From the book “The Western Ghats” by Mohan Pai (2005). All photographs are by the author.
…and they created little England
The Moguls, however, had created cool pleasure gardens in Kashmir two centuries before the British arrived in India Club House at Munnar
The British in India attempted to create fond reminders of home but despite their best efforts, they could not entirely succeed in making “a little England” in India – a quaint Indian-ness always pervaded.
During the early and mid-nineteenth century over 80 hill stations were established at altitudes between 1,230 and 2,460 metres.
Remote cantonments lingered on in isolation as sterile military barracks while the more accessible ones were transformed by the life-giving force of civilians into gay social and educational centres. It was considered desirable to send women and children to cooler places in the mountains. Memsahibs spent four to five months every year in the hills, while some of their offspring were sent to the boarding schools that had sprung up in these resorts, until the time came for these children to return to Britain.
The resorts nearest to large administrative centres usually attracted local patronage, so Ooty was the summer capital for Madras, Mahabaleshwar became the summer capital of Bombay Presidency.
The Western stations, conveniently clustered in a loop south of Mumbai, are not much over two thousand feet, with the highest, Mahabaleshwar, reaching a modest height of 4,700 ASL. These stations perch on the Western Ghats and are free from snowfalls and rarely experience frost. At their southern extremity, the Ghats suddenly descend into rolling downs and then rise again to plateaux of surprising height; Ootcamund and Kodaikanal are higher than almost any other hill station save a few in the Himalayas and have a climate almost European in coolness and damp. Regardless of location, the highest resorts were usually the preserves of the leaders of the society, while the merchant classes, known as boxwallahs recuperated in the lower altitude stations and the common soldiery were confined to adjacent cantonments, on the occasions they were shuttled up from the plains.
The following are the hill stations located in the Western Ghats. Most of the hill stations were founded and developed by the British in the 19th century and some were developed by the princely state in the west and the south.
Mahabaleshwar is the largest and most popular hill station in Western India. At 1,372 metres (4,501 ft) above sea level, it also has the most spectacular views.
The first mention of Mahaba-leshwar describes a visit there by the Yadav king Singhana in 1215. In commemoration he built a temple dedicated to the God Mahadev. Subsequently this hill region was undisturbed for centuries.
View from Arthur’s Seat
The new community certainly benefitted from the prisoners presence in the form of rapidly and cheaply constructed roads, buildings and gardens. And the industrious prisoners cultivated potatoes, strawberries and English vegetables with great success.
During1830s Mahabaleshwar prospered and roads were built to open up a number of vantage points for the pleasure of the increasing number of visitors. The most popular viewing place was Bombay Point, where a large space was cleared for turning carriages and a band platform was erected, but Arthur’s Seat, Elphinstone and Sidney Points were also much visited. Before long a criss-cross of trails, totalling some 60 kms, cut across this corner of hills.
In1850, a retired officer of the East India Company, chose a site eleven miles away from Mahabaleshwar, on a spur of the Western Ghat, 200 ft lower than Mahabaleshwar, but on the lee side, thus escaping the heavy rains and mist of the outer ranges.
Here five villages were clustered together and called Panchgani. At fifty-six inches per annum, Panchgani rainfall is one fifth that of Mahabaleshwar, making it habitable throughout the year.
The cool salubrious climate was well-suited for a European colony. Panchgani was recognised as a hill sanatorium in 1863 by the governor of Bombay.
Matheran was discovered by one Hugh Malet, the collector of Thana on an isolated hill top near the Western Ghats only thirty miles east of Bombay.
The railway to Matheran was built by Sir Adamji Porbhoy, the father of Matheran railway. He travelled from Bombay to Neral on the railway line originally built in 1854, the first in India, and planned to continue by the more elementary transport then available on to Matheran. Unfortunately he was in the midst of an excessive rush, for all horses and rickshaws were booked forcing him to return to Bombay. He decided to build a railway of his own to Matheran. After thirteen lakhs of rupees and four years of effort the railway was completed and Sir Adamji could enjoy all the satisfaction of a fulfilled ambition.
The railway was a boon for all Matheran-bound travellers, for until 1907 the lengthy trip on horseback from Neral to Matheran was not exactly relished by Bombay businessmen, who were mostly Parsees, for this community was in the forefront from the time Matheran was first established as a summer resort.
This is an old fort, possessed at one time by the grandfather of the legendary Shivaji, and later used as a refuge by the Peshwas of Poona when they were forced to flee their capital. At the conclusion of the second Maratha War, the British took over the fort in1818 and subsequently, Purandhar became the official sanatorium for European troops of Poona Division of Western Command.
