Saturday, 21 March 2009

Whish & Kindersley discoverers of the Nilgiris Plateau?

Nelliala,possibly the site of a 1805 military post,
at a place called Nelliyalam today.

History has a habit of changing, and quite often the "established facts" in any history book actually turn out to be incorrect or at best are questionable.

While researching the route that Thomas Baber took in 1823 up to the Nilgiris from Calicut, I discovered an intriguing fact.

It was not in fact John Sullivan who first discovered the Nilgiris plateau at Ootacamund, as is generally believed, but two of his junior officials who had set out from the eastern side of ghats in pursuit of tobacco smugglers who were regularly using it. These officials were J.C. Whish, the Assistant Collector from Coimbatoor and N.W. Kindersley, the Second Assistant Collector also from Coimbatoor.

An interesting connection existed however with Calicut, because J.C. Whish had a brother C.M. Whish who was a magistrate in Calicut during years around 1819, and who shared a common interest in Hindu and Sanskrit texts and astronomy with Thomas Baber.

C.M. Whish was a very gifted linguist and he was able understand the religious texts that he found in the temples in Tellicherry and Calicut well enough to be able to recognise that they contained complex calendars, astronomical calculations and predictions for the return periods of comets.

In 1819 and quite possibly at earlier dates as well, Thomas Baber and Whish met frequently in Tellicherry and at Calicut to work on the texts of the Vedas and other related texts. Thomas Baber was already familar with routes up the Ghats as were other local officials like Waddell and C. M. Whish.

Had Whish told his brother in Coimbatoor about these favoured peaks?

Did the brothers ever meet on the top of the Ghats?

We will probably never know, but it is just possible that they did.

The story of the original journey to the Nilgiris Plateau by Whish and Kindersley is as follows: -

"From the year 1799 up to 1819, these mountains were in the daily view of all the authorities from the plains of the Coimbatoor province, and a revenue was collected from them for the Company by a renter (a Chitty) and paid into the Cutchery of the collector of that province. But of the country nothing was then known.

After twenty years' possession by the Company, two young civilians, Messrs. Whish and Kindersley, were induced, in consequence of the maltreatment of some Ryots in the low country, by a Polygar, who fled up the pass of Danaynkeucottah, to follow his track; and not being- encumbered with him as a prisoner, they afterwards proceeded to reconnoitre a little of the interior of the hills, as they had for some time before intended. Their first halt was at a village called Dynaud, about nine miles to the eastward of Kotagherry near Rungasamy Peak, (the most sacred mountain- on the Neilgherries), where they found the man they were in search of, in a hut. He was exceedingly polite in offering refreshments to the gentlemen, and pretending to go for some milk, took the opportunity of making good his retreat!

They then proceeded across the hills, and descended by the Keloor Pass. But they had seen and felt quite enough to excite their own curiosity and that of the collector, Mr. Sullivan, who, establishing his general residence there, continued to live in this delightful climate with his family, in health and comfort, for the greatest part of the succeeding ten years."[1]

The story behind this pass over the ghats, goes back much earlier than the date of first European journeys across it. The pass had been used by Indian traders for many years and probably centuries. The Badaga Gaudas had migrated along it from the Wayanad as they colonised the slopes of the Nigrilis during the 18th century.

Following the imposition of the tobacco monopoly by the East India Company, it had become a favoured smugglers route, as is described by R Baikie, in 1834, in the following paragraph.

"The only other pass which remains to be described, is the Koondah Pass, which is but little known to the public, being as yet merely marked out, and frequented by Mopilas bringing up various articles, and smuggling tobacco* down. It was marked out by my friend Lieutenant LeHardy, then of the Pioneer corps, now of the Commissariat Department, and does great credit to his skill, perseverance, and ingenuity. It commences at Canoot, at the base of the hills on the Malabar side, and ascending through a deep ravine filled with wood, a distance of 12 miles, reaches the summit of the Koondahs, and crossing them, descends upon the central-table land of the Neelgherries, and reaches Ootacamund, 30 miles from the head of the pass. The slope is so gradual as never to exceed If inches in the foot, and the road, owing to certain obstructions, is in many places level, in others surmounts them by short zig-zags. From Canoot, at the foot of the pass, to Arricode, on the Baypoor river, is 16 miles, and thence to Calicut, on the coast, by the river, (here navigable at all seasons for large boats,) is 28 miles. When this road is (as I hope and trust it will speedily be) fairly opened and made practicable even for bullocks, horses, and palankeens, it will doubtless soon become one of the most frequented, particularly by travellers from Calcutta and Bombay.

