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CENTENARY

The Nilgiris: rich hydel history

DHARMALINGAM VENUGOPAL

Its chain of hydro-electric dams was built with amazing engineering skills ... . The first of its type has just completed its centenary.



GLORY IN THE BLUE MOUNTAINS: A heritage that involves reservoirs, tunnels and power plants. PHOTO: SEBIN GEORGE

THE Nilgiris is well known for its flora, fauna and faultless landscapes. But not many know of its chain of hydro-electric dams which have been built with amazing engineering skills amidst bewitching surroundings. Fewer still know that the first dam in the hills, probably the first in the country as well, has just completed its centenary of existence.

Dam trek

The hydel history of the Nilgiris began in 1904 when a tiny captive hydro power project was built using the waters of the Kateri falls (eight kilometres from Ooty) to generate power for the Cordite Factory at Aravankadu, the first, and still the major industry in the hills. Thirty years later, the district's first major power project, the Pykara Power Scheme, came up in 1932-33 on the northern slopes using the waters in the catchment of the Moyar river. Another three decades later, the Kundah Scheme, on the southern slopes, using the waters in the catchment of the Bhavani river was set up in 1961-62. These schemes made use of the flow of water through a series of reservoirs, tunnels, penstocks and power plants.

To mark the centenary of dam building in the Nilgiris, members of "Save Nilgiris Campaign" undertook a trek to pay homage to the pioneering planners, engineers, administrators and the builders and labourers who created these marvels of engineering feats high in the Nilgiri mountains.

The 14-hour long trek started at 8-30 in the morning at Avalanche and ended at 10-30 in the night at Mukurti, covering four major hydel reservoirs in the western Nilgiris. The day before the trek, the team, which included three women, visited the century-old Kateri reservoir.

Nature in bloom

The trek could not have been better timed. The azure December sky was digital clear affording views of far away mountain ranges with layers of milky white clouds stacked above. The landscape was still predominantly green, although fading fast under the assault of the severe frost. Year round rains had filled the reservoirs to the brim, a sight not seen in recent memory. It was also that part of the year when the rhododendron (billy in local parlance), which is ubiquitous in the upper reaches of Nilgiris, was in flower.

With ample water and feed to go around it appeared a time of plenty for wildlife.

The first leg of the trek was through typical Nilgiri plateau country, with sholas and man-made forests as far as Kolaribetta and the natural unspoiled country beyond that. There are two routes to Kolaribetta (2,625 m), the third tallest peak in the Nilgiris after Dodabetta and Mukurti. One, along the Avalanche reservoir, and the other along the Avalanche-Upper Bhavani road. We took the latter, but to save time we hauled ourselves vertically across the steeply winding road. Wattle plants that had over grown most of the abandoned road to the peak were both a hindrance and a blessing, providing an avenue of shade in the sharp winter sun.

Spectacular view

The boundless view atop Kolaribetta from the abandoned signal station was profoundly spectacular. To the east the Avalanche reservoir stretches amoeba-like, beyond which valley after valley unfolds till one can see as far as the upper reaches of the Ooty valley itself. To the southwest, the massive Upper Bhavani reservoir spreads octopus-like in a sea of greenery. To the northwest, the New Amarambalam ranges, overlooking the flanks of Kerala, tower over endless grasslands. Further north, the imposing profile of the Mukurti peak looms, strikingly resembling "Napoleon or Lenin in a sleeping posture".

From Kolaribetta to Western Catchment 2, it was a monotonous trek across the Nilgiri Tahr sanctuary, steep at times, through tranquil country of grasslands and clear water streams. We were three hours behind schedule when we reached Western Catchment 2. Dusk was fast approaching. Since continuing directly to Mukurti was too risky considering the dense wattle forests we had to wade through, we chose to take the road to Portimund dam, a distance of 13 km, and then walk down to the Mukurti Fishing Hut for rest.

As there was still light, we took a shortcut, to save a few kilometres by road, across a steep grass hill. The climb was well worth it. From the top of the hill we were treated to the awesome sight of "bastion Nilgiris", the vast expanse of rocky western escarpment of Nilgiris rising almost vertically. Close to the edge of the cliff ahead of us were a group of about 15 Nilgiri Tahr. Before descending to the road again we crossed the Kallundi river just before it rolls down the rocky escarpment, which had taken a toll of a few English picnickers in the hazy past.

Back on the road it was a brisk walk (to beat the freezing cold) all the way to Portimund. From Portimund it would have taken a couple of hours if we had followed the motorable track to the fishing hut. Instead, we took the steep short cut down in the pitch darkness. It was well past 10 when we entered the warm portals of the Mukurti fishing hut.

The author is the co-ordinator of "Save Nilgiris Campaign".

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