Lonavala stood on the Great Indian Peninsular railway line, and was easily accessible from Bombay and Poona. As many as eight schools had been established there as well as two religious missions, a co-operative store and three hotels. An ancient wood of fine trees, fifty six acres in extent, doubtlessly helped to attract the large number of visitors from Bombay.
Khandala offered many fine views of the Ghat range which ran north and south along lines of great natural beauty. A nearby waterfall divided into two cataracts during the rainy season, with the upper fall having sheer drop of three hundred feet.
Amboli 30 kms up the Ghats from Sawantwadi, is a small settlement perched only 2,300 ft up on the edge of the Western Ghats. It commanded fine view and offered pleasant climate and good accommodation for the tired travellers who journeyed up via either Ramghat or Mahadeogarh. It was developed as a hill station by the British political agent, Colonel Westrop, after the opening of the Ghat road from the coastal town of Vengurla to Belgaum. Of Amboli in the 1880s it was said ‘the ghats… Swarm with beasts, but the jungle is so dense that it is almost impossible to drive them from their lairs’. Even today there is some forest around Amboli.
Hiranyakeshi Stream, Amboli
Kemmanagundi, 55 km north from Chickmagalur is situated in the Bababudangiri range. It was developed by the princely state of Mysore. It is also called K. R. Hills after Wodeyar king Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV who made it his favourite summer camp. It is at an elevation of 1,434 metres and has beautifully laid out ornamental gardens and panoramic view of mountains and valleys.
Ishwara Shrine atop Mulainagiri near Chickmagalur
Madikeri is situated in the Pushpagiri range of the Western Ghats in Kodagu at an elevation of 1220 m.
Madikeri in monsoons
When you enter Kodagu, it is like entering an enchanted land. Range upon range of forested hills stretch into the distance. There are rosewood and sandalwood trees, deep in the shade are thousands of hectares of coffee bushes, black pepper vines, the celebrated Coorg orange trees and near the beds of streams, cardamom plants.
Buddhist Monastery, Bylakuppe, Coorg
Little is known of the early history of the Nilgiris. The first recorded time the word ‘nila’ applied to the region can be traced to 1117 AD in the report of a general of Vishnuvardhan, King of Hoysalas, who in reference to his enemies, claimed to have “frightened the Todas, driven the Kangas underground, slaughtered the Poluvas, put to death the Malayalas, and terrified king Kala” and then proceeded to offer up the peak of Nila mountain (presumably Dodabetta) to Lakshmi, Goddess of Wealth.
The first European to attempt the gruelling climb to the Nilgiris were Portugese clerics led by Father Jerome Ferreiri in 1602 seeking a lost group of Christians and who struggled up the mountains avoiding elephants, tigers and other wild beasts, and met the Todas at the top. The Toda’s showed no interest in conversion, so Father Ferreiri and his small band headed back to Calicut.
A view of Ooty from Doddabetta Peak
Toda tribal temple. Nilgiris
It was not until 1812 that the members of a survey team climbed the mountains, though stopping short of where the Ooty is today.
In 1818, two customs officials on the track of a gang of tobacco smugglers, reported finding a large, secluded plateau guided by some Badagas, a tribe inhabiting the lower mountain slopes. On their return to Coimbatore, they reported their discovery to John Sullivan, Collector of Customs.
Sullivan visited the hills, accompanied by a surgeon and an ailing French naturalist and began construction of a bungalow at Dimhatti, the farthest point he had reached earlier. The Frenchman recovered in the cool climate and wrote an enthusiastic account of his findings, listing over a hundred species of plants new to him. Sullivan was determined to live there and in April 1822 began construction of a small bungalow, the first building in Ooty. Others followed him purchasing land from the Todas for one Rupee per acre. Sullivan, however, bought up vast land and going into construction venture, sold and leased housing at a considerable profit.
In 1827 Ooty became the official sanatorium for the Madras Presidency and the Madras Government began to move up there in hot season.
Ooty stands 2,240 metres (7,349 ft above sea level) in the Nilgiris or the Blue Mountains at the junction of the Western and the Eastern Ghats. The undulating countryside allows Ooty to spread over 36 sq. km. Sullivan, popularly known as the father of Ootacamund, had been the guiding and dominant figure in Ooty’s early years; his portrait still hangs in the Ootacamund Club.
Among the famous personalities who visited and stayed over a period in Ooty in the early period are Thomas Babington Macaulay, the famous academic and politician and Richard Burton, later to become a controversial explorer and Arabist.
