My First Schooldays
Ootacamund,"The Queen of Hill Stations" in the Nilgiri Hills of Tamil Nadu, India Ootacamund,"The Queen of Hill Stations" in the Nilgiri Hills of Tamil Nadu, India

Rodney Hall, 1945
I was born in Vizagapatam, on the Bay of Bengal, the son of a then chief pilot in that port, who was later Harbourmaster. Due to the summer heat in the plains of India, Europeans usually sent their children to "the hills" for schooling, where the climate was more like that of England, and thus where the British schools were built. My sister went to a girls' boarding school in Darjeeling (St. Michael's), in the foothills of the Himalayas from 1936 to 1939 and then to Nazareth Convent in Ootacamund from 1940 to 1943.

My first school days were in Ooty at the Breeks Memorial Boarding School,Rack and Pinion railway from Mettupalayam to Ooty 1945-1950. It took nearly three days on the Bengal Nagpur Railway - BNR -  from home in Vizag to reach Ooty, stopping in Madras to catch the Nilgiri Express to Mettupalayam via Coimbatore and while we waited for the connection, we all went to the zoo. The latter part of the journey from Mettupalayam to Ooty was by rack and pinion railway, the Nilgiri Mountain Railway. The railway has recently gained World Heritage status. Opened in 1899 to Coonoor and on a further 11.75 miles to Ooty in 1908, it climbs 4,000 feet from Mettupalayam to Ootacumund (known to us in those days as "Snooty Ooty"). The line has more than 250 bridges and 16 tunnels. The line's steam locomotives date from 1920 and were made in Switzerland. The line was featured in the 1984 film "Passage to India". The journey was slow enough (it took five hours) to be Approaching Ooty Stationable to leave the train and re-join further up the hill. Monkeys would frequently come through the open carriages and raid any food you might be eating! I have particular memories of a wonderful Miss Reeves and a feared Miss Chaves at Breeks! The school year then consisted of two terms with two months holiday at Christmas and a short break for summer. I cannot recall how long that was, but it was too short to make it practical for the journey home, and in any case the summer heat in the plains was against it, so I stayed with family friends in Ooty. Breeks Memorial School living accommodation, adjacent to the Botanical GardensSo went my first five years schooling until, after sixteen years in India, the family returned to England in 1950, my father having been asked by the Indian Government to remain after independence in 1947, to make a smoother handover. The name Ooty is a contraction of Ootacamund, which in turn is the British pronunciation of the Toda inhabitants' name, WOTOKYMOND, meaning a village. The Nilgiris, or "Blue Mountains", are so called due to the  blue  haze  which envelopes  the  range with most  distant hills  of  considerable size. Breeks School at Charing CrossThe name Nila is known to have been used nearly 900 years ago since the King of the Hoysalas, Vishnu Vardhana, who ruled from 1104 to 1141 A.D. seized the Nilgiris Plateau. His general, Ponisia,  recorded this fact in 1117 A.D. with mention of the Todas. Ootacamund or Udagamandalam, (the Tamil version of the original name) rightly described as the"Queen of Hill Stations" by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, now sprawls over an area of 36sq km with a number of tall buildings cluttering its hill slopes.  It is situated at an altitude of 2,240 meters above sea level. Though the march of bricks and mortar has laid waste its thick sholas which one saw in a bygone era, it still woos people from all over India as well as foreign countries right through summer, and sometimes in the winter months too. The Hills of Ooty An added attraction for the tourists to Udagamandalam is the mountain train journey on a rack and pinion railway which commences from Kallar, near Mettupalayam and wends its way through many hair-raising curves and fearful tunnels and chugs along beside deep verdant ravines, gurgling streams and tea gardens.  The scenery, as it unfolds during the trip, is breathtaking. One can see a marvellous change in vegetation as one goes from Kallar to Coonoor. At Kallar it is tropical and at Burliar, the next bus stop as one The Botanical Gardensproceeds from Mettupalayam, it is sub-tropical.  Near Coonoor, it is humid with pines, blue gum (Eucalyptus globulus) and cypress trees.  As we go from Ooty to Gudalur, the change in vegetation is striking.  What a splendid interaction between climate and vegetation!  It is therefore very appropriate that Mount Stuart called the whole road leading to Ooty from Mettupalayam "one long botanical debauch."

