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How British Sentimentality Shaped a Corner of the Nilgiris

How British Sentimentality Shaped a Corner of the Nilgiris

In India, protected areas usually safeguard charismatic large animals, like tigers, elephants or rhinoceroses. Before these areas were fenced in for protection under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, they were often hunting grounds for colonial and post-colonial elites: the British in colonial India.

Hunting as a sport was important for the British sahib: to hunt tiger or jackal, saddled up properly and flocked by a pack of hounds, made a man of honour. In many  cases, the ‘danger’ of the thick Indian jungle with plenty of ‘exotic’ game was the reason a landscape was reserved as forest.

For Wenlock Downs, 12 km from Udhagamandalam – or Ooty, as it is commonly known – the reason was also homesickness.

The website of the town’s tourism department displays pictures of the top tourist spots: the Ooty lake, with its boating attractions, and the Wenlock Downs for its beautiful landscape. A downs is any area with low, grass-covered hills akin to good riding country in Britain.

These particular downs were named after Beilby Lawley, the third Baron Wenlock and Governor of Madras from 1891 to 1896. He oversaw the construction of the Nilgiri Mountain Railway and was also called as the “Prince of Sportsmen”.

The local people know Wenlock Downs as a formerly popular shooting location, a backdrop for one of Shah Rukh Khan’s grandest on-screen romances, till he decided to take them abroad. Tourists flock to the downs for walks amidst rolling and afforested grasslands, and appreciate its beauty, the same way the British seemingly did when they first set foot in Ootacamund more than two centuries ago.

A look at the downs today reveals plenty. Its undulating grassy slopes, intercalated with bursts of stunted evergreen forests, is uncannily similar to typical British riding country. Ooty served as the summer capital of the Madras presidency during colonial rule, even as forests in the presidency and elsewhere were being systematically felled and replaced with lucrative timber plantations.

“Around the turn of the twentieth century, the British chose to allow a large area of nearly 20,000 acres, known as the Lord Wenlock Downs, to remain a grassland, in apparent contradiction of their commercially motivated policies everywhere else,” Siddhartha Krishnan, a faculty member of the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment (ATREE), Bengaluru, wrote in a 2017 essay.

The area was reserved as a ‘downs’ because of its similarity to typical British riding country. Credit: Renuka Kulkarni
The area was reserved as a ‘downs’ because of its similarity to typical British riding country. Credit: Renuka Kulkarni

Historically, grasslands were regarded wastelands. Many, due to the fact that they could be easily cleared, were afforested with economically useful plant species. The downs escaped this treatment due to another layer of protection: they formed the heartland of the ‘ancient’ Toda tribe.

In a 2015 paper, Krishnan explained what the landscape meant for the tribe:

“For millennia, the Toda grazed and burned the upper Nilgiri Plateau in the northwest. They also intently maintained an open and grassy landscape. The dominance of grass was anthropocentrically maintained whatever the other biotic and climatic dynamics. On this open and grassy landscape, the Toda herded, penned, and milked their livestock, and sang about these broad-horned beasts and the endless open and green vistas.”

The Toda are one of the most studied tribes by ethnographers. Viewing them as “indolent”, the British nevertheless thought them “sufficiently unlike the timid native” and hence, a fascinating study of ethnography.

“Perceived, through the racially tinted colonial gaze, to have an assemblage of strange traits differing from common “native” traits. A robust physique, their peculiar language, the barrelled houses in which they dwelled, and the possession of intimidating wide-horned buffaloes (Bubalis bubalis) – all formed this exotic assemblage,” Krishnan wrote in the 2017 piece.

But land tenure laws also affect the landscape. While the Toda had lands outside the downs, the downs itself were what the anthropologist Anthony Walker calls the “Toda heartland”.

These laws, according to Krishnan, were an exception to the norm. In British and independent India, individuals usually owned the land governed by revenue rules. However, the Toda were given patta lands – a few thousand acres – as common land tenure, first in 1843 and then in 1864. In 1893, the Madras Forest Act included these lands in its purview, but the Toda could still graze their buffaloes and perform their rituals there.

In 1900, the forest department of the Madras Presidency finally reserved the rest of the landscape for recreational use. But this move still did not make the area immune to becoming a timber plantation in the future.

Where some homesick officers rejoiced in the “home country” the downs offered, others saw economic potential in the landscape’s richness. The latter could be kept at bay by a manageable loophole. The downs was maintained like a national park, hence it could be treated as one whether or not it had been designated so. But in case of the recreational parties, factions still broke out that affected its wildlife.

Swati Shresth, a Delhi-based environmental historian, has chronicled the sporting ventures of the wide variety of Britons who flocked to the Nilgiris – “tea and cinchona planters, managers, merchants, military men in Wellington, families of officers serving in the ‘plains’, officers on leave, and tourists.” This diverse population and the beauty of the Nilgiri hills “enabled a large number of clubs and associations in the area often with competing interests”.

