A Heaven called Kotagiri amidst the Shola Forests
The dense fog had enveloped the Kotagiri hilltop and the light drizzling rains added to the chillness. A chill breeze blew across my face the moment I opened my door early in the morning. The landscape views were yet to come by as I stepped out from my guesthouse, dusting off my laziness, to have my morning cuppa of hot tea.
It took hours for the fog to clear, but what emerged later was a treat for the eyes, with beautiful pastel color buildings in the valley below and the gently sloping tea gardens up on the hill. For a few moments, I wondered whether I should take a walk down the road or enjoy the breathtaking scenario emerging. Still, in the end, I decided to explore the pathways to the street below.
Encounters of the Car/Gaur kind
Barely had I crossed Mettupalayam en route to Kotagiri, my car met with an accident. With my driver aggressively demanding compensation from the other vehicle, I waited on the sidelines hoping the argument doesn’t escalate into something else.
All of this delayed my arrival at Kotagiri, which was by then pitch dark with heavy rains. Heavy rains lashed the western slopes of Nilgiris recently. The eastern and southern slopes, too, were affected due to that.
As I settle down in my guesthouse for the night, a herd of Gaurs (Indian Bison) was grazing just outside my room. The campus security kept flashing torchlights to keep track of the moving pack. I got warned to stay safe and not cross paths with the Gaurs since they were prone to attacking humans if they sense danger.
This place is the corridor of the Gaurs, and they get the first right of passage. So I patiently wait for them to go down the slopes into the Shola forests before going out for dinner late that night.
Understanding the tribal development project
I had come here to Kotagiri to talk to Snehlata Nath and Pratim Roy, the Keystone Foundation’s founders. While tirelessly working for over 25 years, they have sought an inclusive development of the Nilgiris tribal community. I wanted to understand how indigenous tribal people living in and around Kotagiri benefit from Keystone Foundation’s path-breaking initiatives for their welfare and development.
At the heart of it is my experience and understanding of what’s happening while seeking responsible travel. The unpredictable rough weather restricts my possibilities of taking a tour to see a wide range of work done personally. I spoke to the senior coordinators in Keystone with specialized knowledge in social welfare. My understanding is that Keystone does humongous work.
I had interesting conversations with Balaji on the revival of water resources. On farming by tribals within forests, I spoke to Chandran. Also, I talked to Justin on beekeeping and enterprise development and Shiny on biodiversity management. Their enterprise initiative includes an FM radio station for the indigenous people’s community well-being belonging to the Irula, Kota, Kurumba, and Toda tribes.
It is difficult for me to say which of their affirmative action takes precedence. But one thing is crystal clear for us to perceive; the region’s fortunes have changed significantly better since Keystone Foundation’s advent to Kotagiri in 1993. The scale of good governance and performance is breathtaking indeed.
All-Women team for soap manufacturing
Just when the weather gods smiled at me, I set off for Pudukadu to see the handcrafted soaps made by Aadhimalai Pazhankudiyinar.
Parking the vehicle along the road’s edge on the ghat section, I began gingerly walking down the steep, slippery slopes, scampered across a descending flight of steps. I went briskly, going past rows of houses that sheltered the tribal communities, to meet the indigenous people who specialize in making soaps for a living.
To my utter disbelief, I find the factory wasn’t working for the day. I wasn’t sure if I should hang around or go back disappointed. I stayed back by watching a kid’s school in the adjacent building, hoping to make the best of the situation by interacting with the kids.
Much to my surprise and admiration, the production team shows their enterprise spirit. The all-women team turns up to resume work, thus making my visit rewarding. There is a clear understanding amongst them that this job means a lot for the upliftment in their lives. An inclination to learn and improve showed in the way of a positive approach to work.
Witnessing the soap production process, I get a peculiar pungent smell while the boiling of coconut oil and the melting of bee wax happen. I notice that this is followed by mixing other ingredients like caustic soda and perfumed essence to form a foam, poured into a mold.
The resultant soap cake takes the honeycomb design, an innovation by these women using a cost-saving method, thanks to their ingenuity. Meanwhile, I munched on the berries on offer. It kept me riveted while work was on.
Radio Kotagiri as the catalyst for the development
On my drive back from Pudukadu, I hear some lovely tribal songs and tribal engagement programs on the local FM radio. The program has been on the air for more than 5 years. It has turned out to be the harbinger of change for the indigenous communities living within the 15kms radius from the radio station.
I was to witness the live program on Radio Kotagiri but couldn’t make it. I trek up the campus to meet Jayanthi and Manickam, who handles the community radio. I am told that programs are broadcast over FM channel 90.4 from 7 am to 7 pm daily. The topics are a wide range like health, organic agriculture, traditional foods, traditional medicines, cine songs, and news of how to approach panchayat leaders, how to vote, and discuss tea plantation workers’ problems.
I am sure the community radio will become one of the biggest things to happen in the region. It extends its influence perhaps even more than the current 15km radius. I understand several endorsements to have come by in the years of devotion to community development. Radio Kotagiri won the 2nd prize for the “Arindu Kolvom” program in an All India community radio competition. This is most heartening that people to people conversations are happening here, in a big way.
Some lighter moments
Ever since I came here, my conversations with indigenous people have come a cropper or best resulted in single syllable replies. Still, most are happy to pose for photographs. However, the watchman shared tales of how his family migrated from Nepal. Having settled in Kotagiri for years, he shared bits of information about life in Kotagiri.
It quickly darkens after sunset in Kotagiri, and there is little to do after dinner. So yes, this interaction was one thing I looked forward to, to keep the mood enlivened. But my conversations with the chef and his willingness to serve up good food will stay in my memory for long.
Lucky to survive to tell my tale
The weather once again turned for the worse, and I left Kotagiri in a hurry, having little time to decide what next. My car met with a minor accident on my way down from the hill, as it barely missed being a head-on collision, to just colliding at its shoulders.
Thanks to both the drivers being on high alert at a blind turn on the ghat section, with little space for maneuverability. This time I was genuinely lucky to live to tell my tale, but it shook me up completely. Someday I will be back for a hike and a camp, hopefully.
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