One Man's Ooty
The 150th death anniversary of John Sullivan, Ootacamund's founder, falls today. What remains of his legacy? What has been lost? MUKUND PADMANABHAN revisits the hill station to find out.
PICTURES BY MUKUND PADMANABHAN
View of St. Stephen's Church from the cementery where Sullivan's wife and daughter are buried.
Gnarled, knobbed and twisted, Sullivan's oak is an appropriate metaphor for Ootacamund. On the one hand, it is apparent that the tree has seen much better years; a 1905 photograph captures it standing tall, robust and bushy before what were then the Secretariat offices. On the other, it has survived the ravages of time; look closer and you will discover that its branches have a tangled beauty and that its alternate leaves glow softly in the wintry sun.
John Sullivan, the man who founded Ooty, planted this oak over 150 years ago in front of what was then his residence, Stonehouse. Over the years, Stonehouse was subsumed in a flurry of construction for the offices of the Secretariat. And today, these offices have become the Government Arts College a tale of change and continuity that is very much the story of Ooty.
When you are caught in the snarl and disorder that is Commercial Street; are suffocated by the crush of tourists that settle on the town in a noisy swarm; or are looking at the "modern" box-like houses that are strung out on the slopes in a pattern that resembles terrace cultivation; you can't help wondering whether Sullivan's Ooty has vanished forever.
The Ooty lake that he created.
Yes, it is lost. But yes, it also survives. If you are armed with a sketch of an original ground plan and elevation of Stonehouse, you can identify the exact portions of the old residence the very first European house in Ootacamund that were incorporated with the Secretariat office building. If you walk through the overgrown and beautifully unkempt cemetery at St. Stephen's, which lies on a small outcrop behind what must be one of the country's prettiest churches, you will find the graves of Sullivan's wife, Henrietta, and his 16-year-old daughter, Harriet. They died within 10 days of each other in 1838.
The famous Ooty lake that serpentine stretch of water that has deteriorated into a sewer was Sullivan's creation too. He dammed a stream in order to collect water for the nearby fields, but somehow it never developed into the headwater of an irrigation system. Half the lake was appropriated and filled in for the racecourse, but the other half still remains one of the main tourist attractions in the hill station.
But as Reverend Philip Mulley suggests, his real legacy goes well beyond a building that endures here or a crumbling grave that survives there. "His impact is evident almost everywhere," says Mulley, who has a keen interest in the history and sociology of the Nilgiris. It was Sullivan who revolutionised agricultural practice in these mountains, thereby changing the face of the local economy. He did this not merely through the introduction of tea (which was commercialised only years after his death), but by freely distributing seeds for a large assortment of cereals, fruit and vegetables. He brought in European varieties of wheat and barley (which the Badagas knew as Sullivan ganji), vegetables such as cabbage, radish and turnip and fruit such as peach, apple and strawberry. It was Sullivan who persuaded the initially sceptical Directors of the East India Company to develop the Nilgiris as a sanatorium for sick British troops. And it was Sullivan again who encouraged the construction of the early ghat roads up into the hills. As anthropologist and Nilgiris expert Paul Hockings has noted: "His impact was widespread and permanent."
The Oak that Sullivan planted outside Stonehouse.
Laying the foundation
Sullivan didn't `discover' the Nilgiris, but he was the first to see its potential as a sanatorium and he laid the foundations that changed the social and economic face of these hills. Other Europeans had been up before. An enigmatic Jesuit priest, Father Fininicio, made the first expedition in 1603. He made the journey up from Calicut, but all that remains of his visit to Todamala is a small fragment that reveals he tried to converse with the Badagas about Christianity and that he gave "Toda women looking glasses and hanks of thread, with which they were very much pleased". Two centuries later, after the British had annexed Mysore, there were other expeditions by men such as Buchanan, Mackenzie, Keys and MacMohan, some of them reaching only the lower slopes.