The area was once the heartland of the Toda tribe, with grassy slopes that were used to graze cattle, and bursts of shola tree patches. Credit: Renuka Kulkarni
The area was once the heartland of the Toda tribe, with grassy slopes that were used to graze cattle, and bursts of shola tree patches. Credit: Renuka Kulkarni

The longest-running feud over hunting in the downs was, Shresth wrote in 2009, a virtual ‘clash of the titans’: the Nilgiri Game Association (NGA), officially formalised in 1877 but an unofficial groundsmaster of the region, and the fox-hunting Ootacamund Hunt Club, founded in 1845.

The feud was simplistic. In the absence of foxes, the club went after jackals and wanted no other “quarries” (like deer) to distract their hounds. The NGA viewed jackals as a pest and prized deer and other grazing animals as good game, and passed orders to exterminate jackals. While it does appear that each party could have hunted their own prized game and left the other’s alone, it clashed with their advertisements to the rest of the country.

The club counted mostly wealthy patrons who wished to participate in the “elite” sport of fox (or jackal) hunting, for whom good horses and a healthy pack of trained hounds was affordable. But this wasn’t so for the NGA, which wished to expound the downs’ hunting potential as “not just for the rich”.

Bureaucratic back and forth was never able to really resolve the issue, and the hunting more or less continued. When the Second World War began, demand for leather tanning made forest officials look to the fertile downs again.

Forest officials proposed setting up wattle plantations across 6,000 acres in the Nilgiris, which included the downs. But a few English bureaucrats were adamant: the downs provided a “respite from the dynamic rush of modern life” and deserved to be protected. One of the collectors, P. MacQueen stressed however that the Downs need not be officially made a national park, just that it should be maintained like one.

The committee perhaps persisted throughout the war, and the downs remained more or less safe. After a weakened Britain loosened its hold over its colonies, according to Krishnan, the old policies about certain landscapes, including the Downs, also got the boot.

But looking at the downs today, it’s evident that while the British may have kept the big picture the same, significant little changes did happen. The magnitude of these little changes has amplified, domino-fashion, into the problems of today.


Many of the remaining shola patches have been surrounded and fenced in by the eucalyptus trees. Credit: Renuka Kulkarni
Many of the remaining shola patches have been surrounded and fenced in by the eucalyptus trees. Credit: Renuka Kulkarni

The landscape today has been ravaged by drought and deliberate plantations – bald scraps of grasslands surrounded by Eucalyptus and Australian Acacia, both of which were introduced near Ooty in the 1850s, and the few shola patches almost run over from all sides by the same species.

Eucalyptus is a particular evil. The towering trees draw massive amounts of water, and the local residents blame them for sucking the land dry even after months of good rainfall. The tea and carrot plantations are watered by irrigated sprinklers. As for wells, the Toda say they came with the British.

“There was no concept of wells for us, since we had flowing waters throughout the year before. There are a few lakes here which are still unnamed and sacred to us, but the sting of drought has been felt for a long time now,” said Thorthey Goodden, a member of the Karsch clan of the tribe.

Wattle came in to the downs with a fight and has since grown with a vengeance.

Krishnan discovered a bureaucratic back-and-forth about wattle on the downs dated to the mid-1950s, between McLaughlin, the last British collector in the region, and Subramanium, a chief conservator of forests.

McLaughlin felt that the landscape was “the most beautiful landscape in the world”, but Subramaniam felt that its economic benefits outweighed its beauty, and could provide revenue and employment for a newly-independent nation. The latter argument prevailed, and the wattle plantations began.

Plantations of Eucalyptus have almost drained the landscape of water, leaving behind bare stretches of land. Credit: Renuka Kulkarni
Plantations of Eucalyptus have almost drained the landscape of water, leaving behind bare stretches of land. Credit: Renuka Kulkarni

The thorny and yellow-flowered wattle tree belongs to the Acacia genus. Milind Bunyan, an ecologist at ATREE, has worked extensively on documenting changes in landscape using satellite imagery, says that wattle, by far, has been the worst invader across the Nilgiris.

“If you look at the satellite images from the 1970s, there are a lot of wattle plantations,” Bunyan said.

He explained that since the Indian government stopped getting Acacia bark from South Africa because of their apartheid policies, there was a demand for home-grown wattle to sustain the tanning industry. The state’s forest department planted wattle in large tracts, and felled them for the industrial use of wattle bark. But in the early 1990s, the Government of India banned plant-felling in protected areas and reserve forests, and the cutting of wattle stopped.

However, the planting continued, thanks to the notion that those “grassy blanks” would then become forests. Between 1993 and 2003, wattle mushroomed across the Nilgiris. The state forest department no longer allowed felling for commercial or fuelwood purposes, so wattle’s rise went unchecked.

But when a landscape has been altered and used over centuries, what is the ideal state of pristineness? Is it to make the area inaccessible?

