A Road to Infinity
Nilgiris Journal | Part-1
I am grateful for your presence and the gift of attention that you generously spare for me. This is the first part of a two-part essay series on the Nilgiris hills. The first part covers my encounter with the timeless beauty and the wonders it presented to me. In a couple of days, I will be posting part 2 which is deeply researched and rich with the colonial history of the region.
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Passage of Time as the Foundation of Observation
I am consistently fascinated by the thought-provoking questions that emerge from the depths of my psyche after a visit to a place that evokes both intrigue and mysticism. When faced with the remnants of ancient history, I find myself creating a metaphorical mental dwelling—a place for memories of cherished locations preserved over hundreds, if not thousands, of years from the relentless passage of time. Even long after the trip has concluded, be it weeks, months, or years, I often return to those memory lanes, attempting to uncover nuances I might have overlooked during my initial experience.
In my view, observation transcends mere sight and experience; it depends on memory and a discerning perspective. Writing about a place immediately after visiting it seems inadequate to me. Hasty and superficial judgments, particularly about a historically significant location, appear unjust to the lingering spirits of the past. A considerable amount of time is necessary for the experience to seep beneath one's skin, allowing a comprehensive understanding to shape the narrative. Beyond the initial thrill of a new journey and the melancholy of its conclusion, the realm of stories persists in its unadulterated truth, untouched by the narrator's emotions.
Today, my narrative draws inspiration from this realm of assured reliability, resting comfortably in the passage of time beyond the excitement of arrival and the anxieties of departure. For those familiar with the Nilgiris, consider this a prelude to its concealed truths. To those who have not yet visited, take it as an invitation. Lastly, for those who call it home—from both indigenous and settler communities—this stands as an ode to the centuries spent in solitude and reflection.
Nilgiris - An Introduction
The etymology of Nilgiris is derived from the Tamil words “Nilam" (நிலம்), which translates to blue or azure, and "Kiri" (கிரி), meaning mountain ranges. True to its name, the Nilgiris are a collection of mountains in the Western Ghats of India, known for their picturesque, mist-covered hills, and azure ranges hanging around in a dream-like equanimity. The ecosystem is one of the most unique in the world, with dense stretches of shola forests1 interspersed by wide and open montane grasslands, creating a mosaic landscape that is home to hundreds of species of flora and fauna, including several endemic and rare species such as the Nilgiri tahr (a type of mountain goat), the Nilgiri langur (a leaf-eating monkey), the Nilgiri gaur (Indian bison), and Parantica nilgiriensis, also known as the Nilgiri tiger (a spotted butterfly at near-threatened conservation status right now).
Given its ecological significance, the Nilgiris have received attention from conservationists and government agencies. Several protected areas, including national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, have been established to safeguard the unique flora and fauna of the region. The Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2012, encompasses a significant part of the Nilgiris and aims at conserving its natural wealth.
However, the story is incomplete without acknowledging the true wardens of Nilgiris, who have harmoniously coexisted with nature for hundreds of years. The five indigenous peoples2—Toda, Badaga, Kota, Irula, and Kurumba—have a deep connection with the land. Like many other indigenous communities around the world, they face challenges related to preserving their traditional way of life, land rights, and access to education and healthcare.
On the Road Again
The morning we were traveling to the Nilgiris was a complete haze because the night before had been especially tiring. We were accompanied by our fur babies, which extended the packing session by at least half an hour. The checklist included fresh litter, a litter box, dry food, wet food, treats, food and water bowls, diapers for the road, a crate for transportation, pillows, blankets, a playpen, and plenty of towels.
The recipe for extra fatigue involved a whole night of load shedding due to infrequent monsoons. This led to my boy meowing incessantly, as he was scared witless by the constant grumbling of the power generator. Needless to say, we let him into our room, where he snuggled and squirmed all night interchangeably on our head pillow and between the uncomfortable folds of our limbs inside our blanket. This continued until the cuckoo announced the dawn break at 4 am.
At that point, the only glimmering ray of hope to salvage whatever was left of our energy for a full 6-hour drive through the mystical shola forests, was the freshly brewed cup of espresso transformed into a crisp and cold tumbler of iced Americano. On this particular morning, I couldn’t overlook the powers of the universe that created both coffee and the spouse who could brew it with the finesse of a world-class barista. Not all is bleak in this world, not yet.
The witching hour spilled no secrets of the journey ahead. We were on the road again, searching for solace, silence, and sanctuary in nature, away from the hustle of modern civilization. We drove through the sleeping streets and boulevards of Bangalore city as the sky transitioned from indigo to mulberry to golden hues. The neon lights of night cafes were still on, slowly fading against the rising sun. The night shift staff were rushing back home in the prospect of rest and breakfast—or at least, that's what I thought. Maybe because by then, my stomach growled from being unrested and famished for quite some hours.
By the time the kingdom of light ushered us into a new day, we were already on the expressway, racing out of the city of matchbox skyscrapers and ostentatious billboard advertisements promising dreams of a better life if only we buy what they were selling. The greed of civilization has metabolized its intellect to differentiate consumerism from purpose and materialism from identity. The pursuit of validation has escalated to a level where its absence poses a risk of triggering widespread hysteria. A simple example would be the collapse of social media. Think about it—if we feel the need to cry our eyes out if accidentally our Instagram account gets deleted, or feel stuck or bored when the servers are down, are we really living the right way? How attached are we to our digital identities? What are we without them?
