The long cotton cloths were wrapped nicely around our heads, covering it and providing a safe resting place for the belt of the plucking basket. Stepping down, into the green carpet like hedges, we began what many around us were already busy doing. Plucking the tender leaves and a bud from the tip of the tea shrub and safely flinging it behind into the depths of the basket. But while my sister-in-law and I merely posed for the cameras, many of our co-workers were already emptying their baskets and with rhythmic dexterity nipping the buds in hundreds to start the journey of the leaf from here to one day becoming a tantalizing cup of a Nilgiri Tea straight from the tea gardens of Ooty.
‘A little England on the rounded tops of the Nilgiri hills’ is how Amitav Ghosh described Ooty in one of his novels. Needless to say this hill town in Tamil Nadu, India delighted the British for many years as a reminiscent of their land in this eastern part of the world.
What the British though found really hard to master was the name of this hill town of southern India. ‘Udhagamandalam’ seemed quite a mouth full as did the later versions of ‘Ootacamund’ or ‘Whadacamund’. After much deliberation and discussions with the Todas, the original land owners of this place, finally the simple and succinct name Ooty was used to describe the beautiful centre point of the Nilgiri ranges.
Today, though Ooty is the name everyone utters when in search for a cool, mist- laden picturesque location with its tea and spice covered hills. Be it the weekend traveller from Bangalore, the dwellers of North India like us who mark a trip to Ooty along with a visit to other southern jewels or the tourist from overseas, keen to see every façade of India, its temples, traffic, and the hill stations dotted along the country map blessed with pleasant climate and made famous by the British since the colonial times. As a result the Ooty of today is less of a priviledged paradise and more of a crowd puller in the true sense of the phrase.
But despite the crowd, Ooty has not lost its touch to soothe your senses the moment you catch a glimpse of this town. And if it is the mountain train journey you choose to reach this destination, the transition from the smog to fog is even more rapid. This train chugs along the ratchet and pinion track giving quick glimpses of the series of piquant mountains or the ghostly pines lining the mist laden roads. It travels the curvaceous mountains, sometimes revealing the deep ravines and sometimes the limitless tea gardens. And when you finally arrive at Ooty, it is then that you realise that the train journey was not a short lived fantasy but a precinct to what is to come.
The town has preserved the colonial era in patches especially in the churches spread around the place and a few old homes. But what is perhaps the most visible reminder of the bygone era is the Ooty lake which was constructed by John Sullivan the first collector of the town in 1824. It is today the entertainment focal point with its boat rides, pony rides and other activities.
For those looking for more adventure than sitting by the lake side, just 10 km away from the main town is the Dodda Betta or Big Mountain,the highest peak of the Nilgiri ranges. It provides glimpse of the unmatched vistas of the nilgiri at a strategic point that joins the eastern and western ghats of India.
Ooty also has some natural wonders of the man-made kind. One of them being the botanical garden, a well laid out exhibition of myriad plants and flowers. The main attraction here is a fossilised tree trunk that is supposed to be 20 million years old. If you are visiting in winter, the rose garden too is something of an experience with scent of multicoloured roses wafting in the air and a spectrum of 1000 and more varieties of the world’s favourite flower in display in all of 10 acres of land.
At other times of the year though, it is not roses but the aroma of tea that may automatically lead you to one of the tea estates spread across the town. Like true connoisseurs of this aromatic beverage you can participate in the ceremony of tea-tasting or you can simply opt to hop in a little patch under the pine trees and pose for a photograph to show off in the urban world probably with a cuppa.
The shops around the town sell the priciest of Nilgiri tea and also aromatic oils, spices and essences. There are also numerous hand made chocolate flavours to pick from as soveiniers or simple treats to enjoy on your way back.
Tea, trees and visual treats, that’s Ooty for you – the queen of hill stations.