Kotagiri – Keystone to Indigenous Tribal Welfare and Development

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Grand view of Kotagiri Valley
Grand view of Kotagiri Valley

This blog post is about how the lives of indigenous tribal people living in and around Kotagiri have been impacted positively due to path breaking initiatives taken for their welfare and development. At the heart of it all is my experience and understanding of what’s happening. This blog post is not about the tourism interests around Kotagiri. With this preamble in place, here I go. Join me and let’s go with the flow.

Tea gardens at Kotagiri
Tea gardens at Kotagiri

A Heaven called Kotagiri
A chill breeze blew across my face the moment I opened my door early in the morning. The dense fog had enveloped the Kotagiri hilltop and the light drizzling rains added to the chillness. 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 were 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 was pondering whether I should take a walk down the road, or enjoy the breath taking scenario emerging, but in the end decided to explore the pathways to the road below.

Ghat Section enroute to Kotagiri
Ghat Section enroute to Kotagiri

Encounters of the Car/Gaur kind
Barely had I crossed Mettupalayam enroute 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. The western slopes of Nilgiris had recently faced the brunt of heavy rains, and 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) were grazing just outside my room. The campus security kept flashing torchlight to keep track of the moving herd. I had been warned to stay safe and not to cross paths of 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.

Keystone Foundation Kotagiri
Keystone Foundation Kotagiri

Also read: Chhoti Haldwani Kaladhungi – Village nurtured by Jim Corbett

Understanding the tribal development project
I had come here to Kotagiri to talk to Snehlata Nath and Pratim Roy, the founders of Keystone Foundation, who while tirelessly working for over 25 years, have sought for an inclusive development of the Nilgiris tribal community.  The unpredictable rough weather restricts my possibilities of taking a tour to personally see a wide range of work done.

I spoke to the senior coordinators in Keystone with specialized knowledge in social welfare and my understanding is that humongous work is done by Keystone. I had interesting conversations with Balaji on revival of water resources, with Chandran on farming by tribals within forests, with Justin on apiculture and enterprise development, and with Shiny on biodiversity management. Their enterprise initiative includes a FM radio station for community wellbeing of the indigenous people, 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 clear for us to perceive; the region’s fortunes have changed significantly better since the advent of Keystone Foundation to Kotagiri in 1993. The scale of good governance and performance is breath taking indeed.

All women soap manufacturing team
All women soap manufacturing team

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 downward flight of steps, 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.  Stay back I did by watching a kid’s school in the adjacent building. Much to my surprise and admiration, the production team show their spirit of enterprise, and the all-women team turn 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 cheerful 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 froth, which then is poured into a mould taking shape as the final packaged product. The resultant soap cake takes the design of honey comb which is an innovation by these women using a cost saving method, thanks to their ingenuity. Meanwhile I chomped on the berries on offer. It kept me riveted while work was on.

Radio Kotagiri 90.4 FM
Radio Kotagiri 90.4 FM

Radio Kotagiri as the catalyst for 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 air for more than 5 years and has turned out to be the harbinger of change for the indigenous communities living in 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 handle the community radio. I am told that programs are broadcast over FM channel 90.4 from 7am to 7pm 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, extending its area of influence perhaps even more than the current 15km radius.  I understand that one of the best endorsements to have come by in the years of devotion to community development was that 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 a happening thing here, in a big way.

Conversations with Chef at Kotagiri
Conversations with Chef at Kotagiri

Some lighter moments
Ever since I came here my conversations with indigenous people have come a cropper or at best resulted in single syllable replies, but most are happy to pose for photographs. However the watchman would walk up to my door each night to tell tales of how his family migrated from Nepal and settled in Kotagiri for years, while sharing 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 keep the mood enlivened. But my conversations with the chef and his willingness to serve up good food will stay in memory for long.

Prayers at a temple on way back from Kotagiri
Prayers at a temple on way back from Kotagiri

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. On my way down from the hill, my car met with minor accident, 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 shook me up completely. Someday I will be back for a hike and a camp hopefully.

16 COMMENTS

  1. Interesting and absorbing narration. Your blog has created the feeling as if we ourselves are viewing and enjoying the locale! Good job,keep it up.

    • Kumar, I have never been to Kotagiri and I am not sure if I would ever go there. But your vivid description virtually transported me there and I enjoyed my journey with you. Earnestly awaiting your next blog. Well done.

  2. Kumar,
    Very excellent information on Kotagiri. I was reading like interesting story till the end. I got a feeling that I have visited that place. It is so live and connecting to the topic with nice photographs.
    Very nice and waiting for new blog with new place.
    Ravindra

  3. As always Kumar, very picturesque description covering a wide range and variety of life there. Keystone Foundation has worked tirelessly and selflessly there and yes, the impact on the quality of life of the tribals and the environment is evident. The narrative would surely have been much longer had the weather not played spoilt sport; however, the positive consequence of that is your resolve to revisit for a hike and camp. Enjoy.

  4. Excellent and vivid descriptions. Can smell the tea and hear the wind. Excellent Kumar, enjoy reading your travel blogs. Bring it on ! Where next ?

  5. Thanks for sharing. This concise and well articulated description about Kotagiri certainly tempts me to visit this place. Didn’t know there was so much to look around Kotagiri.

  6. Kumar your article and the photographs brought back beautiful memories of my ten years of my childhood stay at the blue mountains i.e The Nilgiris. Very articulate and can visualize while reading your article.

  7. That was an awesome trip. I think it is a great idea to establish a radio that can not only unite the people of an area, it also answers their queries regarding farming. It will go a long way in the development of the place.
    Loved to read about your stay, your interactions with locals. Would have liked to hear a couple of the stories told by the watchman.

  8. Your wonderful and vivid descriptions of Kotagiri as a place and as an experience are very accurate. I had been there last year on a vacation and your blog, I’m sure, will lead travellers to a sound understanding of the place. A highly informative read, thanks for sharing this with us!

  9. Wow lovely Kumar Anna, very adventurous with the accident. Beautifully described, are those hand made soap? So how is the cuisine like? Please try and get a local veg recipe of the place next time. Where are you off to next?

  10. Hi,wonderful description about the people their welfare,especially the radio connectivity,I feel kothagiri is a must see place from your lively description,the photography is very good,thank god you reached safe,but the way you narrated that part was too good,I wish you good luck,

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