When it was made the summer capital of Madras Presidency. Governors, governor generals and princes flocked to the hill station and its active club life rivalled any centre on the plains. It came to be called ‘Snooty Ooty’. Satellite hill stations grew up around it – Coonoor, Kotagiri and Wellington for the army. Tea became the leading cash crop of the area after the first bushes were introduced at an experimental farm in nearby Kettu by a French botanist. The best Nilgiri teas still rival Darjeeling tea for flavour. Chinchona for quinine, and coffee were also introduced. The hill station’s popularity increased still further after Independence and it is now the favourite hill station for southern Indian holiday makers.
Coonoor, 1,858 metres (6,096 ft) above sea level is the second largest station in the Nilgiris and lies on the eastern side of the Dodabetta range but easily accessible from the plains. It receives rain from north east monsoons. Coonoor rises up the sides of basin formed by the expansion of the Jakatala valley, at the mouth of a gorge and surrounded by wooded hills and it soon became rated in the south second only to Ooty. Its rainfall of sixty-three inches normally falls during the short period of ninetyone days.
Coonoor had several tea and coffee estates in the vicinity. The town was well kept, but the increasing population had strained the drainage system. The Europeans, as always, had occupied the upper level of the town, leaving the native bazaars to the valley below.
Situated at the principal pass from the plains, Coonoor offered several beautiful drives along twenty miles of excellent roads, along the sides of which grew hedges of roses, fuchsia and hellitrop; and magnificent vistas of the steep-sided valleys on either side of the ghat road.
A British regiment was stationed in 1843 at a small village called Jakatala, one thousand feet below Ootacamund. An officers training college was built there in order to acclamatise new recruits for the Madras Regiment, and it was renamed Wellington, after the great Duke, in 1854. These barracks became HQ for the Southern Brigade of the 9th Secunderabd Division, turning Wellington into principal military sanatorium. It remained popular until 1947, when it became the site for the permanent quarters of Madras Regiment. Only eleven degrees from the Equator, Wellington has a temperate climate and a covering of rich soil, resulting in rapid and prolific growth of many varieties of fruit and vegetables on its intersecting hills and valleys.
Kotagiri, founded in 1830, is perched among wooded slopes of the Nilgiris overlooking ravines and fertile valleys. This town became the seat of judgement for fortnightly crime trials. The climate here has long been preferred by many to that prevailing in Ooty as it is warmer and less exposed to the vagaries of the south-west monsoon.
Pre-historic artefacts have been found around Kodaikanal, indicating that it was once the home of now forgotten people who left behind mysterious megalithic structures, burial grounds, and tombs containing copper and brass implements and ornaments. In 1834 the collector of Madurai, built a house at the head of Shembagannur pass and the development of Kodaikanal began. Kodaikanal is situated on the upper crust of the Palni Hills at an elevation of 2000 m.
Kodaikanal because of its situation is protected from the heavy monsoons which deluge nearby ranges from May to September. As light rain falls throughout the year the region is spared the occasional dry spells and water shortages which affect the Nilgiris.
The scenery with its grassy rolling downs and beautiful little shola woods and perennial streams flowing through them attracted the Europeans.
Alwaye, just 21 km away from Ernakulam is an ideal place for swimming in the river Periyar.
Munnar, at 1,652 metres (5,420 ft), is a small town surrounded by the Anaimalai Hills and tea estates. It stands at the confluence of three rivers – the Muthirappuzha, Nallathani and Kundala. Moonu in Tamil means ‘three’ and aar ‘river’. The highest peak in South India – Anaimudi 2,695 m is just 20 kms from Munnar. Munnar was the favourite summer resort of European settlers for centuries but has taken place on the tourism map of India only recently. It was the best-kept secret among hill station destinations.
Tea gardens of Munnar
Muvathpuza River, Munnar
The year 1887 marked the beginning of the opening up of the High Ranges. John Daniel Munro of Pimmede, an officer of Travancore state and superintendent of the Cardamom hills leased the hill tract from the government. Munroe explored the area by following elephant paths and began to bring planters, mainly Scots, to join him in clearing the jungle. Life for pioneers was hard.
In the 1890s, The Finlay Muir company moved into the hills and persuaded some of the proprietary planters to work for them. The company came to control almost all the estates in the area and its name is still preserved in the Indian company, Tata Finlay Ltd, which now owns them.Finlay Muir’s arrival did not make life any easier on the plantations. The hills were still inaccessible, except from the Tamil Nadu side. And so Tamil labourers were brought up to man the estates.
Planters experimented with rubber and chinchona before settling for tea which was transported by ropeways from Top Station outside Munnar to Bottom Station where it was packed in Imperial Chests shipped out from Britain and despatched to Tuticorin harbour. In 1908 a light railway was opened to take the tea from Munnar to Top Station, but it was destroyed by floods in 1924. In 1931, the ghat road from the Cochin side to Munnar was finally opened and Top Station was no longer needed to transport the tea.
