Train tales and more

The girls who went to Nazareth Convent, in Ooty, were rich, snooty and well turned out.  So naturally we, at St Joseph’s, the other convent school in the hills, hated them.  There was no such exclusivity about us at St Joseph’s Convent in Coonoor.  Of course, we thrashed them at the Interschool Sports, as we did the other girls’ schools too.  But all the same there was an air about the Nazareth girls which was irritating.

The NMR - 1920

After the sports day, came the interschool matches.  Some of the matches were at home and some away. Visits to Nazareth for netball and throw ball matches were both looked forward to and dreaded.  The Nazis, as we called them were barely polite and we felt that they looked down on us.  When I started playing for the school, the Nazi team had an exceptional good player called Beena.  So we did not win the matches even though we had played quite well.

Besides all the fun of the matches, the school trips to Ooty were always on the hill train or the Nilgiri Mountain Railway (NMR) and a great adventure, every time.  The school year started and ended with the NMR for many a boarder, especially the ones who travelled in batches from places as far away as Calcutta and Bombay.  This doggerel would be recited ad nauseum as the school year drew to a close.

Two more days and where shall I be
Out of the gates of SJC
Travelling in the NMR
Engine number 93
No more Hindi, no more French
No more sitting on the hard fat bench
No more brinjals, no more buns
No more benders from the nuns

 Traveling in the NMR was a highlight of every school year.  Little did we know that this little train had so much history and in 2005 would attain the UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

 The train and the station had a special place in my grandfather’s heart.  I would accompany him to pick up and drop off numerous relatives after their summer vacation. He knew everyone – the station master, the ticket collector, the porter and the taxi drivers.  Clearly it took him back to that bright lovely morning in February of 1914 when he stepped off the hill train at the Coonoor station.

 The journey from his small village, Eraviperoor in Central Travancore, was long and arduous taking more than three days.  He had just got a job as the Indian Assistant Manager at Glenburn estate near Kotagiri.  At twenty four, he was quite a seasoned hand having already worked in Ceylon for a tea and rubber produce company.

After waiting overnight at Podanur, (the junction before Coimbatore became the hub) he boarded the Blue Mountain Express for his journey to Mettupalayam, the rail head where one got off to catch the NMR.  The NMR was quite the miracle in engineering those days and for that matter, is so even today.  

Here’s what makes the NMR such a marvel. The NMR runs on a single track up a steep gradient using the alternate biting system what is better known as the rack and pinion system to climb.  It is a 16 km track winding its way through the mountains, skirting streams and waterfalls and whistling cheerfully through the 13 tunnels and 19 viaducts.

By the mid 1800s the number of European settling down in the hills had increased.  The need for easy connectivity was also felt.   A number of proposals were put forward but two schemes were considered feasible.  The first one was by the engineer who built the Darjeeling Railway and was to be laid through the Kotagiri valley to Wellington and on to Ooty.  The second proposal was by one Riggenbach, whose feather in the cap was the Pilatus and Rigi railway in Switzerland; this one was from Mettupalayam to Coonoor but with a steeper gradient than the one through Kotagiri.

The Government though unwilling to fund this project gave the company permission to construct and also make the necessary surveys.  The planters and residents of the hills got together to make the railway line a reality and formed the Nilgiri Rigi Railway Company Limited.  After representations were made in England, by Richard Wooley, who is remembered by the brass plaque in All Saints Church, Coonoor, a new company was formed, presumably with Government funding.    However, the funding could not be tied up until 1890 and work started on the line in 1891.  The construction was completed in 1898 but was forced to close down after a few days because a cyclonic storm disrupted the line.

The cost of construction was Rs. 38 lakh and because of the high cost of working the railway the net receipts did not cover the interest on the debentures.  The company found it difficult to run and the railway was acquired by the Government.   The Madras Railway Company was formed to run the railway.  The Government realized that unless the line is extended up to Ooty it would not be commercially viable.   This extension was completed by 1908 at a cost of Rs 32.25 lakh. The increase in cost in the Ooty extension could be because of tunnel under Fernhill – about 480 feet between the portals.   I wonder whether questions were raised on the increase in cost.

So when my grandfather made his journey up the hills, the mountain railway was still a matter of wonder.  The scenery was also breathtaking.  The changes are there today: the sholas are sparse, the streams not so pristine and waterfalls not so abundant but there are still hundreds of flowering trees and shrubs to delight the eye.

He must have watched the train leave the small, white washed houses on the plains around Mettupalayam with same excitement we feel, today.  The train then whistles it way through the areca nut plantation at the base of the hills near Kallar.  It is here that the rack starts.  The sheer rock face of Droog greets those who look up in wonder at the mountains.  Once the train starts its climb the vegetation undergoes a dramatic change.  Flowers are seen in great profusion and the air starts getting lighter and more fragrant.      

