Bounded by mist-drenched ‘Blue Mountains’ and draped by lush tea plantations, Kotagiri, the unpolluted green mosaic of the Nilgiris, is a place one can go without a fixed agenda, just to feel the pure freshness in the air. A boisterous crowd waits in awe for the blue piper, the pride of Nilgiri Mountain Railways, at platform Number 2 of Mettupalayam Railway Station. The Swiss-made coal fired engine along with the wooden trolley-like bogeys, chugs out with a huge breath and a pleasing horn to open up unending vistas of the high ranges. The euphoric guests, tossing the comforts of advance-booked seats to deep-six, squeeze their necks out through the narrow windows and indulge in high decibel crow-shouts with each curve throwing up amazing views.
As the pale green expansive rice fields exchange batons with jade green terraced tea plants, we have travelled eight kilometres to Kallar, a closed station. Making a dawdling ascent, the journey comes to a halt at Coonoor where my appointed cabbie waits to drive me up to Nahar Retreat and Wellness Spa, Kotagiri. The snaky road leading to Kotagiri, about 23 km off Coonoor, is flanked by large tracts of tea gardens as far as the eyes could stretch. Encircled by cuddling knolls, Kotagiri, the one-horse town, nestled above 1800 metres is thankfully spared of touristy hullabaloo. Deriving its name from the indigenous ‘Kota’ tribes, Kotagiri, albeit a shade smaller in area and ambience as compared to its siblings Ooty and Coonoor, presents an unmatched freshness with its unending green mosaic that meets its final frontier with azure sky at the far end. A chance visit by two English civil servants of the Madras Regiment almost 200 years back, bought this wonderful tableland with ‘European climate’ close to the heart of the then Collector of Coimbatore, John Sullivan. Thus, came up the very first bungalow of European style here at Dimbatti village, literally meaning soft and pillow-like. On Sullivan’s suggestion, the Madras regiment went further up and discovered the magical Ooty that became the summer capital of the English. Potato, coffee and tea plantations soon followed on the terraced landscapes.
Mount Don Bosco, a stone’s throw from the Kotagiri town, offers a beautiful landscape, and Nahar Resort, a stone house, sits elegantly on an adjoining hill wrapped up by aromatic eucalyptus and jade-green tea plants in a tranquil setting. I watched agape at beauty of the serene ambience like a kid in a wonderland, quite unmindful of the chill and the intermittent misty bursts that turn my toes numb. After due check-in formalities, I was led to the topmost storey overlooking the massive tea gardens. The neatly carpeted executive room has an opening in the rear that leads to an open balcony engulfed in silvery mist. Sipping hot tea, I was entranced by the sight of the sun muscling for space against the dense fog only to be tamed around each time.
As the sun finally darts behind the silhouette of mountains, I engaged a local lad to give myself a long, leisurely stroll through the unending rows of tea gardens in Kotagiri (otherwise, you are sure to get lost in the puzzling lanes). With only the beat of the heart breaking the eerie serenity, the undulating greenery all around looks like a plush mattress inviting you to get cradled in the lap of nature. It seems like an endless trail through the oft-intersecting craggy lanes marked by zero-P (pollution), and I doggedly keep going inspite of the wearing knees. An hour past, we reach a quiet hamlet, Pudhu Kotagiri, home to about 70 odd families of Kota tribes. Unlike the Todas of Ooty, whose main activity is farming, the Kotas, a fast declining local tribe numbering about 1,000, survive on pottery and terracotta baking for a living. A few own small tea lands, and others have taken up sundry jobs.
Kamataraya, the presiding deity of the Kotas, is consecrated in a small temple bounded by walls on all sides, where all the male members of the tribe assemble once a month for community gatherings and discussions. Steeped in age-old customs, the Kotas lead a reclusive life and permit marriages only within the community — defiance of this rule invites excommunication, irrespective of one’s position — which is possibly one of the reasons for their declining numbers. Though women enjoy equal rights in property and family, their entry to the temple is allowed only once a year during December when the Kotas celebrate a two week-long grand festival called Arudra Darshan when members of the tribe, settled far and wide, unfailingly converge at this sanctorum.
Known for their hard work and dedication, the Kotas, once a dominant community, still maintain their distinct identity with stone age-rigid edicts. The community has been well known for its self-reliance — the people make their own clothes from a bark and craft jewels, build houses and cultivate grains for their food. We come back after an engaging session to the resort where the huge supper is in wait. It is hard to believe that Nahar serves only vegetarian fare, but the authentic South-Indian spread is quite light and delicious. The creamy carrot halwa is finger-licking good, and is polished off, thanks to multiple helpings by everyone. The imposing hill ranges, the dew soaked silver oaks, and the graceful St Antony’s Church in Kotagiri fall in view. The carols drifting in from of the mission and the melody of Kandasashti (a shloka pertaining to Lord Muruga) blend in perfect harmony, and another day rolls on with yet another rendezvous with the striking canvas of gently swirling mist, slender oaks and shy tea gardens all the way up till Kotagiri.
Fact File: Kotagiri is 33 km from Mettupalayam and 23 km from Coonoor. Well-connected by air, rail and road up to Coimbatore, the best option is to travel by rail upto Mettupalayam. Buses and private cabs are available from Mettupalayam and Coimbatore. Stay at the Nahar Retreat and Wellness Spa (Tel: +91-4266-273300, 274400; naharretreat.com).
About the Author
Jigyasha is an avid weekend traveler who also loves to read a book or two on her way. Second love: Theatre.