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Notes on the Geography of Peninsular India: Ootacamund

Travelers landing on the southeast coast of India, say a bit north of Sri Lanka and near the delta of the Cauvery, can in theory walk or pedal or drive for a hundred miles upstream on the Cauvery with barely a hill to slow them down. Where the river bends north, and again without a hill to slow their progress, the same travelers can continue west another 50 miles to Coimbatore, an industrial city famous for cotton and textiles but now, with over two million people, doing lots more than that. From Coimbatore it's a three hour's drive mostly uphill to Oottacamund, Ooty for short. Back in the days before air conditioning, Ooty was a place of which colonial officials down on the blasted plains could dream, a place of larks and eucalyptus. It was a place offering the "luxury of being able to sit in the sun without worrying about sunstroke."

See David Gilmour, The Ruling Caste, pp. 227 and 269.

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We'll start at Coimbatore, 50 long miles from Ooty and the location of the airport nearest to Ooty. You can't tell from the photo, but outside it's hot as Hades.

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Most of Coimbatore (pronounced in four syllables) is new and of concrete periodically given a desultory slap of quick-staining distemper. Every now and then, there's a building built a century ago, when men not only wore neckties but dressed their real estate.

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Not content with several KFC's, Coimbatore goes one better with a chain all its own. The "L" stands for Labbaik, a Islamic term implying religious devotion.

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Coimbatore also has a full-bore shopping mall called Brookfields.

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The stairs are the only hint that this isn't California.

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Inside the ground-floor's SPAR hypermarket, you'll realize in a hundred ways that you aren't in the USA.

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Know any American supermarket with this much tomato sauce?

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Upset tummy? We can try the Ganga ("Ganges") Hospital.

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We've come 30 miles north of Coimbatore and turned west at Mettupalayam. Still on the brushy plains, we're heading into the Nilgiris or Blue Mountains. Over the next 30 slow miles we'll climb from a thousand feet above sea level to over 7,000. It's 105 degrees Fahrenheit in Coimbatore; at Ooty it's 80.

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The haze of Coimbatore, which can be depressingly severe, gives way to clearer air. There's tea growing up here, but not until we get to 3,000 feet.

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You can see the road clinging to a precipitous slope, but below it you can also see the famous railway that an imported Swiss engineer used to conquer the Nilgiris in 1899.

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His secret: the Abt rack or cog system.

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Diesel locomotives would have replaced steam engines here long ago, but the Nilgiri railway made UNESCO's World Heritage list in 2005, so the line operates with steam: one train up and one down daily. The engines are complicated devils.

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Maybe you can see the greasy cog that meshes with the rack.

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The train is a tourist magnet.

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This picture gives a fair sense of the actual slope of the line. The train is approaching.

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The engine runs backwards.

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We're in too much of a hurry to play tag with the train, but we've stopped for a moment at a fruit stand. Why put one here?

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The answer's probably this bridge.

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Scenic, though I wouldn't drink the water. (The place is called Burliar.)

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So we've climbed to at least 3,000 feet.

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Quite the carpet.

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At 8,000, in the hills around Ooty, we're in pine forest. Want to walk? Be careful. Why?

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He's why. It would be great to have an eye-to-eye photo of a wild bison, but I'd rather not die today. Some villagers on foot gave him a very wide berth, and he soon left the road.

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Whenever possible, the British gave hill stations ornamental lakes. They couldn't do it at Shimla, but they could and did do it at Naini Tal, Mt. Abu, and here at Ooty.

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It didn't require heroic engineering.

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Ooty had attracted European visitors since the 1820s, but in 1870 London permitted the government of Madras to shift to Ooty in the hot weather, on condition that the government stay there no more than three months annually. It was a tremendous boost to the town's growth and status. Ten years later, however, London was complaining that Madras officials spent more time in Ooty than they did in Madras.