As we skirted around the expressway, the cityscape blended evenly with the suburbs. It teased a glimpse of restaurants scattered as sparsely as a busy Indian suburb allows. The widening of space grew as we left the city behind, and with that, the horizon of my mind also expanded. What encapsulates freedom, I thought? We hustle so hard to own overpriced small pieces of infrastructure in these overcrowded cities. Is it all really worth it? The framework of safety that we have built around ourselves—safe jobs, safe homes, safe relationships—can anything that can render us hopeless, destitute, and broken-hearted ever be truly safe? As long as something holds power over us, we will never be safe from its unfolding; dependence on anything makes us vulnerable invariably. Nothing that we love and invest in can ever be safe but can feel so for a little while. This is because the inherent existential fear of loneliness gets temporarily pacified when we find something that seems permanent. However, the truth is hidden in the knowledge of impermanence—the one that we cannot run away from, no matter our form of escapism—work, things, or people. The simple truth is, we earn it all to lose it all. Nothing reinforces this knowing better than a long drive away from the distracting bustle of civilization to the quiet of the forests towards which we were heading then.
Encounter with the Wilderness
As we ventured into the pristine wilderness of the Bandipur-Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, I found myself enraptured, almost in a dreamlike state, by the vast expanse of untouched sub-tropical forests sprawling across acres. The speed limit was carefully set at 20 km/hr, a precaution against unintentionally running over red-faced langurs or having an antelope dash across the road. Despite the mercury soaring to a sweltering 33°C, we rolled down the windows to immerse ourselves in the pure oxygen of the forest. For a city girl like me, this environment felt like Eden – a stark contrast to the usual struggle for oxygen amidst the smoke, dust, and pollution of urban life.
We drove through in slow motion as I silently stared at the abundant rosewood and teaks shading the shrubs but none towering too tall. The sparse population of mango, tamarind, java plum, figs, and jujuba reminded me of the summer treats at street corner shops - cut fruits marinated in spiced salt, with a hint of red chili, cumin, cinnamon, cloves, and black pepper - all of which are abundant in this forest. Hidden from the first glimpse, deep within the forest, one could find an enormous harvest of divine sandalwood, guarded by Bengal Tigers and wild Asian Tuskers about 9 feet tall in their formidable presence. The forest also has occasional patches of bamboo, pipal, banyan, and the purple paper-like flower-bearing Jacaranda trees. The canopies were dense, making it possible for jaguars, leopards, and black panthers to surveil without being spotted.
Contemplating the possibility that they might be observing me, though I couldn't see them, we continued our journey into the Nilgiris ranges. As we ascended, the flora underwent a remarkable transformation, accompanied by the crisp mountain winds that now felt more like home than any place I had ever known. The forest air was pregnant with the aroma of ferns and orchids, subtly hanging in the afternoon, dominated by towering Eucalyptus trees that seemed like Elder Gods indifferent to our human deliberations. The spiced air induced a sense of amnesia, akin to a cleansing ritual that made me forget the identity I was leaving behind as I entered this enchanted landscape.
This national park was once known as the private hunting estate of the Maharaja of Mysore. While crossing this beautiful wilderness, which evokes so much awe and inspiration, I could not help but sulk about the privileged lives of the obnoxious Maharajas and their sheer audacity to call this approximately 1000 sq km of wildlife sanctuary a 'private hunting estate.' My thoughts took me back to colonial times, from what I read - a typical Indian Maharaja would usually befriend many British East India Company generals who helped the royalty in tax evasion, and the Maharaja returned the favors by allowing them to engage in 'shikar' (hunting game), in other words, allow them to kill as many antelopes, bisons, spotted deers, and even tigers as they liked.
Now, imagine on an ordinary summer evening, a procession of the Maharaja accompanied by these uniformed officers, alongside his majesty’s most skilled huntsman and Tibetan mastiffs out for hunting. All you would hear are gunshots, cheering, and the wild, painful screeching, and dying cries of wild beasts - all but for sports! I writhed uncomfortably in my rexine leather seat as images of skinned animals crossed my mind. I murmured a silent prayer for them to the elder trees - the true guardians of those departed souls.
While traversing the state borders, I pondered the evolution of the laws of the land and how they must have changed compared to pre-colonial times. The chiefs of each indigenous community made decisions guided by the mythos and collective worldview of their ancestors. They understood the ecosystem and the interconnection of every element of nature that coexisted to create a functional habitat. Nilgiris is their land, and it has been that way for hundreds, if not thousands, of years; it belonged to them until the British arrived and imposed a narrative of Nilgiris being ‘discovered’ by them.
The nuanced colonial arrogance left an indelible mark on the minds of the hill people who were relatively naive about this institution. It's fair to say that this predicament characterized the experience of the people in Nilgiris. The indigenous communities remained actively isolationist until the arrival of the British, seldom interacting or marrying with mainlanders. Consequently, they were relatively unaware of the intentions of British settlers who entered the region, driven by a desire to amass wealth to retire in their stately homes in their island country.
In the next post, I will dive deeper into the history of the region during colonial occupation, the British administration’s policies regarding land, its impact on the ecosystem, and the indigenous people of the Nilgiris, to whom the land rightfully belongs.
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Sholas are the local name for patches of stunted tropical montane forest found in valleys amid rolling grassland in the higher montane regions of South India, largely in Kerala, Karnataka and Tamilnadu.
Todas are pastoral people, the Badagas are agriculturalists, the Kotas are artisans, the Irulas and Kurumbas are hunter-gathers and shifting agriculturists