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To the Blue Mountains

In early January this year, members of the `Save Nilgiris Campaign' went back to the `Sullivan trail'. PHILIP MULLEY and DHARMALINGAM VENUGOPAL on their mission.

The Nilgris ... a resort with a plague of problems.

"MR. JOHN SULLIVAN, Collector, is herewith commissioned to investigate the origin of the fabulous tales that are circulated concerning the `Blue Mountains' to verify their authenticity and to send a report to the authorities", was the curt order of the East India Company.

Sullivan set out at 6 a.m. on January 2, 1819, with a detachment of Europeans and sepoys equipped as if "departing for the polar seas". It included a retinue of prisoners from Salem and Coimbatore, several dozen elephants, hundreds of dogs and ponies. Two dozen English huntsmen brought up the rear. The local aborigines had refused to join the expedition declaring the mountains to be the domain of the gods and preferring prison and death to a journey beyond the "mists".

After having reached a level of 1,000 feet, the expedition was compelled to abandon its elephants, throw away its baggage and climb further by means of cords and pulleys. The first day, three Englishmen died and on the second day seven natives amongst the prisoners were killed. Further on the climb, two more sepoys and 15 prisoners were killed.

Climbing step by step, cutting steps into the rocks, or descending by means of cords, hundreds of feet into deep precipices, Sullivan and party reached a plateau on the sixth day. An excited Sullivan wrote, "The British flag was hoisted on a high rock and the gods of the Nilgiris became subjects of His Majesty the King of Great Britain."

In humble contrast, on January 2 of this year, 20-odd members of the "Save Nilgiris Campaign" hit the Sullivan trail with twin intentions — called the "Discovery of Ooty March", it was to pay homage to the indefatigable civil servant who established the hill resort of Nilgiris and to draw attention to the area's problems in this "International Year of Mountains".

Flagged off symbolically in front of the Coimbatore collectorate, the trail began at Lingapuram near Sirumugai from where the first bridle path up the hills was laid in 1821. Sullivan actually began his journey from Danaikankottai (fort of the military commander and tribute collector) which was the administrative headquarters of the surrounding areas since pre-British times. It was submerged when the Bhavanisagar reservoir was completed in 1953.

John Sullivan was a rare combination of "magistrate, administrator, meteorologist, entrepreneur, town planner, engineer, capitalist, farmer, churchman, and protector of the poor". Joining the East India company in 1803, at the age of 15 as a writer, the lowest position, he rose to become the collector of Coimbatore, to which the Nilgiris belonged then, for 15 years between 1815 and 1830.

The Nilgiris was brought under the British, after the fall of Tipu Sultan in 1799, mainly for military reasons. The former colonial power always felt terrorised by Tipu Sultan and did not want the Nilgiri hills to become a refuge for its opponents or any other insurgent activities. Nevertheless, sweltering under the oppressive heat of the South, the British had constantly been tempted by the stray tales of a salubrious place in the hills just hours from Coimbatore. In those days the nearest place of convalescence for the British soldiers was Mauritius or Cape Town in South Africa.

But few dared to explore it until 1819. The Nilgiris' status today as a premier tourist destination and a major centre of the plantation economy in the South owes a great deal to Sullivan's deeds and dreams.

Sullivan retired to England in 1841 a tragic man having buried his young wife, their infant and a 16-year-old daughter in Ooty and losing his pension for having been more loyal to the natives than to the Company. He died in 1855.

John Sullivan ..."protector and defender of the natives".

We were accompanied by forest guards and members of the Special Task Force (the first day's trail passed through the brigand Veerappan's territory), set off from Lingapuram around 9 a.m. and after crossing the Bhavani river reached Gandhkandi (Kandavayal), the last habitation on the plains.

Scrub jungles gave way to moist evergreen forests as we made our way up towards our next stop, the Kurumba-Irula village of Uliyur or Uliyore (Waterfall slopes). Sullivan described the mighty falls as "the carrier of death." This area is a dense elephant corridor.

We had to cross again a tributary of Bhavani called Gandhapallam before arriving at the picturesque Uliyore. This patch of pasture had once served as the seasonal grazing grounds of Badaga buffalo herds. Now it is a tiny habitation with bits of farm land protected by electric fencing. Beyond Uliyore and before the actual ascent could be made, we had to cross a couple of wild and fairly broad streams, one of them proving a wonderful retreat for bathing too.

Refreshment soon turned to exhaustion as we inched our way up an abandoned Koop (timber corridor) overgrown with tangled thickets. Elephant droppings dotted the area. Bison and wild dogs too frequent the place, we were told. The haste to pass the area before dusk when elephants and bison come to the waterholes added anxiety to exhaustion.

Leaving the Koop road at Boodhiguppe, we took the bridle path to Samagodalu and Kokkode valleys inhabited by Irulas who grow a variety of tasty dwarf banana on the idyllic slopes. Near the top of the valley amidst coffee plantations lies Banglapadigai, where tribal children of the villages nearby go to school.