It was in 1818 that two youthful Assistant Collectors of Coimbatore, Whish and Kindersley, made it to the Nilgiri plateau. It is not clear what took them up. One story goes they may have been on a shooting expedition, another that they were chasing tobacco smugglers. Their account of their explorations, which were of a place that was cool and teeming with game and wildfowl, stoked the interest of the boss. Sullivan, who was then the Permanent Collector of Coimbatore, made the ascent the following year. The letter he wrote from the "Neilgherry hills" to Thomas Munro, who went on to become Governor of Madras, is ecstatic. "This is the finest country ever...it resembles I suppose Switzerland more than any other part of Europe...the hills beautifully wooded and fine strong spring with running water in every valley."
Within a few months, Sullivan had constructed a small cottage at Dimhutti, near Kotagiri (see picture). It had gone to ruin over the years, being used, among other things, as a cowshed; only recently was it restored by the district administration, thanks to the efforts of the environmental forum, the Save Nilgiris Campaign, and the enthusiasm of an energetic Collector. Two years ago, D. Venugopal of the Save Nilgiris Campaign, which has been at the forefront of keeping Sullivan's memory alive, organised a trek that retraced the route he took up to the hills.
By 1822, Sullivan had started building Stonehouse in what was then known as Wotokymond, acquiring land from the Todas at one rupee an acre. He would quickly corner huge tracts of land, many times more than all the other European settlers put together. All the while, Sullivan was peppering his superiors in Madras with letters about the unusually temperate and healthy climate in the Nilgiris and its suitability as a sanatorium. By 1828, there were some 25 European houses, not to mention churches and the houses of immigrants from the plains. This was also the year that Ooty was made a military cantonment. Sullivan's dream of making it a sanatorium for British troops had been fulfilled, but the Government's action meant that Ooty would no longer be in his control but in that of his rival Major William Kelso.
But Sullivan wasn't through with Ooty. After he finished his tenure as Collector of Coimbatore, he returned in his capacity as the Senior Member of the Board of Revenue of the Madras Presidency.
Sullivan's bungalow near Kotagiri in a picture taken about 50 years ago.
What kind of man was he? The only surviving photograph (see picture) presents a somewhat portly person, who seems both sad and sullen. The only way of piecing his personality together is from scanty official records. We know, for instance, that he was extremely well disposed towards the tribal population an attitude that brought him into conflict with senior Government officials. He argued, as early as 1832, that the "natives should be entrusted with a great share in the administration of their own affairs". Remarkably, he also advocated the view that the Todas had total proprietary rights over the lands in the Nilgiris plateau and that they must receive compensation for any land acquired from them. Considering the times he lived in, Sullivan's views suggest that he was an extraordinarily liberal man. H.B Grigg, in his A Manual of the Nilgiri District in the Madras Presidency (1880), describes him as a "friend of the native".
The restored house.
At the same time, Sullivan laid himself open to charges that he had used his position in Government to acquire enormous personal wealth. He retired and left for England in 1841 and died unsung on January 16, 1855 exactly 150 years to this day. "Most people in Ooty do not even know he existed," says lawyer and environmental activist B.J. Krishnan. "But the important thing for the future of these hills is that we retain the spirit and energy of Sullivan." The Save Nilgiris Campaign has planned a procession of tribals and a public meeting in Ooty today on the occasion of his 150th death anniversary.
The odd thing is not much exists formally in the memory of this man who created the country's oldest hill station. There is a road in Coimbatore named after him and a font installed in St. Stephen's Church in remembrance of him and his wife.
But as anthropologist and Nilgiris expert Paul Hockings has pointed out, "while there is no memorial to him in the Nilgiris, his memorial is in a sense everywhere".
1788: Sullivan is born in London.
1804: Becomes a Writer for the East India Company. Is posted to Madras.
1805-15: Holds a variety of jobs including that of the Collector of Chinglepet.
1815-30: Permanent Collector of Coimbatore.
1819: First trip up the Nilgiri hills; constructs cottage in Kotagiri.
1821: First journey up to Wotokaymund.
1822: Builds Stonehouse. Spends the next few years there with family.
1828: Ooty made a military cantonment and placed in charge of a commandant.
1835: Becomes a Senior Member of the Board of Revenue. Chooses to live in Ooty.
1841: Leaves for England after burying wife and daughter in Ooty.
1855: Dies in England on January 16 at the age of 66.
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