Chapter XV. First Glimpse of "Ooty."

The distance from Coonoor to the capital of the Neilgherries is about ten miles, over a good road. We propose, however, to forsake the uninteresting main line, and, turning leftwards, to strike into the bye way which leads to the Khaity Falls.

Khaity is a collection of huts tenanted by the hill people, and in no ways remarkable, except that it has given a name to a cascade which "everybody goes," &c.

After six miles of mountain and valley in rapid and unbroken succession, we stand upon the natural terrace which supports the little missionary settlement, and looking over the deep ravine that yawns at our feet, wonder why the "everybody" above alluded to, takes the trouble of visiting the Khaity falls. They are formed by a thin stream which dashes over a gap in the rock, and disperses into spray before it has time to reach the basin below. As usual with Neilgherry cascades they only want water.

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Now as our disappointment has brought on rather a depressed and prosy state of mind, we will wile away the tedium of the eight long miles which still separate us from our destination, with a little useful discourse upon subjects historical and geographical connected with the Neilgherries.

The purely European reader will consider it extraordinary that this beautiful range of lofty hills should not have suggested to all men at first sight the idea of a cool, healthy summer abode. But we demi-Orientals, who know by experience the dangers of mountain air in India, only wonder at the daring of the man who first planted a roof-tree upon the Neilgherries.

From the year 1799 to 1819 these mountains were in the daily view of all the authorities from the plains of Coimbatore; revenue was collected from them for the company by a native renter; but, excepting Dr. Ford and Capt. Bevan, who in 1809 traversed the hill with a party of pioneers, and certain deputy surveyors under Colonel Monson, who partially mapped the tract, no strangers had ventured to explore the all but unknown region.

In 1814, Mr. Keys, a sub-assistant, and Mr. McMahon, then an apprentice in the survey department, ascended the hills by the Danaynkeucottah Pass, penetrated into the remotest parts and made plans, and sent in reports of their discoveries. In consequence of their accounts, Messrs. Whish and Kindersley, two young Madras civilians, availing themselves of the opportunity presented by some criminal's taking refuge amongst the mountains, ventured up in pursuit of him, and proceeded to reconnoitre the interior. They soon saw and felt enough to excite their own curiosity and that of others. Mr. Sullivan, collector of Coimbatore, built the first house upon the Neilgherries. He chose a hillock to the east of the hollow, where the lake now lies, and after some difficulty in persuading the superstitious natives to work--on many occasions he was obliged personally to set them the example--he succeeded in erecting a tenement large enough to accommodate his family.

In the month of May, 1819, the same tourists from Coimbatore, accompanied by Mons. Leschnault de la Tour, naturalist to the King of France, repeated their excursion, and published the result of their observations in one of the Madras newspapers. They asserted the maximum height of the thermoneter in the shade to be 74 at a time when the temperature of the plains varied from 90 to 100. Such a climate within the tropics was considered so great an anomaly that few would believe in its existence. At length the Madras Government determined to open one of the passes, and the pioneer officer employed on this service deriving immediate and remarkable benefit from the mountain air--he had been suffering from fever and ague--hastened to corroborate the accounts of it already published. The road was opened in 1821; some families then took up their abode on the hills; the inveterate prejudice against them began to disappear, and such numbers presently flocked to the region of health, that the difficulty was to find sufficient accommodation. As late as 1826, Bishop Heber complained that for want of lodgings he was unable to send his family to the sanitarium. Incredulity received its coup de grace from the hand of the Rev. Mr. Hough, a chaplain in the Madras establishment, who in July, 1826, published in the Bengal Hurkaru, under the nom de guerre of Philanthropos, a series of eight, (143) describing the climate, inhabitants, and productions of the Neilgherries, with the benevolent intention of inducing the Government of India to patronize the place as a retreat for invalids.

Having "done" the history, we will now attempt a short geographical account of the Blue Mountains. En passant we may remark, that the native name Nilagiri, (144) limited by the Hindoos to a hill sacred to Parwati, has been extended by us to the whole range.

The region commonly know by the name of the Neilgherries, or Blue Mountains of Coinbatore, is situated at the point where the Eastern and Western Ghats (145) unite, between the parallels of 11 and 12 N. lat., and 76 and 77 E. lon. Its shape is a trapezoid, for though quadrilateral, none of its sides are equal or even; it is bounded on the north by the table-land of Mysore, on the south and east by the provinces that stretch towards the Arabian Sea; another range of hills forms its western frontier. Its base covers a surface of about two hundred miles; the greatest length from east to west at an elevation of five thousand feet, is nearly forty-three, and the medium breadth at the same height, is little less than fifteen, miles. The major part of the mass presents a superficies of parallel and irregular hill and knoll, intersected by deep valleys and precipitous ravines; a loftier chain, throwing off a number of minor ridges, runs north-east and south-west, and almost bisects the tract. In the loftier parts many small streams, such as the Pykarry, the Porthy, and the Avalanche take their rise, and, after winding over the surface, sweep down the rocky sides of the mountains, and fall into the Moyar, (146) or swell the Bhawany River.