Here's Ooty's summer Secretariat, demoted after the British quit India to a government arts college. Minus the clock tower, the structure started out in the 1820s as the house and office of John Sullivan, a Coimbatore Collector who fell in love with Ooty and is locally famous as the town's founder. The British government in 1869 bought the building from a later owner and added the clocktower in 1883.

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The fireplace doesn't get much use now but would have been used regularly in the past, partly for heat and partly for psychological comfort.

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The governor's office, once.

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Adjoining offices, now classrooms.

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Two oaks and a clunky monument face the building.

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It reads: "These two oak trees were planted by their excellencies, Lord and Lady Willingdon, 1 June 1923, to commemorate the centenary of Ooty." Lady Willingdon could not have too many things named after her, and Willingdon-this and Willingdon-that still dot the former Madras Presidency, now mostly Tamil Nadu. Marie Brassey, to use her premarital name, must have been thrilled when her husband in 1931 became the viceroy of India, opening whole new domains.

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Ooty became t headquarters of the Nilgiris District, too. Here's the district courthouse. The spindly clocktower doesn't get much help from the electric wires and fencing.

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The courthouse seen from the other side.

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This wing fares better, thanks to an architect or engineer seemingly inspired by illustrations in a children's book.

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The nearby post office is more sober.

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There are about 640 administrative districts in India, each headed by an officer usually called the Collector. It's not as august a position as it used to be, but being Collector of the Nilgiris must have been and probably remains one of the choicest of the bunch. Here's the Nilgiri'Collector's office, close to the courthouse.

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As early as 1830, when Ooty was still merely a vacation hideaway, a governor decided it needed an Anglican church. Here's the result, St. Stephens.

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It's no masterpiece, but it's astonishingly trim. Somebody cares.

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Governor Lushington had been briefly in India as a young man, but had then returned to London and begun a career in politics. As a Tory member in the Commons, his career was not glorious: an official history records that "of course, [he] voted with his colleagues on all major issues.... He was not an able speaker and was sometimes inaudible in the reporters' gallery. He rarely spoke at any length...." Lushington found himself in debt and concluded that a return to India as a presidency governor would be a smart move. It took some years to wangle it, but he succeeded. The official record continues that "his administration of Madras was not satisfactory to the government at home, especially because he... spent too much of his time trying to establish a British colony in the Nieilgherry [sic] Hills." The harsh judgment may be fair, but it's hard not to sympathize with Lushington. Bishop John Matthias [Turner] came to India late, when he was 43. At the start of his outbound journey, he wrote to a friend that "I believe myself to be in the path of duty." In Calcutta he badgered the British community to attend Sunday services. He then undertook a trip through India, including the visit recorded here. He returned to Calcutta in "the most exhausting heat and fatigue." People noted that "the Bishop returned to us not in a good state of health." It was an understatement: he bishop promptly died, "another victim to the fatal climate of India." He had not yet completed his second year in office.

See://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1820-1832/member/lushington-stephen-1776-1868

The Annual Biography and Obituary, 1833, pp. 258-72.

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The main beams are said to have been taken from Tipu Sultan's summer palace at Srirangapatna, on an island in the Cauvery near Mysore.

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St. Stephens was for Europeans. Across the street, and minus the dignified setback, the Holy Trinity Church opened in 1858 for Indians.

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St. Stephens could seat only 320 people, but by 1853 Ooty had 600 European members of the Church of England. The result, 17 years later, was the opening of another Anglican church, St. Thomas.

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Interior.

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Here's perhaps the handsomest of them all, the Church of the Ascension, its foundation stone laid in 1911 by Governor Arthur Lawley.

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Think you can buy a door like this at your local DIY big box?

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Nave.

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An organ was installed in 1918. It looks good from this angle.

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There's a fund-raising effort in place, but it's going to take a while.

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And this is the famous Nilgiri library, private but easy to join.

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The stacks are upstairs in the front wing; the middle wing is a reading room.

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Now you know.

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Beg, plead, wheedle, and maybe you, too, can get a peek upstairs.

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What else did an upstanding hill station need? Why, a botanical garden of course. Snooty Ooty, as it was called, got one in 1848 under the direction of a botanist from Kew.

