Gandhiji’s Nilgiri connections started in 1914 even before he was bestowed, for the first time, the title of Mahatma by a journalist in 1916.
Gandhiji returned from his eventful stay in South Afraica to India in 1914 and stayed in Tagore’s Santhiniketan. He first had a glimpse of Nilgiris through the paintings of artist K.Venkatappa who was also staying at Santiniketan. Seeing one of the paintings of Venkatappa about the harshness of the monsoon of Nilgiris, Gandhiji’s is said to have shivered involuntarily.
In 1917, Millie Polak and sisters, close associates of the Gandhiji in South Afria, stayed in Coonoor for recuperation. They would have regularly apprised Gandhi about the place.
In the same year, Dr. Anni Besant was kept in House Arrest in Ooty from June to September. The incident attracted worldwide condemnation. To secure her release, Gandhiji proposed a Padayatra from Chennai to Ooty but the proposal was dropped due to practical difficulties.
In 1919, Tagore came on a nearly fortnight’s tour to the Nilgiris and would have surely shared his experience with Gandhiji.
By that time several Princely states of Gujarat like Baroda, Porbundar and Navanagar had set up establishments in Ooty. The topic of Nilgiris would have certainly cropped up during Gandhiji’s talks with them.
Gandhiji finally arrived in Coonoor on January 29, 1934 en route his hectic untouchability tour of south India. He stayed in Nageswara Rao’s ‘Ramashram’ at Mount Pleasant. Though he came for rest, Gandhi was on the move for the next seven days visiting Kotagiri, Coonoor and Ooty. His routine consisted of morning walks with his associates, meeting visitors, visiting Harijan colonies, addressing public meetings and evening prayers in which hundreds took part.
While in Coonoor Gandhiji wrote to Vallabhbhai Patel, “ Coonoor is a beautiful place. If one can get accommodation here, the daily necessities are cheap. It is very cold in winter though not extremely so. I suggested that, if they wished to give me eight days’ rest, they should let me have it in Coonoor so that I could work among the hill people and also dispose of the papers which had accumulated. I am glad I came here. The hill people come to see me every day. Our workers have been doing good work among them”.
Two years later in 1936, Gandhiji and Patel planned a visit to Nilgiris for rest but it did not come through because of political developments.
Image 1: A painting of Venkattapa of the Ooty lake
Image2: Artist impression of Gandhiji addressing a meeting at Kotagiri
Nilgiri Documentation Centre