Ponmudi is on the fringes of the Western Ghats near Agasthyakoodam at 6,201 ft. Much less is known of the history of Ponmudi, also on a hilltop in Travancore state 3,281 ft up at the head of the basin of the Vamanapuram river 65 kms from Trivandrum. It is a hill station with a view of the ocean and located among tea plantations in the heart of misty mountain tops.
Though only 1450 ft above sea level, Courtallam is cooled by the summer monsoon in late May. This settlement became a spa town because of the warmth of the water delivered by its waterfalls.
Courtallam is referred to as the “Spa of the South”. Its a small village located half-way between the towns of Shencottai and Tenkasi in Tamilnadu. There are six waterfalls at Courtallam, spread out over an area of 10 sq. km, most people head for the Main Falls formed by the Chittar river thundering down over the huge steps of vertical rockface.
Some of the newer hill stations that have been developed or are in the process of being developed are briefly covered below:
Malsej Ghat is located in the Junnar region of Pune district at an altitude of 3,500 ft above sea level in the Western Ghats just 150 km from Mumbai. Malsej Ghat is located on a high plateau surrounded by the magical hills and the backwaters of Pimpal-gaon Joga dam. In the monsoons, the Western Ghats come into their own when the rain begins to lash against them and a series of waterfalls are formed. Harishchandra-gad Fort is nearby on a mountain that rises about 4,670 ft.
Kudremukh, at 6,214 ft elevation in Malnad region of Karnataka, again is a hill resort that is developed during post independence. It is located just 95 km southwest of Chickmagalur. Kudremukh peak is close to the township that has been developed by Kudremukh Iron Ore Company that has extensive mining operations in the area.
River Bhadra at Kalasa
Kudremukh National Park with an area of 600.32 sq. km is situated in two districts – Dakshina Kannada and Chickmagalur.
Lake at B. R. Hills
The Soligas are the oldest tribal inhabitants of these forests, with a population of about 20,000. The Soligas have co-existed with the forest for centuries in quiet harmony and have a rich traditional knowledge and cultural life. A few tourist resorts have now come up in the B. R. Hills.
Wayanad lies on the southern slopes of the Brahmagiri hills that separate Kerala and Karnataka at the junction of Nilgiri hills. Wayanad has now become a tourist hill destination because it offers spectacular mountain settings, a rich variety of wildlife in its sanctuaries and tribal settlements. The tourist centres are Tholpetty, Lakkidi, Vythiri, Kalpetta and Sultan Battery (Batheri). Ancient Jain Temple at Sultan Battery
Wayanad is homeland to many tribal communities. Prominent among them are Paniya, Adiya, Kuruchia, Kattunayaka and Kuruma tribes.
The Silent Valley lies in the densely forested hills of northern Palakkad in Kerala.
The Silent Valley is one of the least disturbed extensive patches of tropical monsoon forests in the Western Ghats which was almost destroyed by a proposed hydroelectric power project. In the event, a historic movement by environmentalists forced the Kerala State Electricity Board to abandon the project and made the state government declare the fragile area a protected national park.
Both the Silent Valleys best-known endangered primates – the Lion-tailed macaque and the Nilgiri langur – are listed in IUCN’s Red Book of threatened animals. Today, the Silent Valley Park is in the core area of Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve of the Western Ghats. One popular explanation traces the origin of the name ‘Silent Valley’ to the absence of cicadas, characteristic of any rain forest.
In recorded history, no human has ever made the Silent Valley his or her home. The topograhic isolation of the plateau, cut off on all sides by steep ridges and escarpments, has prevented human habitation, and so the forests here remained undisturbed until the middle of the 19th century. That isolation has also allowed the valley to endure as an ‘ecological island’, preserving the fauna and flora for over 50 million years that is said to be the evolutionary age of the Silent Valley.
Thekkady, at an elevation of 3,300 ft above sea level has become a popular tiger reserve and is set around Periyar lake. Periyar lake itself is an artificial lake formed during the construction of the Mullaperiyar dam in 1895 – that explains the dead tree trunks and branches sticking out of the water. These trees were submerged in the waters of the dam. The Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary is spread over 777 sq. km, roughly half of which is dense evergreen forest, savannah grassland and moist deciduous forest.
This is a small, tea-and-orange hill station situated 75 km from Palakkad and 40 km south of Nenmara, the nearest town.
Nelliampathy is in the midst of evergreen forests and orange plantations. The forests are part of the Sahya Range of the Western Ghats. There are a number of hill resorts at the top including one run by Kerala District Tourist Promotion Council.