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William Graham McIvor was his name, attached here to the wall of the garden's fern house.

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McIvor is buried behind St. Stephen's church; his tombstone, with an interesting annotation, is coming up some place or other in the next 8,000 pictures.

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The botanic garden adjoins Government House, which is off-limits but somewhere up the road here.

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Government House is marked at the upper right on this map from the 1920s. Ooty Lake is at the lower left. St. Stephen's is just to the right of the crack and about a quarter of the way down from the top.

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Perhaps the most interesting thing about the map is the profusion of named private houses. Consider one: the Cedars, just below the lake and right of the crack.

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The gate does make it look pretty important, and it turns out that this place was the summer residence of the Nizam of Hyderabad. You can't get snootier than that: the Nizam was the leading prince of India, or at least the richest one.

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Driveway: there's nobody here.

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Looks like there hasn't been anybody here for a long time. In fact the Nizam himself never came. He acquired the place as you or I might acquire a kitchen gadget we never use. Who used it? Answer: the Resident of Hyderabad, the Nizam's British baby-sitter. The last Resident packed up in 1947, and since then the place has been unused.

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Oops! Voices! There must be a caretaker. We'd better scoot.

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Not quite so stately but nothing to sneeze at. This is the gate to Nawanagar Palace, named for Nawanagar State, until 1948 a princely state in Gujarat but now a district called Jamnagar.

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Driveway.

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The property now belongs to a member of the Nawanagar royal family who is very well-known in India from his career as a professional cricketer. The palace has been used repeatedly as a movie set.

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Enough grandeur? Fine: here's a simpler place.

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Another.

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And a third.

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Here's a tricky one. Looks like an upper-middle-class bungalow, but it's actually a guest house. Want to see what it's attached to?

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Here you go: Fern Hill, built by the Maharaja of Mysore, who was, according to Ooty's authoritative history, "the only one of the Ruling Chiefs owning property at Ootacamund who pays a yearly visit to it." In defense of the other chiefs, it might be said that Mysore was also closer to Ooty than any other state.

See Frederick Price, Ootacamund: A History, p. 312.

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The place is now a hotel. Idiosyncratic might be a fair description.

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The old ballroom is now a restaurant.

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Bar to die for.

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This is the view from the palace's rear terrace. Price writes that "the views from its grounds of the downs and Kundas [hills] are, I consider, the most beautiful in Ootacamund."

See Price, p. 312.

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Other bungalows had fine terrace views, too, though usually spoiled by urban sprawl. Here's the view from the Thamizhagam guest house, used now by Tamil Nadu officials on holiday but in the past the property of the Maharajah of Jodhpur. He called it the Aranmore Palace.

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Speaking of hotels, here's the driveway to the Ooty Club, the very embodiment of Ootydom.

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New India: these two women were sweeping grit off the club's driveway while chatting up a storm not with each other but on their cell phones. They stood up for the camera.

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The club was organized in 1841 and promptly purchased this building, built as a hotel in the previous decade by William Rumbold, a Hyderabad banker. During the 1830s the hotel was leased to Governor-General William Bentinck. Price writes that the club "will always be noteworthy not only as having been the residence of the first Governor-General of India, but also as being the house to which the famous Macaulay was undoubtedly taken on his arrival in the Hills." Macaulay is famous for several things in India, not least the writing of the Indian Penal Code, which is still in force.

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Dast we?

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None of the club's 700 members are present, but Ooty is highly seasonal. Most of the members own bungalows in town and come by the club in the high seasons of May/June and December/January.

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Everything's shipshape.

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Not a scratch. This bison's not the least bit scary.

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Here's a nearby hotel open to the public. It was built in the 1830s as a school but later became Sylk's Hotel and is now the Savoy.

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Several wings have been added but all are stylistically consistent.

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Some of the old hotels have closed for good. Here's one.

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Best we can do.

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Here's another, still in business. It's the Mount View.

