Our Nilgiris (blue mountains) experience was defined by the ubiquitous red-whiskered bird, ever present in the garden, whirrings and flappings and busyness in the trees alongside Oriental White Eyed’s; tireless good cheer in the occasional summer sun.
“go via mysore-bhandipur-masinagudi-ooty. at bandipur, after the police checkpost is a left turn over a narrow bridge to masinagudi up the sigur ghat (36 hair pin bends). if you miss this turn, go via gudulur. you are adding 60 kms and two hours so make sure to come via sigur ghat. this takes you to ooty. at the main ooty signal, called charing cross, the straight road goes to coonoor which you don’t take but turn left towards kothagiri. there is a five way fork a few kms down this road, you take the road the two o clock, which goes to kothagiri. 19 kms from ooty is the village kattapattu. here you turn right (its a sort of hairpin) towards coonoor. 5 kms approx from kattapattu junction is our village bettati. anthony should know the way up to the house for sure. call if in doubt. safe trip. try to leave by 5.30 a.m. to get to bettati by lunch. excited.”
In this western most part of Tamilnadu, at its juncture with Kerala and Karnataka, a part of the Western Ghat mountain ranges of South India, at the south western edge of the Deccan Plateau, is the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, a part of the UNESCO World Network of Biosphere Reserves – areas of demonstrably balanced relationships between people and nature encompassing local heritage, people, culture, flora, fauna, natural resources, the ecosystem.
Areas of learning, of sustainability, compatibility, respect.
India’s only biosphere, about 5,000 square kilometers in size, and within it, Bettati village, and within it, a friend’s home, near the Ralliah Dam, a home of flowers, tea bushes, silver oaks, grasses, herbs and artisinal food, hot, freshly prepared, always new, meal after meal after meal.
We are at a height of 2,600 m (or thereabouts) above sea level, drifting in and out of clouds, now damp and misty and cold, now blazing, bright sunlight. But the birds are there from dawn to dusk, the starlings, the whiskered bulbuls, the oriental white-eyes, barbets, wagtails, bushchats, mynahs, sparrows, babblers, tits, warblers, rock doves and flycatchers. This, in and around the garden. And jungle fowl just down the road, at the edge of the forest.
On an early morning three hour trek with Cherian, birdwatcher and guide, we see these and more. Plenty of spoor on the tracks; to us uninitiated, it could be bison, buffalo, or deer (spotted, sambhar, black buck, mouse, ibex or barking). The monkeys are everywhere, lion tailed macaques, rhesus, langurs. Cherian halts, deep in the forest, puzzled. That’s the warning call, he says, I wonder why. It could be us, humans, we suggest. No, he replies thoughtfully, this call is the call of danger, either a cat or a snake. Black panthers and tigers inhabit the forest, as do bears. The knowledge does not make for comfortable trekking, at least for me, eyes on the ground to avoid slipping on mud or moss, negotiating ruts and stones, uphill then downhill. We encounter none of these, nor the wild dogs, porcupines, antelopes, jackals or black napped hares intrinsic to this area.
It would have been perfect if we had seen an owl, or a Brahmini kite or a crested goshawk.
We learn about shola trees, a local name for patches of stunted tropical montane forest found in valleys amid rolling grassland in the higher montane regions of South India; trees that are typically less than 15m high, stunted because of high wind velocities, with leaves of varying tints, a range and mosaic of colours.
And halfway into the trek, the trees give way to open grassland, a meadow, sweeping uphill to habitation, a Toda village. A few dwellings, a few people. An unused, ramshackle mund, as their original homes are called. A small building of worship, a temple, though the Todas are animists. Pastoral people, these, with relaxed Arcadian lifestyles, living in scattered groups in arched roof huts near streams on picturesque grasslands. Which today have been substituted by a long low building of a few rooms, each housing a family. The Todas, the indigenous hill tribe graziers – distinct from the Kotas (artisans or musicians), the Irula or Kurumba tribes or the Badagars (cultivators) – have enjoyed “a most disproportionate amount of attention because of their ethnological aberrancy” and “their unlikeness to their neighbours in appearance, manners, and customs.” (Wikipedia)
We are invited to partake of tea and biscuits. The tea is blindingly sweet, an album of wedding photographs is passed around, two kittens dart and pull at shoe laces, shawls, runners and bags are brought out for purchase and two young girls are dispatched to show us a shortcut through the forest to the dam.
There is retail of course, wherever we go, attire, jams, chutneys, bed linen, vegetables, fruit, chocolates and cheeses, freshly ground coffee (Plantation A beans with 5% chicory), tea – tippy oolong, white, orange pekoe, broken orange pekoe, green – oils, balms, unguents, cushions, shoes, Toda embroidery. Gifts are exchanged. Wine is drunk. As is vodka and single malt. Dishes are made; breakfasts, lunches, dinners, dips, bites and in-betweens. Recipes scribbled and exchanged.
And conversations. Long conversations, soul-searching, silly, gossipy, reflective conversations. In and out of bed. Around the dining table, out in the sun, over wine, in the second garden over coffee, on the road, amongst cushions, in the sun room, while trekking.
It doesn’t stop, this bedrock, this substratum, this underpinning of comfort that stretches back three decades and more, a friendship and understanding now circumscribed by grey strands, spectacles and the wisdom of lives lived.
“Unexpectedly, there are transcendent moments of deep tranquillity … at moments of rare joy, career ambitions pause, the ego rests, the stumbler looks out at a picnic or dinner or a valley and is overwhelmed by a feeling of limitless gratitude, and an acceptance of the fact that life has treated her much better than she deserves.” – David Brooks
Picture of the bulbul from commons.wikimedia.org
Photographs, Anita Thomas