Thứ Sáu, 20 tháng 6, 2014

Over the rainbow

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It is late October and I’m mid-way through a 14-day Spice of the South small group journey with Travel Indochina, having left the elephant and tiger reserves of Nagarhole National Park for Udhagamandalam (Ooty) in the Nilgiri Hills. With large distances to cover (three states, 2000 kilometres), multiple languages to encounter, and, as I’d been warned, a travel experience not unlike putting your finger into a bare light socket, a guided tour seemed the way to go for this first-timer.

After touring Ooty’s St Stephen’s church, a chance encounter with a reverend (who moonlights as an anthropologist) leads me to the Toda village on the outskirts of Ooty.

The Nilgiri mountain train. Photo: Kerry Van Der Jagt

Though we are following a well-designed itinerary, being a small group tour means our guide Saravana is happy to facilitate such karmic distractions. Part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, the Nilgiri Hills (known as the Blue Mountains) has 24 peaks higher than 2000 metres and a cool climate that seems more Scottish than Indian. Its Ketti Valley, one of the largest in the world, is said to rival Kashmir for beauty, particularly once every 12 years when the bell-shaped flower Strobilanthes kunthiana bursts into bloom, blushing the hillsides blue.

Away from the chaos of Ooty, Vasamalli’s home sits amid rolling pastures, and while other huts in the community are constructed of bamboo and rattan, hers is rendered in concrete and painted a riotous Kermit-green. As I step through the darkened doorway I take in the aroma of spices frying, the giggle of children, the jangle of bangles and the feel of cool concrete under my feet.

Wrapped in a traditional cloak of white, red and black embroidery, Vasamalli offers me a stool and sits opposite, her greying hair pulled back in a thick ponytail. “White signifies the purity of childhood,” she says, her bony fingers pointing to the cloth. “Red is fertility and black is old age.”

The Toda are found only in the Nilgiri district. Numbering about 1000 people spread across 60 small communities, they are one of the earliest tribes of India, with connections to Ethiopians and Australian Aboriginals. They have their own language, extensive knowledge of medicinal plants and once practiced fraternal polyandry (meaning, when a woman marries, she also marries his brothers). “Thankfully, we no longer do this,” Vasamalli says with a shy smile. With visions of my own brothers-in-law, I see her point.

Sitting amid the gleaming pots in her tiny kitchen, Vasamalli (who speaks perfect English) shares her concerns for her people, a story I’ve heard many times before; loss of land, loss of cultural identity and her efforts to maintain and promote Toda customs. She has formed a group to make and sell traditional handicrafts, is working on a Toda dictionary and happily welcomes visitors to her village, for a donation of 100 rupees ($2), which goes to the priest.

Back in the sunshine, with gossamer still clinging to the trees, we pick our way through the damp grass to the rainbow-shaped thatched temple, which sits behind a ring of moss-covered stones.

“This is as far as we are allowed,” says Vasamalli. “Only the priest and buffaloes can go further.”

The Toda have teams of gods, all based on nature, which they glorify through poetry and song, composing complex verses in honour of mountains, rivers and buffaloes. And even railways. “When the British brought the first train to Ooty in 1908 the Toda thought it was a ghost,” says Vasamalli. “They were frightened of the one-eyed demon, which breathed smoke and ran without legs, so an elder composed a song to reassure the villagers.”

With her grandchildren at her feet and her hand on her heart, Vasamalli’s gentle voice floats on the breeze. Though I don’t understand the words I know she’s singing the universal language of love, loss and longing, of childhood, its wonders and fears. I’m reminded of my own grandmother who also loved stories and would reassure me with her songs.

Back in Coonoor, a twisting, turning 45-minute drive away, I settle into the historic Gateway Hotel, our base for the next two nights. Part of the Taj group of hotels the hotel was built in 1865 as a priory to the adjacent All Saint’s Church and is an oasis of white colonial charm, clipped hedges and perfumed gardens. With a free afternoon I explore the backstreets of Coonoor by bicycle, followed by a yoga session in the Ayurveda Centre.

The following day we drive to Coonoor Station to board the Nilgiri Mountain Railway train, the very one that Vasamalli sang about. Swept along in a rainbow of saris, from tangerine to turquoise, coral to cochineal, we grab steaming snacks of chickpeas, onion, coriander and chilli wrapped in newspaper cones, before settling into our carriage.

Sometimes called the “toy train” because of its quaint blue and yellow carriages, the “little engine that could” rises from 326 metres at Mettupalayam to 2203 metres at Ooty, covering a distance of 46 kilometres in about five hours. Designed by a Swiss engineer the complicated rack-and-pinion railway is grouped with the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway and the Kalka-Shimla Railway to form a single World Heritage site. Coonoor station, roughly at the halfway point where we are boarding, was used for some scenes in David Lean’s 1984 adaptation of A Passage to India. The track boasts 250 bridges, 208 curves and 16 tunnels. But for now, these credentials matter little; it’s all about the scenery, the tea plantations, raked like green corduroy, the red and yellow Lego-like houses, the girls walking beside the track with marigolds in their hair, and the boys playing cricket, who pause long enough to clap and cheer as we trundle by. At every station people smile and wave, like the circus has come to town. I think hope lives largest in these small bursts of joy.

Back in Ooty we have another date with a British tradition – chocolate. Thanks to the Brits, who found the mountain climate perfect for chocolate-making, Ooty has more than 60 shops selling hand-made chocolates, including the original and best, King Star on Commercial Road. “My great grandfather, Mr Thambuswami, founded this store in 1942,” says Keerthi, who works here with her mother and extended family. “He learnt the trade working for the British.” The sign on the dusty street says it all, “The high class English confectionary. No branches anywhere.”

Sold by weight (600 rupees a kilogram) in roughly broken chunks, King Star produce more than 35 varieties, including roasted almond, rum and raisin and fig and wild honey.

The next morning we depart for Kerala, passing mountain vistas and sculptured tea gardens, the spring-onion green broken only by daubs of colourful saris snaking between the rows.

After a brief sun shower we pull over, sheltering under a dripping tree and watching as a rainbow bursts across the leaden sky. It is this final image that leaves me hopeful that Vasamalli and the environment she inhabits will continue to survive amid the relentless development.

The writer was a guest of Travel Indochina



A project managed by the Keystone Foundation providing information on honey bees and the tribes that harvest them. See


A park on the lower slopes of Doddabetta Peak. A good place for Toda handicrafts. See


A popular picnic spot with boats for hire. See


A interactive museum and factory. See


At 2637 metres high, Doddabetta Peak is the highest point in the Nilgiris. See



Singapore Airlines has a fare to Bangalore for about $1105 low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne including tax. Fly to Singapore (about 8hr) and then to Bangalore (4hr 20min); see or call 131011. This fare allows you to fly back from another Indian city (taxes may vary). Australians need a visa for tourism for up to six months.


The 14-day Spice of the South Small Group Journeys tour run from September 2014 to March 2015. With a maximum of 16 passengers, the tour starts in Bangalore, and includes Mysore, Nagarhole National Park, Coonoor, Ooty, Munnar, and the Kerala backwaters before finishing in Cochin. Starting from $4265 a person twin share, excluding airfares. See


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Over the rainbow

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