In the early nineteenth century, when the British burra sahib John Sullivan first ventured into this region of the Nilgiris through the Hulikal ravine and “discovered” UDHAGAMANDALAM (anglicized to Ootacamund, abbreviated to Ooty), the territory was the traditional homeland of the pastoralist Toda hill tribe. Until this moment, the Todas had lived in almost total isolation from the cities of the surrounding plains and Deccan plateau lands. Sullivan quickly realized the agricultural potential of the area, acquired tracts of land for Re1 per acre from the Todas, and set about planting flax, barley and hemp, as well as potatoes, soft fruit and, most significantly, tea, all of which flourished in the mild climate. Within twenty years, the former East India Company clerk had made a fortune. Needless to say, he was soon joined by other fortune-seekers, and a town was built, complete with artificial lake, churches and stone houses that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Surrey or the Scottish Highlands. Ooty was the “Queen of Hill Stations” and the most popular hill retreat in India outside the Himalayas.
By a stroke of delicious irony, the Todas outlived the colonists whose cash crops originally displaced them – but only just. Having retreated with their buffalo into the surrounding hills and wooded valleys, they continue to preserve a more-or-less traditional way of life, albeit in greatly diminished numbers. Until the mid-1970s “Snooty Ooty” continued to be “home” to the notoriously snobbish British inhabitants who chose to “stay on” after Independence. Since then, visitors have continued to be attracted by Ooty’s cool climate and peaceful green hills, forest and grassland. However, indiscriminate development and a deluge of domestic holiday-makers, means that the quaint vestiges of the Raj have been somewhat diluted and are now few and far between.
Situated 2286m above sea level, the town sprawls over a large area with plenty of winding roads and steep climbs. The focal point is Charing Cross, a busy junction at the end of Commercial Road, the main shopping street running south to the big bazaar and municipal vegetable market.