residents stood at 8,525. Today, Coonoor is congested, with its population having crossed the 50,000 mark. It still subsists on the legacy of the public works carried out by the British Raj,” he says.

Brussels-based writer Sangeetha Shinde grew up in the hills and has written extensively about the places here. Living outside Coonoor also created in her a longing for the place, which manifested in her writings. “The place is culturally changing rapidly and today, you have places where people party till 4am. The sense of community is still there among the old timers but the new Coonoor is changing. But there still are areas where time seems to have stood still for the last 70 years. And no matter in which part of the world you are, the Nilgiri tea takes you back to the soil from where it was plucked. It can’t be explained in words.”

This story was published in the Coimbatore edition of The Times of India for its special anniversary edition Magnificent 7

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