The Nilgiris District,Tamilnadu

The Nilgiris District is in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Nilgiri (English: Blue Mountains) is the name given to a range of mountains spread across the borders among the states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala. The Nilgiri Hills are part of a larger mountain chain known as the Western Ghats. Their highest point is the mountain of Doddabetta, height 2,633 m. The small district is contained mainly within this mountain range; the administrative headquarters is located at Ooty (Ootacamund or Udhagamandalam).

Nilgiris District ranked first in a comprehensive Economic Environment index ranking districts in Tamil Nadu (not including Chennai) prepared by the Institute for Financial Management and Research in August 2009.Tea and coffee plantations have been important to its economy. As of 2011, the Nilgiris district had a population of 735,394, with a sex-ratio of 1,042 females for every 1,000 males.


The history of peoples settled in the Nilgiri hills has been recorded for several centuries. The Blue Mountains were likely named for the widespread blue Strobilanthes flower, or perhaps the smoky haze enveloping the area.

This area was long occupied by the indigenous tribal peoples of the Toda, Kota, Kurumba and Irula. The lower Wynaad plateau in the west of the district had a different tribal population. The Todas and Kota, who are similar in culture, language and genetic ancestry, were settled across much of the Nilgiri plateau. In addition, the Badaga are a major non-tribal group, and the largest indigenous group in the Nilgiris District.

Unlike elsewhere in the country, no historical evidence is found of a state on the Nilgiris, or that it was part of any ancient kingdom or empire. It seems always to have been a tribal land. The Toda had small hamlets (“mund”) located across most of the plateau. The Kota lived in seven dispersed villages (“kokal”). The Badaga had 435 villages (“hatti”) in central and eastern parts of the plateau. They and the Toda had only a few hamlets on the lower Wynaad plateau and in the nearby Biligiri Rangan hills.

Since the turn of the 21st century, the Badaga have numbered about 135,000 (18% of the District population), while the Toda are barely 1,500 and the Kota just over 2,000. Beginning in 1819, the British colonial administration developed the hills rapidly and peaceably, for use as coffee and tea plantations, and summer residences. The forty mud-forts in the area had been abandoned.During the British raj, Ooty (the popular name for Ootacamund) served as the summer capital of the Madras Presidency from 1870 onwards. The several District Gazetteers published by the Government (1880, 1908, 1995) were reliable reports on the Nilgiris District, its economy, demography and culture. They have been superseded by the Encyclopaedia of the Nilgiri Hills (2012).

According to a 1996 bibliography of publications of this district. it is probably the most heavily studied rural area anywhere in India, with close to 7,000 items in that list. It has been the subject of more than 120 doctoral and master’s theses in the natural and human sciences. Indian and foreign scholars wrote these works, and only recently have local people published works about it.

More than a dozen languages are spoken in the Nilgiris, but the indigenous people did not write or read them. After 1847 German and Swiss missionaries opened schools for boys and girls in a number of Badaga villages, teaching them literacy. Ten Dravidian languages are found only here, and they have been studied in great detail for decades by professional linguists. Local placenames are derived mainly from the dominant Badagu language, e.g., Doddabetta, Coonoor, Kotagiri, Gudaluru, Kunda, etc. Ootacamund is of Toda origin, and Udagamandalam is a very recent Tamil language version of this place.

Before British-owned tea and coffee plantations were developed, the dominant plateau landholders were Toda, Kota and Badaga, but with other janmis in the Wynaad. A great deal of linguistic and other cultural evidence indicates that the Badaga have lived in the area for some four centuries, having mostly migrated during 1565-1617 from a block of villages near Nanjangud in southern Mysore (now Karnataka). Some came later. Badaga elders have regularly recounted these facts as oral history. Their language is very close to Kannada. During the early 17th century, the first European is recorded as entering the Nilgiri Hills, an Italian priest/explorer named Fenicio. He interviewed people who identified as Toda and Badega, the latter occupying three villages at that time.The British Europeans in India mostly ignored the Ghats for some two centuries. Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington, conducted a short military operation in the Wynaad in 1800.

During 1804-1818 several East India Company personnel briefly visited parts of the district. John Sullivan, then the Collector of Coimbatore, just south of the Nilgiris, sent two surveyors to make a comprehensive study of the hills. They reached the site of Ootacamund, but failed to see the complete plateau. These two men were W. Keys and C. McMahon. In 1812 they were the first British to make a cursory survey of the Nilgiri plateau and produce a map. A more detailed exploration was done in the 1818 survey by J.C. Whish, N.W. Kindersley and Mohammed Rifash Obaidullah for the Madras Civil Service, who reported back that they had discovered “the existence of a tableland possessing a European climate.”

Collector Sullivan became the first European resident the next year, when he built a seasonal residence on the plateau. He reported to the Madras Government on the mildness of the climate. Europeans soon started settling here or using the plateau as a summer resort and homes for retirees. In 1870 the practice began of key government personnel moving to the hills to conduct business during summer months in this more temperate climate. By the end of the 19th century, the hills were completely accessible, as several Ghat roads and the railway line had been constructed.

In the later 19th century, when the British Straits Settlement shipped Chinese convicts to be jailed in India, some of these men were settled on the Nilgiri plateau near Naduvattam. They married Tamil Paraiyan women, and had mixed-race children with them. One Chinese gardener was critical to the district’s future, for he worked with Margaret B.L. Cockburn in Aruvenu, near Kotagiri, to develop Allport’s, the first Nilgiri tea plantation, which started operations in 1863. Her father, Montague D. Cockburn, had opened the first coffee plantation there soon after 1830.


Tourism is an important source of revenue for the Nilgiris. The district is home to several beautiful hill stations popular with tourists who flock to them during summer. These include Udhagamandalam (district headquarters), Coonoor, Gudalur and Kotagiri. The Nilgiri Mountain Train, popularly known as the Toy Train, attracts tourists as the journey offers spectacular, breathtaking views of the hills and forests. Mudumalai National Park is popular with wildlife enthusiasts, campers and backpackers, though one must always be alert to the wild animals there. The annual flower show organized by the Government of Tamil Nadu at the Botanical Garden in Ooty is a much-awaited event every year, known for its grand display of roses. Nilgiris is renowned for its eucalyptus oil and tea, and also produces bauxite. Some tourists are attracted to study the lifestyles of the various tribes living here or to visit the sprawling tea and vegetable plantations. Other popular tourist destinations in the district are Pykara Waterfalls and the Ooty Lake, Avalanche and Doddabetta peak.