Starting with my grandfather’s first journey up the mountain railway, everyone’s first trip on the NMR is memorable.   We all made friends and enemies too, some time.   My grandfather also made some good friends on this journey up.  

It was in Mettupalayam that my grandfather met this family of Tamil Iyers, the Padmanabans, also traveling to the hills.  He struck up a conversation with them and was impressed by the patriarch’s foresight in this move to the hills- which was still largely unexplored territory.   The friendship which started on that windswept railway platform was to last three generations.  This family set up E.V.Paddu the pharmacy, Shanmugam stores the general merchants and Primrose the lovely store which sold books, comics and chocolates.

The journey from Mettupalayam to Coonoor took five hours and when my grandfather stepped off the train, he was greeted by a very strange sight.  A tall, handsome man, clad in breeches and a silk shirt, a turban on his head and diamond ear studs, was standing up in an open horse carriage and throwing coins to the tongawallahs and the porters.  Apparently this was an early avatar of the present day supari.  He was setting up these fellows to thrash someone. But that’s another story.  

Of course, the NMR is not for those in a hurry.  It is a slowly leisurely trip up the mountains, a reminder  that there is a better way to live.    


  1. Devarajan Padmanabhan writes:

    "nina, made me happy. the doggerel left me smiling. if you have the time and inclination, could you please research the birth of names like ooty and coonoor. if it is possible name the flowers and animals as they might have been common occurrences for your grandpa and you though a rarity for us today thanks to development. and i like the interesting ending of a man throwing cash and what happened to the padmanabhans."

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    2. Gopi Padmanabhan is a friend of mine, who I meet at SJC reunions. Some of the family still lives in Coonoor

    3. hanks Deva, According to an early chronicler, W.Francis ICS the word Nilgiris (formerly spelt Neilgherries, is derived from two Sanskrit words ; nilam, Namc blue ; and giri, a hill. Hence the Blue Mountains.
      He writes, “Whence the name, or by whom it was given, is lost in the early history of many centuries ago. It has, however, as records show, been in use for at least 800 years ; and, whatever its actual history, its origin is at once apparent to those who have, at a distance, viewed the Hills, rising cool and tranquil, enveloped in the peculiar blue haze which usually
      shrouds them. The origin of the name has also been attributed to the vast stretches of blue which are occasionally to be seen on the Downs, as a result of the masses of Strobilanthes blossom known as the kuruji in Tamil (this shrub is interest- ing, as it is said to blossom once only every seven years) ; but this theory finds no material substantiation, and so
      remains the pretty conceit of a poetic fancy.”

      Ooty is the anglicized version of the earlier name, said to be Ottaikal Mandu meaning the village with a single stone. The Tamil version of this is Udhugamandalam which changed to Ootacamund during British days.
      Coonoor means the “town on the hill”.

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  3. Nina, A lovely and evocative piece to read on a Sunday morning.
    I often meet an old family friend and planter named Joe Cherian (BBTC) and he told me that your grandfather was one of the first Malayali pioneers in the Nilgiris. Kalyanram, the grandson of Padmanabhan, was in Stanes.

  4. Yet to travel on this line, and what miserable trips I have done regularly on the "Blue Mountain" from Madras to Arakkonam. It may not be as green anymore and worries of landslides abound,but should do it one day and I can recall your stories. Keep it coming, I love the hills and tales from the hills.

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  6. Jayshree Jyothi write
    nina i enjoyed your really informative article packed with so mush information! usually when theres much information it gets to be tedious and i simoy loose interest. not so with your's! great read!

  7. Pamela Daswani writes

    loved all of them, neena, and related best to the orchard raids story! didn't know about the chinese tamils, and have never come across any locals with chinese features. who was the veiled lady in the chauffeur-driven car? can't remember her either.

  8. awesome writing...please keep up this good work...really enjoyed reading...can really visualize all the moments...unfortunately have never felt this kind of feeling in ages...i remember picturing of moments and characters when I started with Enid Blyton, then promoted to Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew and later moved on to Robert Ludlum, Jeffery Archer, etc...Your inspiring me to get back to my reading habit...excellent writing!!!

  9. Thanks Tessy.. that is real encouragement.

  10. we used to walk from kallar crossing to coonoor those days and used to enjoy those treks, am planning to do it again next month after reading your blog, hope the forest department would let me do it, thanks for the inspiration - prem

  11. Wow.. that would be great.. i wish i could also do that. i am sure if you apply for permission to the forest dept and the railways in advance you will get it.


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