Dusk was falling as we reached Arakod, (rock+boundary) at the foothills of the Rangasami peak.

A panoramic view of the plains below is obtained from Arakod. Unfortunately, the haze robbed us of a grand view of the sprawling waters of the Bhavanisagar reservoir. We halted for the night in an old private bungalow. After a typical Badaga meal of beans curry and potato and a robust bout of dancing to haunting Irula music, we retired for the day in pleasantly warm weather.

Next morning, the climb became steeper as the Nilgiri massif rises abruptly from this point causing a shift in weather and vegetation. From Kullangarai onwards tea takes over from coffee plantations. Here a stiff climb brought us to the cool refuge of the Hadamund shola, a very ancient Toda site. Montane zone forests or Sholas, anglicised from the Badaga name `sole', are the natural source of water storage in the Nilgiri plateau. The fact that less than 10 per cent of these priceless sholas survive now is indeed disquieting. Sullivan, who was struck by the "majestic and magic beauty" of the plateau extolled, "everything that a combination of mountains, valleys, wood and water can afford is to be seen here. It was impossible to move a quarter of mile in any direction without crossing streams." Though the picture now is vastly different, endless gardens of tea having replaced sholas and grasslands, it was nevertheless no less pleasing. However, the manicured tea gardens appeared to have lost some of their sheen due to lack of care and maintenance because of the tea industry crisis gripping the Nilgiris.

In 1988, the "Save Nilgiris Campaign" had organised a district-wide march to create an awareness of the endangered water sources of the Nilgiris. It was heartening to note during the march that the efforts taken then were not in vain.

Denad was the first Badaga village Sullivan encountered on the plateau and he built the first school there just a year later in 1820. Skirting Denad we cut through the broad valley of Kadasolai to reach Kilkotagiri.

After a break for lunch, we climbed along the Kokal (the Kota village) and Kadhuguthorai village, the upper reaches of which still has fine specimens of primeval Nilgiri forest cover.

Crossing Iyyada, where the water supply for Kotagiri town is stored, we passed through the Nedugula valley to reach Milidhane, where there is stone commemorating a Badaga elder who had escorted Sullivan.

It was pitch dark when we descended a steep slope from Milidhane to Kappattithorai aided only by a torch to ward off curious bears and bison. Around 10-30 at night the weary marchers reached Kannerimukku buffeted by icy winds and mist cutting visibility to a few feet, comforted only by the thought that Sullivan and his party would have endured so much more.

The third day, covering about 20 km, largely lay through Badaga villages, for whom the message of the march was most relevant. It highlighted the fact that the Nilgiris remained a land of milk and honey, but in the last few decades, greed and ignorance had led to the mindless exploitation of its land, soil and water. The tea industry crisis plaguing the district was only a manifestation of this.

Exhorting the people to emulate the determination and enterprise of John Sullivan to overcome the crisis, it had three priorities. Produce quality tea; sell it jointly; and market it under a common Nilgiri brand name. Do not depend solely on tea. Have at least 10 per cent of the land under vegetable gardening.

Passing through Anaihatti, Thanthanadu, Horasholai and Peddala, the march crossed Porangad (one of the four native divisions of Nilgiris) at the huge sheet of rock at Billikambai. Nearby lies one of the best preserved sacred groves in the Nilgiris. Further on, a short ascent in Tattarbennu village is still called `Sullivan dittu'.

At the top of this ridge the participants addressed a group of local children. It was late afternoon when we reached Thummanatti. From there a very stiff climb through what is still called "Sullivan road" took us to Kundhesappe and then to Doddabetta foothill. The march concluded after going through the main roads of Ooty.

At the end of the three exacting days of trekking, we wondered whether or not Sullivan would have approved of our gesture. But of one thing we were sure. He would appreciate the attention that the hills that he loved so much is getting in the Year of Mountains.

* * *

Highland highlights

THE United Nations has proclaimed 2002 as the International Year of Mountains (IYM) to increase international awareness of the global importance of mountain ecosystems. The IYM represents an important step in the process initiated by the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janiero. The major outcome here was Agenda 21, a global blueprint for sustainable development into the 21st Century.

  • Agenda 21's Chapter 13 "Managing fragile ecosystems: sustainable mountain development", placed mountains on an equal footing with climate change, tropical deforestation and desertification as a key issue in the global debate on environment and development.

  • Some of the global IYM events planned for this year are "High Summit 2002: International Conference around the Continents' Highest Mountains" on May 6 - 10, 2002; International Conference of Mountain Children, May 15 - 23 at Uttaranchal and "Celebrating Mountain Women", May 28 - 31, Kathmandu, Nepal.

  • The Environment Protection Training and Research Institute (EPTRI), Hyderabad, is also holding a two-day national seminar, beginning today, at Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh, on the topic "Conservation of the Eastern Ghats".

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