* The road, as now marked out, closely follows a path frequented by these tobacco smugglers, who formerly carried on this trade to a great extent. Tobacco is grown in large quantities in Coimbatoor, but Government have a monopoly of it in Malabar, and a heavy duty is charged on it, on entering the latter province; the consequence of which is, an extensive contraband trade, principally across the Neelgherries, as being less liable to interruption. If I am rightly informed, the original discovery of the hills was owing to this circumstance ; Messrs. Whish and Kindersley, of the Civil Service, (in 1819,) having pursued a band of smugglers up a small pass to the N. E. of Kotagherry, and thus become acquainted with the existence of a table-land with an European climate."[2]

However even Whish and Kindersley were almost certainly not the first European travellers onto the top of the Nilgiris.

Tipu's Armies had descended from Mysore into Malabar over the same route, as well as some of the other passes in the 1780's. These armies had contained many French soldiers and officers. Had they in fact been the first European's who passed over the Ooty route?

In the course of the 1796 to 1806 Pazhassi Rajah's struggle against the East India Company a series of posts had been established on top of the highest peaks, in order to try to trap and contain the attacks by the Rajah's supporters.

These were manned by small parties of East India Company soldiers, and the posts appear in many cases to have had intervisibility over the jungles and scrub making up the surrounding tablelands. One post was situated on top of Banasura, and another was at Nelliala, now called Nelliyalam.

"The possible outline of a breast work from 1805 on top of Nelliala"[3]

Websites and gazetteers describe the village as it then was as having been the home of the Nelliyalam Rani (as also called Ratti in some websites, is this right?), and explain that remains of her fort remain to be seen.

It is possible that the ruins on top of this hill are the remains of the Rani's fort, however to me they look far too irregular and poorly built to have been even a minor palace or fort.

The other rulers buildings that I have visited in the area, and especially those built before the arrival of the Europeans appear to have been of higher quality in their construction, and even when ruined leave a far more regular and substantial set of footings.

Consider the ruins at Sultan Bathory for instance.

Does anybody who comes from this area have the time to visit the peak of this mountain and to take photograph of these ruins?

Can anybody confirm that this is indeed the site of the Rani's palace, because I have no idea where in Nelliyalam the palace was actually located, and it might have been at another location in the area entirely, that I have failed to spot on Google Earth.

Of course it is entirely possible even if this had been the site of the palace that the British soldiers and Sepoys had moved into its ruins to make their camp.

From this site the soldiers could have looked out over the surrounding area for signs of trouble. It is quite possible that they had the use of telegraph signals between the posts, as was the case between Portsmouth and London and between the posts of Wellingtons army stationed on the Lines of Torres Vedras a few years later in Portugal during the Napoleonic Wars.

The route along the ridge is described by several travellers including Thomas Baber writing in about 1830.

"I left Ottakail Karumba at 10 A. M. on the 11th, and arrived at Koodaloor about 1 p.m. About half-a-mile from the karumba, I reached the road I constructed in 1806, from Nelliala in Parakatneatil, to Nambolacota, and continued along it until within three miles of Koodaloor, where is yet to be traced the course of the high road formerly constructed by Tippoo, by the Caracole Pass to South Malabar; after going about a mile along it, I struck off to the right, by a path which led to Koodaloor, a village at the post of Neddibett, the pass leading up the famed Neelghurries. Koodaloor is a village of Baddagurs, containing between 20 and 30 houses. There are a few Kottara's houses in its vicinity. Here I was met by the Narabolacota Waranoor, attended by his dependants, and nearly all the inhabitants of Nambolacota. I halted in consequence here for the night, and obtained from them the following information respecting the Neelghurries."[4]

This line of posts appears to have run as far as Gudalur, or Koodalur as it was spelt in 1806.

