Coonoor Heritage Gallery showcasing the history and development of Coonoor opened
A heritage gallery showcases Coonoor over the last two centuries
History begins with a road in the planters’ town of Coonoor in the Nilgiris. The Ghat Road, which connected the railhead at Mettupalayam with Udhagamandalam (Ooty), passed through what was then no larger than a Badaga village. Today, that village, about 20 kilometres from the popular hill station Ooty, is Coonoor with a population that has crossed 50,000.
“The need for a proper road arose when Udhagamandalam gained popularity as a military sanatorium and a summer retreat, and that is when Coonoor came into existence in 1833,” says Dr PJ Vasanthan, trustee of the NGO, Clean Coonoor. The NGO, with the municipality, recently inaugurated a Coonoor Heritage Gallery. Set in a municipal building near Bedford, it has a rare and fascinating collection of painstakingly sourced maps, sketches, lithographs, watercolours and photographs that trace the history of the town: how it evolved into a municipality with hundreds of plantations, and grew into the hub of natural history and ornithology it is today.
Lithograph of the Old Coonoor Ghat (Captain Stephen Ponsonsby Peacock, 1847) | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement
In the 1870s, Lieutenant Colonel GV Law, who was part of the Madras Sappers and Miners regiment, undertook the massive task of transforming the modest track meant for cartloads, tongas, and people on horseback into something that was motorable.
“The alignment wascfaulty and the gradient so steep that it had to be relaid with 14 hairpin bends,” explains Vasanthan. Visitors can get an idea of what the track looked like from a lithograph made by Captain Stephen Ponsonsby Peacocke in 1847. A watercolour by Edward Lear in 1870s captures the new ghat road in all its glory.
The New Coonoor Ghat (A T W Penn, late mid 1870s) | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement
“Coonoor was just a stopover,” says K Balu, Municipal Commissioner, Coonoor, discussing how the smaller town was always less prominent than Ooty. Ooty became more popular, as British soldiers were sent there for treatment because of the home weather. The total population of Coonoor in 1847 included 30 Europeans and 250-plus Indians. Two hundred and fifty acres of land were under coffee and mulberry cultivation. The Europeans were enterprising and developed coffee plantations. Vasanthan culled out this information from a survey report by Lt Col J Ouchterlony. He says a panoramic sketch of Coonoor made by Lieutenant Burton is the most valuable as it is one of the earliest ones to show the town with nine European residences, a local shandy, ‘chettrum’ for Indians and the Davison’s hotel built in the 1800s, which was destroyed in a ﬁre. A new building was erected in its place in 1987 which is today home to the United Planters’ Association of South India, the apex body of planters of tea, coffee, rubber, cardamon and pepper in the southern states of India.
“It was primarily a coffee town which later moved to tea cultivation. We have documented the data to ensure that the next generation knows its history,” says Samantha Iyyanna, managing trustee of Clean Coonoor. Among the exhibits are rare finds such as a map of the district sketched by Captain BS Ward in 1822. “Christopher Penn from the UK donated photographs taken by his great grandfather, ATW Penn, a pioneering photographer in the Nilgiris between 1860 and 1880. Water colour sketches and lithos were sourced online from the British Library website while we got the maps from gazettes and manuals,” says Vasanthan.
There are several sketches that show travellers’ bungalows, primarily built for Europeans. “A map by Dr PM Benza who was engaged in a geological survey shows the word Coonoor engraved on the traveller’s bungalow. This was in 1835,” points out Vasanthan.
Black and orange flycatcher | Photo Credit: Dr P J Vasanthan
There is a also a section devoted to Ornithology. The first documentation ever of birds in the Nilgiris is credited to TC Jerdon, a pioneering ornithologist, who observed, identified and described bird species in sketches. Jerdon was active in the district between 1839 and 1845. He is known to have described a raptor called the Besra, and later several other birds like the Eastern Grass-owl, from the region of the Coonoor Pass. “Species like the Nilgiri flycatcher, Nilgiri laughing thrush, black and orange flycatcher and Malabar lark that are endemic to the Western Ghats can be seen in Coonoor,” says Vasanthan, a physician-turned-bird watcher.
- In David Lean’s movie A Passage to India ( based on E.M. Forster’s novel), The Nilgiri Mountain Railway makes an appearance with a fictitious name ‘Marabar Line.’
- Sarat Chandra Bose was under house arrest in ‘Fairlight’ bungalow near Sim’s Park in Coonoor for five years in the 1940s.
- Tea export from here to the former Soviet Union saw a surge after Nikolai Alexandrovich Bulganin and Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, visited Coonoor. It also led to a demand here for Tamil translations of the works of Anton Chekhov’s and Alexander Pushkin.
- The Hulical Droog Fort in Coonoor, that Tipu Sultan used (it still stands, but in ruins) finds mention in the book Tippoo Sultaun: The Tale of the Mysore War (1840) written by Philip Meadows Taylor.
William Ruxton Davison (an analytical chemist of the Nilgiri Cinchona Plantations at Naduvattam), listed over 200 bird species during a trip covering the Nilgiris, Wayanad, South Karnataka and Coorg. The section also showcases a series of bird paintings by Miss Margaret Cockburn, considered the first bird-woman of the Nilgiris. Personalities like Dr Salim Ali, the birdman of India, accompanied by his student who was doing his doctoral thesis about the endemic bird black and orange Flycatcher, visited Coonoor in the late 1970s.
Nehru’s Visit to the Pasteur Institute (1958) | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement
The gallery narrates landmark moments including Mahatma Gandhi’s visit. Besides heritage buildings such as the Church of All Saint’s and Pasteur Institute, the town is well known for its UNESCO World Heritage site, the Nilgiri Mountain Railway.
Sketch of Coonoor as a Station in 1847 (Source ‘Goa, and The Blue Mountains’ by Lt Richard F. Burton, Bombay Army, published in 1858) | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement
Many buildings that still stand today are testimony to history, says K Balu, Municipal Commissioner, Coonoor. For example, the first traveller’s bungalow is where the Magistrate Court functions today. He adds, “The gallery informs the public about modern settlements, historical milestones and heritage structures. We want to inspire the younger generation to protect and preserve them. We plan to bring in more exhibits. We have also appealed to the public to contribute rare photos or other artefacts that they may have.”
There will be a virtual tour of the gallery soon. You can also visit www.cleancoonoor.org