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.
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.
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 had come here to comprehend how the lives of indigenous tribal people living in and around Kotagiri, have been positively impacted, due to path breaking initiatives by Keystone Foundation, for their welfare and development. At the heart of it all is my experience and understanding of what’s happening, while seeking to do a responsible travel.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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