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It is as it was.

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Schools? Of course. Here's the driveway to one, Breeks.

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The odd thing is that 50 years ago this was the hotel that figured in Mollie Panter-Downes' Ooty Remembered.

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The Breeks' Memorial School's main building is on the other side of town. The name comes from the first Commissioner of the Nilgiris, who died in 1872; the foundation stone was laid the next year. Unusually, the school was not restricted to Europeans but was open as well to Eurasians and "natives of the better class."

See Price, p. 196.

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If Breeks' is impressive, try the Lawrence School. We'll need permission to pass through its golden gates.

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That's incredible! An eminent boarding school with a woman in charge.

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Here it is: the Lawrence School.

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It's named for Sir Henry, perhaps the most remembered victim of the Indian Mutiny. His will included a bequest to establish asylums for the orphans of British soldiers in India. Four such asylums were created, three in India and one now in Pakistan. The Lawrence School is one of them, though the student body is no longer comprised of British orphans.

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One wing is the school's chapel.

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The classrooms are traditional, except for the high-tech whatever-it-is.

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It's almost lunchtime.

Conversation with taxiwallah: "Does your son come here." "No, sahib, only very rich people."

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On a wall of the adjacent Church of the Ascension, there's a plaque recalling a master who died more than 20 years before the chapel was built.

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A later generation.

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And a still later one. The school has changed names several times, but it was run by the British under one name or another until 1947; since then, it's been called simply the Lawrence School.

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Back in town, we're looking down at the city center. Shopping? There's nothing here like Brookfields down in Coimbatore. The simple explanation is that Ooty's population is a bit less than 100,000. Still, you'd expect a supermarket, wouldn't you? We won't find one. Back there on the right, the green oval is the race course; it's at the lowest elevation of the image, and the lake is still farther to the right.

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Here's the old commercial center, the equivalent of Charing Cross. In fact, it's called Charing Cross.

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The fountain (naturally) has an inscription. What it omits to say is that Adam, a member of the British House of Commons during the 1870s, was sent out to India as Governor of Madras in December 1880. He died in May of the following year. He was 57.

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There's a traditional market, which includes both wholesale and retail.

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There are shops catering to foreigners.

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And there's a bookstore that's been in business forever; the main shop is in Chennai, but there are two branches in Ooty.

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The most venerable department store in Chennai is still Spencer's. Here's the Ooty branch, no longer of this world.

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Bracketing.

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Despite having plenty of such British relics, the town no longer feels at all British. Blame growth, blame signs, blame traffic.

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A few of the new businesses are foreign imports, but not many.

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New hotels line the busiest streets.

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Outside town, houses march up hillsides.

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Or await flooding along creeks.

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Bits of forest are cut down to make way for vegetables.

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People insist that the soil in these raised beds won't wash into the stream below.

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At the lake outlet, a crew forks out accumulated trash.

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Meanwhile, there are ghosts. We'll wander around the graveyards behind St. Stephen's and St. Thomas.

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Remember him? From the botanic garden that he laid out? He also took charge of the production of chinchona, the source of life-saving but expensive quinine.

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"Deputy conservator of Forests, Neilgherries," dead at 26.

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An engineer who stayed on... and on.

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His wife died a decade earlier.

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A near-centenarian, a rare thing in India.

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How's this for a tombstone?

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It's for Governor Adam, whose name we saw on the fountain at Charing Cross.

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Here's someone whose family pride can't be denied.

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Inside St. Stephens there are plenty of plaques, including one for Mrs. McIvor, the "little wife" who survived her botanic-garden husband by about 27 years.

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Heseltine was a longtime member of the Ooty Club. We met Lawley when as governor he laid the foundation stone for the Church of the Ascension.

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"Liver complaint' sent him to the hills, which didn't save him.

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At 18, she married a man 18 years older than she. They had seven children by the time she died at 30. Her husband survived her by seven years and died at the almost venerable age of 55.

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Had Ouchterlony been too casual about taking his daily quinine?


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