When John Sullivan, the British burrasahib credited with “discovering” UDHAGAMANDALAM – whose anglicized name, Ootacamund, is usually shortened to Ooty – first clambered into this corner of the Nilgiris through the Hulikal ravine in the early nineteenth century, the territory was the traditional homeland of the pastoralist Toda hill-tribe. Until then, 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 Rs1 per acre from the Todas, and set about planting flax, barley and hemp, as well as potatoes, soft fruit and, most significantly of all, tea, which all 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. Soon, Ooty was the “Queen of Hill Stations” and had become the most popular hill-retreat in peninsular India.
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, travellers have continued to be attracted by Ooty’s cool climate and peaceful green hills, forest and grassland. However, if you come in the hope of finding quaint vestiges of the Raj, you’re likely to be disappointed; what with indiscriminate development and a deluge of holiday-makers, they’re few and far between.
The best time to come is between January and March, thereby avoiding the high-season crowds (April–June & Sept–Oct). In May, the summer festival brings huge numbers of people and a barrage of amplified noise, worlds away from the peaceful retreat envisaged by the sahibs.