Sip tea, admire the splendid view or, if you are lucky, even encounter the occasional ghost as you wander around Coonoor
My friend Chandra has a long list. It is of places where she wants her ashes scattered. It ranges from under a jacaranda tree, in the shade of a morning glory, by the duck pond, in a spice forest?and so it goes. And, all these places are in the Nilgiris.
A heady experience
A first-time visit to these parts has that effect on people, especially when they come from grimy, noxious big cities. They are not quite prepared for the soporific effect the tea-clad hill sides have.
Combine that with architecture that dates back to the 1800s, a cemetery with worn out inscriptions on the head stones that go back to the First World War, old churches, home made chocolates and cheese and the occasional fragrance of freshly baked biscuits and bread, (Crown Bakery in the crowded Coonoor market area has been around since the 1800s, and the buns there are delicious) and you have the picture.
We decide to walk everywhere, starting with the market place — crowded, noisy with the occasional uplifting whiff of coffee being brewed somewhere.
Inside the market, we shoulder our way past stalls of glistening vegetables and fruits.
Aromatic shops with curious spices and herbs draw us to them. The kashaayam and herbal infusion types will love this place. Across the refurbished Black Bridge, we stroll into the Wellington Cantonment. Uniformed folks pass us by and there are sign posts everywhere announcing the presence of military installations. “Circle Quarters” says one such ‘fauji’ sign.
Till just a few years ago these were typically English quarters, sloped roofs, wooden floors, pantries and all. They were built for the British troops and originally went by the faintly disreputable name of Bazaar Quarters. Sadly, the old buildings are rebuilt in a modern avatar.
Fortunately, there is still plenty that hasn’t changed at all. Such as the pretty cottage on the hill. We lug ourselves up roughly hewn stone steps and stumble upon a rare sight — a couple of elderly people on wooden benches writing letters. It is an utterly charming post office! We buy some stamps just for the heck of it. Then we walk across to peep through the gates into the impressive quadrangle of the Madras Regimental Centre which is the oldest infantry regiment of the Indian Army. Brisk commands fly around as soldiers march up and down.
War and peace
A little ahead is a war memorial, dedicated to soldiers who have died right from the Second World War to the subsequent military operations in the country.
Just opposite is the Defence Services Staff College, laid out in military precision within fiercely trimmed hedges.
We pass golfers in intense dialogue with their caddies while, on the other side, gracious old bungalows with names such as Craven Lodge and Handley Cross slumber in the sunlight.
Then, one more old institution — the Wellington Gymkhana Club. Peering into cupboards full of books we find inscriptions and dates on the flyleaves dating back to the 1800s. A very military ‘Gun Bar’, bristles with coats of arm of old British regiments.
We then cross a small stream (if you are driving past late at night, you may be flagged down by a woman in white for a lift. She is a ghost who lives down the road in a haunted house). Grateful that it is still daylight we hurry past towards Sims Park (though touristy, a lovely place) and then, come to Tranquilitea.
Tranquil doesn’t begin to describe the place. It is a tea lounge in an 1894-vintage cottage. It is all about sitting in a sunny garden on wrought iron chairs, sipping steaming tea with freshly baked quiches, biscuits?
Refuelled, we continue our walk. It is touching to see a guy in a car bracing up as he passes a gateway that has ‘Stavka’ on it. It is Field Marshal Manekshaw’s home. There is talk of it being converted into a museum, we are told.
A walk through the tea gardens, some more tea in a tea-factory outlet, admiring looks at the cloves, cinnamon and cardamom packets festively strung out, and it is time to head back.
We take back a bit of Coonoor with us in the form of eucalyptus leaves we picked on our walk and paper bags with freshly baked buns.
We promise ourselves, we shall be back. In the meanwhile, Chandra’s list has just got longer.