Among the most enjoyable ways to reach Ooty, the southern hill station in the Nilgiris, is by the famous Toy Train. The breeze becomes cooler as the train chugs along slowly on its narrow gauge tracks, up the Nilgiri Mountains often covered in mist, through forests and flora and fauna, you begin to feel that you have stepped back in time. For me the experience always brings on a strong whiff of nostalgia—after all , not so long ago, these quaint trains offered the most comfortable and fashionable modes of transport for reaching Ooty.
The Nilgiri Mountain Railway established by the British in 1899, began operating from 1908 as part of the Madras Railway Company. The Toy Train was declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 2005. Now commonly referred to as the Toy Train or Nilgiri Passenger, it travels between Mettupalayam to Ooty daily and covers a distance of 26 km in approximately 4 to 5 hours. The train has blue and cream wooden coaches with large windows and passes through 208 curves, 16 tunnels and 250 bridges and to reach Ooty. The train leaves Mettupalayam Railway Station at 7 am and passes through the stations at Hillgrove, Coonoor, Wellington, Aruvankadu, Ketty, Lovedale and finally reaches Ooty’s station, Udhagamandalam around noon. The train has first and second class carriages priced at Rs 204/- and Rs 30/-, the main difference between them being that the 1st class carriage has cushions and fewer seats. Interestingly around the turn of the century, the train’s tickets were only Rs 65/- for first class and an unbelievable Rs.9/- for second class!
Ootaamand, or Ooty as it is popularly referred to is the most convenient getaway hill station from Bangalore. As the industrial and business importance of Bangalore and Coimbatore has grown, traffic through Ooty has also kept apace. Hotels and guest houses abound and SUVs appear to be the most convenient and popular mode of transport.
Ooty located at seven and a half feet above sea level is often referred to as the ‘Queen of Hill Stations.’ It was established by John Sullivan, the Collector of Coimbatore between 1815 and 1830. Sullivan became the first Englishman to reside in Ooty and built his residence ‘The Stone House’ in 1822. The original walls of the house are still intact, but over the years there have been innumerable modifications. There was originally a beautiful landscaped garden surrounding the house, but gave way to government buildings and a Liberal Arts and Science college.
Establishing a city from scratch was not an easy task for either John Sullivan or his family. His wife, son and daughter, all died before him and are buried at the historic St Stephen’s Church, the oldest church in the Nilgiris, John Sullivan left for England soon after his family died and passed away himself in 1858. A tablet in his memory can be seen next to the graves of the other members of his family. St Stephen’s Church’s foundation stone was laid in 1829 by Governor of Madras, Stephen Lushington. Large beams are reputed to have been brought from Tipu Sultan’s palace at Srirangapatna and hauled up the hill by elephants for building the church, consecrated in 1830 by Bishop Turner of Calcutta.
Another landmark in Ooty is the Nilgiri Library. Inaugurated in 1858 the Library on Commissioner’s Road, may be considered the very centre of the city and besides many rare books on the history of the Nilgiris, it also caters to all ages. Temporary membership is possible during the busiest season—April and May, when visitors can browse over a wide selection of magazines. Other buildings of the same vintage can be seen within a hundred yards of the Library and include the post Office, The District Court, the Collector’s Office, the Higginbotham Book Shop and St Stephen’s Church.
Also situated in the old quarter at the junction of Commissioner’s Road is the very popular Chinese restaurant Shinkows, opened by the Liao family in 1956. Known for its excellent Chinese cuisine, it is certainly the best place for a meal or even a snack. The restaurant has over the years become a landmark and the roundabout at the junction is now commonly referred to as Shinkow’s Circle.
The Ootacamund Club was originally constructed as a hotel by Sir William Rumbold and inaugurated in 1833. Lord Bentink rented it as a private residence the following year and thereafter it reverted back to being a hotel till 1836, when it was acquired as a club. The club is the oldest of its kind in the entire district and still has all the original furniture. Its well-kept gardens and lawns are the pride of Ooty. It is said that the game of ‘snooker’ was invented for the first time at this club. The original snooker table is still there —beautifully maintained!
One of the more scenic spots in Ooty is the Botanical Garden. No one who sees this magnificent landscaped area would imagine that the origin of this was a common kitchen garden.Credit for developing it to its present state goes to the Marquis of Tweedale, who with the help of a skilled gardener from Kew Gardens, created this beautiful garden in 1847. Considered one of the finest gardens in Asia, it houses over 2000 species of flowers and trees from all over the world. The annual flower show is held in the month of May, when it attracts the maximum number of visitors.
The Todas the traditional inhabitants of the Nilgiris are known to have lived on these hills for centuries. Unfortunately their presence today is almost non-existant. There are very few Toda Mundas (hamlets) to be seen on the slopes. However, at an important intersection known as Charring Cross, there is a sales emporium selling beautiful Toda embroidered shawls and cushion covers.
Most visitors make a beeline for the Ooty Lake where boats can be hired by the hour. Except on particularly warm days, it can be quite chilly on the lake, but it continues to be one of the pleasantest ways to spend an afternoon, warmly clad sitting in a boat... watching the world go by.