The History of Ooty

Ooty from DoddabettaThis beautiful botanical paradise was first brought to the public eye by John Sullivan, Collector of Coimbatore district in 1819.  But prior to this in 1812, the first Englishmen who were sent up the Nilgris by the Collector of Coimbatore, were Mr. Keys, Assistant Revenue Surveyor, and his Assistant, McMahon.  They made their way via Dananayakan Kottai to Aracad and the existing village of Denad, and penetrated as far as Kallatti, the lower level of North Ooty, but never set their eyes on the beautiful valley in which Ooty lay. After Keys' visit there was no further expedition until 1818 when J.C.Whish and N.W.Kindersly (Asst. and second Asst. to the Collector of Coimbatore respectively) went up by the Dananayakan Kottai-Denad route, crossed the plateau in a south-western direction and descended by the Sundapatti pass from Manjakombai to the Bhavani valley and then back to Coimbatore. The purpose of their visit is not known. In March 1819, John Sullivan obtained Rs1,100 (Rupees of those days not to be compared with the present-day rupee) from the Board of Revenue for laying a bridle path up the hill from Sirumugai to Kotagiri and its neighbouring village, Dhimatti. The work was executed by McPherson in a Ooty Lakeperiod of 2 years starting 1821. This was the only route to the Nilgris from Coimbatore until 1832, when the first Coonoor ghat road was laid, thanks to the then Governor, S.R. Lushington, who got the work executed by Lehardy and Capt. Murray.  The present  metalled ghat road from Kallar to Coonoor, a distance of 25km which has 14 hair-pin bends and a gradient of 1 in 18, which facilitated carriage traffic from Madras to Ooty, was mainly constructed by Colonel G.V. Law in 1871.  It is gratifying to note that the cascade of the Coonoor river near Wenlock bridge on the Coonoor-Mettupalayam road named after Law, continues to bear the same name.  The Coonoor-Mettupalayam road was extended to Udagamandalam, covering a distance of about 15km.  The Kotagiri-Mettupalayam road (about 34km long) which was 8ft wide to The Flora of Ootybegin with, was widened to 17ft in 1872-75 with a gradient of 1 in 17 by the District Engineer, Major Morant, R.E. and handed over to the District Board in 1881.  During the period from 1819 to 1830, John Sullivan's contribution, apart from laying the route to Ooty, was that he built the first house, called Stone House in Ooty.  This formed the nucleus of Government offices.  Further, at his own expense, he conducted experiments on agricultural and horticultural crops and in animal husbandry to find the most suitable crops and breeds of milch animals for future settlers. After the magnificent task of laying the road to Ooty, the British took up, around 1880, the stupendous task of connecting Mettupalayam to Ooty by rail.  Charing CrossA Swiss engineer, M. Riggenback and Major Morant, of Kotagiri road fame, prepared an estimate of £132,000 for laying the rack railway and floated a company called The Rigi Railway & Co Ltd. Since capital was not forthcoming, Mr. Richard Wolley of Coonoor came forward to advance money on the condition that the contract would be entrusted to Mr. Wolley by the Government of Madras.  The agreement between the two was signed in 1886, and the company called The Nilgiri Railway Company came into being with a capital of Rs25 lakh.  Work on the line was started in August 1891 by Lord Wenlock, Governor or Madras, but the company was liquidated in 1894. A new company was formed in 1894, and the work was completed in 1899 and it was originally run by Madras Railway. Though the Nilgris formed part of Coimbatore district, it was separated into an independent district in 1868.  For a period of 13 years from 1830, it remained part of Malabar district.  This was to  prevent tobacco smuggling from Coimbatore.  From John Sullivan's days to this date, more than 170 years have rolled by. Udagamandalam, considered a sanatorium and hill resort by the Europeans, has come to be like any other district. The devastation was so much that a ban on fresh construction was belatedly imposed by the Government. 