It is highly likely that the troops stationed in Gudalur patrolled out into the surrounding valleys, and that as the land returned to peace after the Pazhassi Rajah had been defeated in November, that the officers commanding at these posts hunted and rode out into the surrounding area. The track over the crest into what became Ooty was already in regular use by Indian traders.

I believe the Ooty area was first visited by Europeans possibly as early as 1780, and certainly by 1806.

Who were these officers, and do accounts of their trips survive?

[1]From Narrative of a Journey to the Falls of the Cavery; with an historical and Descriptive Account of the Neilgherry Hills. Published 1834 by Smith Elder, London, Page 33. By Lieutenant H Jervis, H. M. 62nd Regt.

[2] Observations on the Neilgherries, including an account of their Topography, Climate , Soil & Productions and of the Effects Climate, on the Europan Constitution, by R Baikie Esq. M.D. Published Calcutta 1834, page 4.

[3] 11 degrees 30' 41.20" N 46 degrees 19' 56.90"E.

[4] Pages 313-314, Journal of a Route to the Neelghurries from Calicut, Asiatic Journal (New Series) III.


anand said...

This is brilliant. Enjoyed reading this. There was an article on The Hindu about two years ago. This retraced the journeys made by two Brits (was it Whish and Kimberley) from Silent Valley, to Sispara to Radcliffe Hut and Porthimund towatds to Ooty. They compared the observations made in the diaries with the current topography and arrived at a possible conclusion that the landscape had not changed much all the way to Parsons Valley - 12KM from Ooty. It is possible to argue that about 50% of Nilgiris today is in fairly good pristine condition.

Maddy said...

While checking out Polygars some time ago, I understood that the Mysore Raja Wodeyar had subdued the Ummatur Raja’s or Arasus of Nilgiris in the 1613 time frame. Nelliyalam or Nelliala - their seat has some ruins of this palace or a fort. The later Rani (I am not sure if she was a Kannada Badaga or of Malabar / Nilambur extract) is called the Nelliyalam rani or Pandalur Rani. It is said that the Nilambur royal family unseated the old Arasu family, but I am not sure and I believe the Rani is from the Nilambur family.

This was the general region where the gold rush occurred.

Strangely next door is Mango Range where I spent many vacation months as a child. My dad worked for some years at the tea estates in Mango Range, Talapoya, Murugali etc.

Nick Balmer said...

Hello Anand,

I would love to read the Hindu article if you can find it for me. I am writing a blog on conservation because this was something T Baber argued for strongly. I also found it fascinating to compare the account of his journey with the same journey performed on Google Earth. The amount of tree cover has obviously changed. I believe that a very interesting check on the changes in forest cover could be made buy going through the reports in the British Library and compating them with a modern survey. Deafforestation is not just a modern problem, nor is overfelling and corrupt forest practises.
Thanks for your interest.


Nick Balmer said...

Hello Maddy,

Thanks for your comments on the story of the earlier history of this area. It adds greatly to the story if we can put these bits together. I am getting a very large number of posts from local people in these areas who obviously have a huge appetite for the history of their localities, and are presently frustrated by not being able to find any material.
There must have been fascinating events going on in these areas before my fellow countrymen turned up and disrupted it all.
Nick Balmer

HoneyRose said...

Very interested to read this. I am researching life of George Sparkes who was a junior official in the judiciary in the East India Company Madras Service from 1828-1837. He was based in Kanara and in Malabar. On his return to England he settled in Bromley in Kent where he named his house Neilgherries. I therefore assume he must have travelled to the Nilgiris Hills while he was in India, either on foot or horseback so would also be interested to read the Hindu article. Is there any access to it?

Nick Balmer said...


The article in the Hindu is available online at

Do any letters by George Sparkes survive in your family?


Nick Balmer

Andrew Sam ross said...

Have started a facebook page for Nilgiris Nature conservation,your insights will be greatly appreciated.