Off the beaten track in Ooty
By Maggie Videan
Where did you say that was? Never heard of it? Possibly not!
Ooty is a forgotten hill station located 2000 metres above sea level in the Nilgris in Southern India. Alive with industry, it has a delightful climate, friendly locals and a history harking back to British India.
Ooty was the town where the British Administrators escaped the heat of the Indian summer during the ‘occupation’. The weather is cool and temperate most of the year and as such, is ideal for growing tea. There are many tea plantations dotted around the area and the local tea has an excellent flavour. There is a ‘Tea Museum’ at the top of a hill that provides an informative overview of this gentle art as well as providing and an impressive lookout across the township, rolling hills and valleys beyond.
Take a step back in time and enjoy the old-world charm and elegance of the Savoy Hotel. Sit on the lawn, sip a lime and soda and eat tasty, spicy morsels. Then play some badminton or walk around the historic British showpiece that is now a bustling township. The markets are a photographic delight with lots of local colour.
The Ferntree Hotel is another impressive architectural feat. Once a palace of an Indian Raja, it is now a gracious and imposing hotel surrounded by sweeping lawns and old iron benches.
The main street in Ooty is called ‘Charing Cross’ and is as bustling as its London counterpart. Lots of shops sit side by side, stocked with oils, soap, chocolates, tea (of course), warm woollen shawls and artefacts and antiquities (some real and some not so, the Indians can reproduce anything, so buyer beware!).
Sights to see are ‘The Big House’ which is now a derelict big house made entirely of big blue boulders from the area and was once the centre for British administration in the Tamil Nadu district. It is boarded up and cared for by a local (and his cow) living in makeshift accommodation in the rear of this still impressive building.
St Steven’s church has a foundation stone laid in 1832, the local Anglo-Indian School was built in 1840 and the Ooty Club has a history dating back to 1848. However, the membership to the Ooty club is strict and preserves its tight membership and dress regulations. It was only after partition in 1947 that Indian’s were allowed to join and even then, only the well to do could afford its membership fees.
All rooms are festooned with many items of aged furniture dating back to the 1800’s and lion heads, spotted leopard skins, deer and buffalo trophies which are now rather old and decrepit but certainly reminiscent of days gone by. Apparently, along with the fox hunts and gala equestrian events, the game of Billiards was ‘invented’ in one of its gracious rooms. Photos and old newspaper clippings as well as a securely covered Billiard table attest this proudly boasted fact.
Today, they guard their history and even though patronised by members and their guests, written permission is required to take a photo and it would be impossible to enter its vast interiors without a member introduction. It’s a total ‘no go’ for the humble tourist without appropriate connections.
The best way to get to Ooty is to fly to Coimbatore and endure a three-hour drive on narrow, truck-laden poorly kept roadways. Nevertheless, a different experience to the India of crowded cities and traffic warfare and a step back in time that is refreshing as the tea from the area!