Inhabitants of Ooty

TodasToda HutThe Nilgris range, which is the junction of the Eastern and Western Ghats, was christened Nilagiri by its inhabitants nearly 900 years ago, because of the blue haze of clouds enveloping its slopes.  Originally, it was inhabited by Todas, Irulas, Kurumbas, Panias and Badagas.  Of these, the Todas, tall, fair and vegetarian buffalo keepers, have now dwindled in number.  The Badagas, who speak a mixture of Kannada and Tamil, are said to have migrated from Mysore over 400 years ago. The Panias and Irulas are confined to Mudumalai sanctuary.  Though the Badagas were essentially agriculturists, they are socially, educationally and even economically advanced now.  Even the Todas have taken to Government service. The present population of Ooty is around 79,000 and is comprised of Todas, Badagas, Tamils, Keralites and Mysoreans.

Trade and Industry

Map showing Ooty and VizagapatamThe water supply for the city is from Parson's Valley.  In order to augment its revenue, the Ooty municipality has been permitted to levy a toll fee on all vehicles entering the Nilgris from Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.  This ranges from Rs5 to Rs20.  This, along with parking fees levied at the Botanical Garden, the boat-house and Doddabetta adds up to quite a sum. Tourists flock to Ooty during the annual flower show, boat races and boat pageantry in May and for participating in horse races during the week-ends of the season.  Economically speaking, Ooty can sustain itself with income from potato and other hill vegetables and tea.  With the spurt in tea prices in the world St Stephen's Churchmarket in the 1980's, tea has usurped the place of the potato.  As the slopes have been devoted to tea, vegetables have come to be cultivated in low-lying areas and swamps.  The demand for agricultural and horticultural crops is bound to increase in the years to come, so steps should be taken to rejuvenate agriculture and horticulture.  Horticulture here comes under a Joint Director of Horticulture. Since cut flowers are in great demand in foreign countries, floriculture should find a prominent place in schemes to augment the income of cultivators.


Places of Interest in Ooty

Union ChurchThe places of tourist importance in Ooty are the Avalanchi, the Western Catchment, the Government Botanical Gardens, St Stephen's Church (1830), Elk Hill, Doddabetta (2,623 meters above sea level), Snowden peak on the Kotagiri road that commands a view of Mysore, the lake (formed in 1824 by Sullivan) and the boat-house, Wenlock Downs, Parson's Valley, Kalhatty Falls and Glenmorgan.  The Mudumalai sanctuary lies at a distance of 36km from Ooty.  Of these, Avalanchi located at a distance of 28km from Ooty is a nature lover's paradise.  It is a lake surrounded by thick sholas which abound in avi-fauna. The Western St. Thomas' ChurchCatchment is about 20km from Parson's Valley, and it is a rolling grassy down, interspersed with temperate sholas in valleys and depressions.  Glenmorgan lies about 17km from Ooty and there is a winch of the Electricity Board to transport staff to the Singara power house.  As the winch glides along the slopes, the sight of thick sholas unravels.  The Kundah hydroelectric project completed in 1956, is also worth a visit.

And those who came here resolved to be Englishmen
Gone to the world's end, but English every one
And they ate the white corn-kernels, parched in the sun
And they knew it not but they'd not be English again
They would try, they would swear they were,
they would drink the toast
They would loyally petition and humbly pray
But over them there was another sort of day
And in their veins there was another - a different ghost.

Indeed, that Indian ghost still lives with me!

My memories of India, as posted on

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