The Neilgherries are divided into four Nads, or provinces: Perunga Nad, the most populous, occupies the eastern portion; Malka lies towards the south; Koondah is on the west and south-west margin; and Toda Nad, the most fertile and extensive, (147) includes the northern regions and the crest of the hills. Many lines of roads have been run up the easier acclivities; the most travelled upon at present are the seegoor Ghaut, (148) which enters from the Mysore side, and the Coonoor, or Coimbatore Pass, by which, if you recollect, we ascended.

Our Government asserts no right to this bit of territory, although the hills belonged to Hyder, and what was Hyder's now belongs to us. The peculiar tribe called the Todas, (149) lay claim to the land, and though they consent to receive a yearly rent, they firmly refuse to alienate their right to the soil, considering such measure "nae canny" for both seller and buyer. Chance events have established this superstition on a firm footing. When Europeans first settled in the Neilgherries, a murrian broke out among the Toda cattle, and the savages naturally attributed their misfortune to the presence of the new comers. Sir W. Rumbold lost his wife, and died prematurely soon after purchasing the ground upon which his house stood--of course, in consequence of the earth-god's ire.

In August, 1847, there were a hundred and four officers on sick leave, besides visitors and those residing on the Neilgherries. The total number of Europeans, children included, was between five and six hundred. It is extremely difficult to estimate the number of the hill people. Some authorities give as many as fifteen thousand; others as few as six thousand.

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Now we fall into the main road at the foot of the zigzag, which climbs the steep skirt of Giant Dodabetta. (150) Our nags, snorting and panting, breast the hill--we reach the summit--we descend a few hundred yards--catch sight of some detached bungalows--a lake--a church--a bazaar--a station.

The cantonment of ootacamund, (151) or, as it is familiarly and affectionately termed by the abbreviating Saxon, "Ooty," is built in a punch bowl, formed by the range of hills which composes the central crest of the Neilgherries. But first for the "Windermere."

The long narrow winding tarn which occupies the bottom of Ooty's happy vale, is an artificial affair, intended, saith an enthusiastic describer, "like that of Como, to combine utility with beauty." It was made by means of a dam, which, uniting the converging extremities of two hills, intercepted the waters of a mountain rivulet, and formed an "expansive and delightful serpentine lake," about two miles in length, upon an average six hundred yards broad, in many places forty feet deep, generally very muddy, and about as far from Windermere or Como as a London Colosseum or a Parisian Tivoli might be from its Italian prototype. Two roads, the upper and the lower, wind round the piece of water, and it is crossed by three embankments; the Willow Bund, as the central one is called, with its thick trees and apologies for arches, is rather a pretty and picturesque object. The best houses, you may remark, are built as close to the margin of the lake as possible. Turn your eyes away from the northern bank; that dirty, irregular bazaar is the very reverse of romantic. The beauties of the view lie dispersed above and afar. On both sides of the water, turfy peaks and woody eminences, here sinking into shallow valleys, there falling into steep ravines, the whole covered with a tapestry of brilliant green, delight your eye, after the card-table plains of Guzerat, the bleak and barren Maharatta hills, or the howling wastes of sun-burnt Scinde. The back-ground of distant hill and mountain, borrowing from the intervening atmosphere the blue and hazy tint for which these regions are celebrated, contrasts well with the emerald hue around. In a word, there is a rich variety of form and colour, and a graceful blending of the different features that combine to make a beautiful coup d'il, which, when the gloss of novelty is still upon them, are infinitely attractive.

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The sun is sinking in the splendour of an Indian May, behind the high horizon, and yet, marvellous to relate, the air feels cool and comfortable. The monotonous gruntings of the frequent palanquin-bearers--a sound which, like the swift's scream, is harsh and grating enough, yet teems in this region with pleasant associations--inform us that the fair ones of Ootacamund are actually engaged in taking exercise. We will follow their example, beginning at "Charing Cross,"--the unappropriate name conferred upon those few square yards of level and gravelled ground, with the stunted tree boxed up in the centre. Our path traverses the half-drained swamp that bounds this end of the Neilgherry Windermere, and you observe with pain that those authors who assert the hills to be "entirely free from the morasses and the vast collection of decayed vegetables that generate miasma," have notably deceived you. In 1847, there is a small swamp, formed by the soaking of some arrested stream, at the bottom of almost every declivity. We presume the same was the case in 1826. Indeed, were the Neilgherries seven or eight hundred feet, instead of as many thousands, above the level of the sea, even the Pontine marshes would not be better adapted for the accommodation of Quartana and Malaria. Before you have been long on the hills, you will witness many amusing accidents occurring to new comers, who attempt to urge their steeds through the shaking bogs of black mud, treacherously lurking under a glossy green coating of grassy turf.

"Probably it is to the local predilections for such diversion that I must attribute the unwillingness of the authorities to remedy the nuisance?"

We cannot take upon ourselves to reply, yes or no. The cantonment is by no means scrupulously clean. The bazaar is at all times unpleasant, and, during the rains, dirty in the extreme. Making all due allowance for the difficulty of keeping any place where natives abound, undefiled, still we opine, that the authorities might be much more active, in promoting the cause of cleanliness, than they are. But, if report speak true, the local government is somewhat out of temper with her hill protégée, for spending her rupees a little too freely.