“Restoring the landscape would be a monumental effort, but it’s not unfeasible. It would be impossible to restore the ecosystem back to the original state, but it might be possible to revegetate to a state that might enhance many of the ecosystem services, such as water retention, purification, soil conservation, etc.,” Madhusudan Srinivasan, an ecologist at the University of Kentucky who has worked on restoring grassland species in the Nilgiris, said.

Goodden and Krishnan have both seen the minuscule changes the landscape underwent; the former experienced it and the latter documented it. “Our tribe is very closely intertwined with the land,” Goodden said. “The changes in this landscape become magnified and evident in our own daily lives.” He points to thin-leaved trees flanking the fence of a cement-and-concrete hut, where a member of his tribe lives.

The trees belong to the Cupressus genus, an exotic species.

The landscape today is a mix of tea and Eucalyptus plantations, with invasive plant species like black wattle growing on the grassy slopes, and a few remnants of the shola-grassland mosaic. Credit: Renuka Kulkarni
The landscape today is a mix of tea and Eucalyptus plantations, with invasive plant species like black wattle growing on the grassy slopes, and a few remnants of the shola-grassland mosaic. Credit: Renuka Kulkarni

Three calves of Bubalis bubalis, the buffalo sacred to the Toda, snooze beneath a Syzygium tree nearby. The Syzygium is related to the jambhul and is native to the Indian subcontinent. While it shades the calves, the afforested landscape is dark to the Todas.

Krishnan is aware of this disquiet. “Tigers and leopards prey upon buffaloes from wattle thickets and thorny undergrowth,” he wrote in the 2015 paper. “There is anxiety when schoolchildren, working husbands and grazing buffaloes fail to arrive before the light fades.”

The changed landscape has left Toda elders longing for the grassy opens where carnivores were conspicuous, and they could signal each other using mirrors from hamlets across the hills.

The nature of this communication has also changed. Before the British came, the region’s tribes – the Toda, the Badaga, the Kota and the Kurumba – had a functional barter system. The Toda grazed their animals on the upper plateau and traded with the other tribes for other needs.

The barter economy doesn’t exist anymore, and since Independence the Toda have turned to different professions. Goodden himself has combined the traditional Toda lifestyle with being a tourist guide, the first from his tribe. There are days when he rises early to milk and tend to the buffaloes before starting his first tourist walk  at 10 am. Once reluctant farmers, the Toda now appear to have taken a decisive turn to the soil. They no longer lease their lands to settler farmers.

And as tourists delight in the neat tea plantations and gaze in awe at the colossal eucalyptus, Goodden shakes his head.

C. Siva, a forest range officer in the Nilgiris South division of the forest department, agrees. He was appointed only a year ago but he admits that clearing any patch is complicated.

“Extensive clearing operations have to be done year after year, consistently through 20-30 years, and it takes quite a lot of machinery and manpower to cut down and cut up a single tree,” he elaborated. What after? “The grassland will come back by itself.”

Syzigium trees are one of the few native plants of the region. Credit: Renuka Kulkarni
Syzigium trees are one of the few native plants of the region. Credit: Renuka Kulkarni

However, Srinivasan disagreed. Restoring the grassland “would involve removing woody exotic plants, depleting soil seed banks of exotics, and planting framework grass species in the grassland. The grassland species have strong environmental affinities, low physiological tolerances.

“I also conducted an experiment where I transplanted some of the dominant grasses in plots where exotics had been removed.” The levels of success varied.

An equally tough obstacle is the attitude towards grasslands.

In fact, Atul Joshi, a PhD student at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru, said that the prevailing attitude towards ecosystems like forest-grassland mosaics and savannahs hasn’t changed much. In a paper he co-authored last year, he described how the historical forester blamed fires and indigenous communities’ cattle-grazing for the “bleak” grasslands, and sought to rejuvenate the “degraded landscape” by planting exotic tree species.

He and his fellow authors argued that the foresters of today think no different. “Despite global evidence, at least two recent, influential global analyses of vegetation have identified vast areas of tropical and subtropical grasslands and savannahs as areas suitable for afforestation and increased tree cover,” the paper stated.

Fortunately, grasslands have been receiving more favourable attention of late. The UN has declared 2021-2030 as the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, announcing that “restoration of 350 million hectares of degraded land between now and 2030 could generate $9 trillion in ecosystem services and take an additional 13-26 gigatonnes of greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere.”

That’s about the area of India, Nepal and Sri Lanka combined.

Declaring grasslands to be protected areas could be one way to safeguard them – but doing so could in turn have drastic consequences for the people who depend on them, like the Toda, for their livelihoods. Despite the invaders, human or botanical, they still reiterate that the Wenlock Downs is, in Goodden’s words, “as much a part of them as they are a part of it.”

Renuka Kulkarni is a science writer at ATREE, Bangalore.

Note: This article earlier stated that the Syzigium species is related to the cumin, but it is in fact the jambhul. The mistake was corrected on April 29, 2019.

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