Ooty is situated deep within the Nilagiri hills (which can be literally translated as The Blue Mountains). It is unknown whether this name arises from the blue smoky haze given off by the eucalyptus trees that cover the area or from the kurunji flower, which blooms every twelve years giving the slopes a bluish tinge. Nilgiris in general was ruled by Ganga kings and later by Hoysala kings, particularly Vishnuvardhana who captured Wynad and Nilgiri area during the 11th century. Tippu Sultan was the first to extend his border by constructing a hideout cave like structure.
It was originally a tribal land and was occupied by the Todas along with other tribes who coexisted through specialisation and trade. The major tribes of Nilagiri area are Toda people, Kotas, Badagas and Alu Kurumbas, who settled in and around Ooty. The first reference of Todas in Nilgiri is found in a record dated 1117 A.D. Toda people are known for raising water buffaloes and Badaga people for their farming activities. Frederick Price in his book Ootacamund, A History states that the area called ‘Old Ooty’ was originally occupied by the Todas. The Todas then handed over that part of the town to John Sullivan, the then Governor ofCoimbatore. Sullivan later developed the town and encouraged the establishment of tea, chinchona, and teak trees. Like many of the settlers, Sullivan was highly impressed by the way the tribes cooperated, and sought to maintain this balance. He later campaigned tirelessly to ensure land rights and cultural recognition for these tribes and was financially and socially punished for this by the British Government.
The Nilgiri territory came into possession of East India Company as part of the ceded lands, held by Tipu Sultan, by the treaty ofSrirangapatnam in 1799. Rev. Jacome Forico, a priest, was the first European who visited Nilgiris in 1603 and released his notes about the place and the people of Nilgiris. In 1812 surveyor William Keys and Macmohan visited the top of the plateau. In 1818, Wish and Kindersley, Assistant and Second Assistant to Collector of Coimbatore visited this spot and submitted their experience report to the Collector of Coimbatore John Sullivan. John Sullivan with his party proceeded to Nilgiri Mountain and camped at Dimbhatti, just north of Kotagiri in January 1819 and was enthralled by the beauty of the place. He wrote to Thomas Munro – ” … it resembles Switzerland, more than any country of Europe… the hills beautifully wooded and fine strong spring with running water in every valley”. Again in May 1819, Sullivan came to the Hill of Ooty and began the construction of his bungalow at Dimbhatti (near Kotagiri), the first European dwelling on the hills. John Sullivan laid the path from Sirumugai (near-Mattupalayam) to Dimbhatti in 1819 and the work was completed in May 1823. The route up to Coonoor was laid in 1830-32. Ooty served as the summer capital of the Madras Presidency and other small kingdoms, much visited by British during the colonial days, and as today, a popular summer and weekend resort. Soldiers were also sent here and to nearby Wellington (the home of the Madras Regiment to this day) to recuperate. Its stunning beauty and splendid green deep valleys inspired the British to name it Queen of Hill Stations.
From May to October each year during the hot season, the Madras Government and its officials, the Governor, and his family, went to the Government House in the Nilgiri Hills. One governor, Sir Arthur Lawley (1906-1911), was an accomplished horseman, a quality admired by the Indian princes of the Madras Presidency. He enjoyed hunting with the Ooty hounds and was frequently joined by close friends like the Maharajah of Mysore. “Hunting, which had been the passion of his youth in England, probably appealed to him more than any other form of recreation, and he was a fine shot with a rifle and brought home many of the trophies – tiger, panther and bison – for which the Southern Indian jungles are well renowned.” The Governor’s Residence, Government House, was the focus of activity and there was a splendid Club House with a fine golf course, polo, swimming and tennis. Snooker is said to have originated on the billiard tables of the Ootacamund Club, invented by an army officer – Sir Neville Francis Fitzgerald Chamberlain. There was also a cricket ground with regular matches played between teams from the Army, the Indian Civil Service and the business sector. Visiting teams would come from various parts of India as well as from the island of Ceylon. There were riding stables and kennels at Ooty and the Ootacamund Hounds hunted across the surrounding countryside and the open grasslands of the Wenlock Downs, named after Sir Arthur Lawley’s brother Beilby Lawley, 3rd Baron Wenlock. There were Point to Point Races and Gymkhanas, and horse riding was a very popular pastime. The maharajas, the business fraternity and the senior civil servants had summer cottages at Ooty. There were churches like St Stephen’s and St Thomas’s and traditional inns. It was in many ways a re-creation of Old England. When the Governor was in residence the Union Jack flew over Government House and a six gun salute would announce his arrival and departure. The misty blue haze of the Nilgiri Hills, and the fragrant mountain rains were a welcome change from the sultry heat of Madras.
Ooty is reached via winding hill roads or a complicated rack railway system, known as the Nilgiri Mountain Railway, built in 1908 by impassioned and enterprising British citizens with venture capital from the Madras government. In 1882, a Swiss engineer named Arthur Riggenbach came to the Nilgiri Hills on an invitation from Government of India and he submitted detailed estimates for a line costing £132,000. A local company named “The Nilgiri Rigi Railway Co. Ltd.” was formed, and the Government offered it free land. This company insisted on a guaranteed return of 4%, which was not acceptable, and the proposed railway, once again, had to be shelved. In 1885, another Nilgiri Railway Company was formed and, in 1886, planning work commenced, using the Abt system with two adjacent toothed rails in the centre of the one metre gauge track. The work on the line commenced in August 1891 when Sir Arthur Lawley’s brother, Beilby Lawley, 3rd Baron Wenlock, the then Governor of Madras, turned the first turf to begin construction. The Mettupalayam-Coonoor section of the track was opened for traffic on 15 June 1899. In January 1903, the Indian Government purchased the line, and took over the construction of the new extension from Coonoor to Ooty. The Nilgiri Mountain Railway was operated by the former Madras Railway Company until 31 December 1907 on the behalf of the Government. In January 1908, the railway line was handed over to South Indian Railways. Construction continued. The line from Coonoor to Fernhill was completed on 15 September 1908 and reached Ooty, one month later. On October 15, Sir Arthur Lawley, Governor of Madras, officiated at the opening ceremony of the new railway to Ootacamund.