There go the promenaders--stout pedestrians--keeping step in parties and pairs. Equestrians ride the fashionable animals--a kind of horse cut down to a pony, called the Pegu, Arabs being rare and little valued here. And invalids, especially ladies, "eat the air," as the natives say, in palanquins and tonjons. The latter article merits some description. It is a light conveyance, open and airy, exactly resembling the seat of a Bath chair, spitted upon a long pole, which rests on the shoulders of four hammals, or porters. Much barbaric splendour is displayed in the equipments of the "gang." Your first thought, on observing their long scarlet coats, broad yellow bands round the waist, and the green turban, or some other curiously and wonderfully made head-gear, which surmounts their sooty faces, is a sensation of wonder that the tonjon and its accompaniments have not yet been exhibited in London and Paris. Much hardness of heart is occasionally shown by the fair sex to their unhappy negroes. See those four lean wretches staggering under the joint weights of the vehicle that contains the stout daughter and stouter mama, or the huge Ayah who is sent out to guard those five or six ponderous children, whose constitutional delicacy renders "carriage exercise" absolutely necessary for them.

Two things here strike your eye as novel, in India.

There is a freshness in the complexion of the Sanitarians that shows wonderfully to advantage when compared with the cadaverous waxy hue which the European epidermis loves to assume in the tropics. Most brilliant look the ladies; the gentlemen are sunburnt and robust; and the juveniles appear fresh and chubby, quite a different creation from the pallid, puny, meagre, sickly, irritable little wretches that do nothing but cry and perspire in the plains. Another mighty pleasant thing, after a few years of purely camp existence, is the nonmilitary appearance and sound of Ootacamund. Uniform has been banished by one consent from society, except at balls and parties. The cotton and linen jackets, the turbaned felt "wide-awake," and the white jockey's cap, with its diminutive apron, intended to protect the back of the head from the broiling sun, are here exchanged for cloth coats and black hats. Morning bugles and mid-day guns, orderlies, and order-books, the "Officers' call" and "No parade to-day," are things unknown. Vestiges of the "shop" will, it is true, occasionally peep out in the shape of a regimental cup, brass spurs, and black pantaloons, denuded of the red stripe. But such traces rather add to our gratification than otherwise, by reminding us of A.M. drills, meridian sword exercises, and P.M. reviews in days gone by.

And now, advancing along the gravelled walk that borders the lake, we pass beneath a thatched cottage, once a masonic lodge, (152) but not, proh pudor! converted into a dwelling-house. Near it, we remark a large building--Bombay house. It was formerly appropriated to officers of that presidency. At present they have no such luxury. (153) Taking up a position above the south end of the Willow-Bund, we have a good front view of the principal buildings in the cantonment. On the left hand is the Protestant church of St. Stephens, an unpraisable erection, in the Saxo-Gothic style, standing out from a grave-yard, so extensive, so well stocked, that it makes one shudder to look at it. Close by the church are the Ootacamund Free School, the Post-office, the Pay-office, and the bungalow where the Commanding officer of the station transacts his multifarious business. Below, near the lake, you see the Library, the Victoria hotel--a large and conspicuous building--the Dispensary, the subordinate's courts, and the Bazaar. Beyond the church a few hundred yards of level road leads to the "palace," built by Sir W. Rumbold, which, after enduring many vicissitudes of fortune, has settled down into the social position of a club-house and place for periodical balls. Around it, the mass of houses thickens, and paths branch off in all directions. In the distance appears the wretched bazaar of Kaundlemund--the haunt of coblers and thieves;--a little nearer is the old Roman Catholic chapel; closer still, the Union hotel--a huge white house, which was once the Neilgherry Church Missionary grammar school,--bungalows by the dozen, and several extensive establishments, where youth, male and female, is lodged, boarded, and instructed. On the southern side of a hill, separated from the Kaundle bazaar, stands Woodcock Hall, the locality selected for Government House, and, in 1847 at least, a most unimportant place, interiorly as well as exteriorly.

We will conclude our ciceronic task with calling your attention to one fact, namely, that the capital of the Neilgherries is growing up with maizelike rapidity. Houses are rising in all directions; and if fickle fortune only favour it, Ooty promises fair to become in a few years one of the largest European settlements in India. But its fate is at present precarious. Should the Court of Directors be induced to revise the old Furlough and Sick-leave Regulations, then will poor Ooty speedily revert to the Todas and jackals--its old inhabitants. On the contrary, if the status quo endure, and European regiments are regularly stationed on the hills, (154) officers will flock to Ootacamund, the settlers, retired servants of Government, not Eurasian colonists, will increase in number, schools (155) will flourish and prosperity steadily progress. The "to be or not to be" thus depends upon the turn of a die.

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The chilly shades of evening are closing rapidly upon us, and we know by experience that some care is necessary, especially for the newly arrived health-hunter. So we wend our way homewards, remarking, as night advances, the unusual brilliancy of the heavenly bodies. Venus shines almost as brightly as an average English moon in winter; her light with that of the lesser stars is quite sufficient to point out to us the direction of "Subaltern Hall."