As Old as The Hills: A History of The NilgirisTea
Silappadikaram, one of the five great epics according to Tamil literary tradition, is the first to refer to the blue hills by their name – The Nilgiris. The name Nilgiris is said to have been coined for the beautiful blue kurunji flowers that colour the hills blue every time they bloom or the pale blue mist that envelope its peaks.
History documents the Nilgiris first as tribal land, occupied by tribes like the Kotas and Todas with the Badagas migrating in the 14th century. Although initially a territory of the Vijaynagara Dynasty, with its fall the Nilgiris became part of the Mysore kingdom and then in 1799 it fell to the East India Company through the treaty of Srirangapatnam.
“As Old as the Hills”
For a long time, the Nilgiris remained untouched by the East India Company, until Jon Sullivan, a collector from Coimbatore and an avid Gardener was charged with surveying the area. The first expedition he commissioned reached the lower levels of the hill but ultimately failed. The second expedition by 1819 was more successful and described the hills as lush and fertile.
Sullivan set up his own home there in 1821. He recognised the land and climate as ideal for growing English flowers and fruits and set up the first European settlement in Ooty. The agreeable weather and natural beauty of the Nilgiris lent itself to becoming a summer palace for the British government and an Indian home to many British officials. Sullivan himself donated generously to the setting up of botanical gardens reminiscent of the English gardens he was used to, many of which still draw tourists today.
In 1834 seeds were brought in from China and planted in the Nilgiris, starting some of the very first plantations there. Out of this batch of seeds, one was planted in Thiashola where it has stood for almost 200 years and still stands today as the oldest tea plant in south India.
As the tea boom in the Nilgiris grew, so did Thiashola plantations. Now it finds its home in a small but bustling Nilgiris, and much like the tea bush carries with it centauries of heritage, combing some of the best parts of the past and present.