Sholas of Ootacamund

Akham Bonbirdhwaja Singh *

The British decisively won the battle for the southern part of south India during the seven years war between France and England (1756-1763) close on the heels of their win in the battle of Chandernagore in eastern India.

By early 19th Century after the British had firmly established its supremacy all over India and the world. After the defeat of Tipu Sultan, most part of South India came under British rule and Ooty Hills was a part of the territory ceded by Tipu Sultan to British.

Being a cool pleasant place in a hot surroundings, the place became very popular with the British. Originally, it was a land of Toda tribe, the water buffaloe rearing tribes, the British got some land in the beginning from the Todas, later entire area became a part of British territory.

It was summer capital of Madras Presidency and many of the rulers of the princely States used to visit this place and that was why the mountain railway came up to Ooty (though a small gauge track) from Mettupalayam. Since then Ooty has been the most famous hill station in South India and named the Queen of the hills.

The actual name was Udhagamandalam; British found it hard to pronounce and they called it Ootacamund and shortened to Ooty by the tourists. I have come over here in the past a few times. To me too, it is one of the best places for an outing and it has a number of attractions for a package. I found that one of the main attractions here is the Shola, the famous Shola Forests, known as Sholas of Nilgiris.

Sholas are Pockets of semi-evergreen or evergreen types of forests found in pockets of valleys and protected sites in between large grasslands. These pockets look like tree groves and the name Shola came from Tamil word Solai meaning a grove. The grass-land-Shola combination is famous among the various eco-systems and it is found only in montane eco-systems at higher elevations. In other parts of Nilgiris in lower elevations, such combinations are not found.

These grasslands are considered to be in climatic climax stage due to a peculiar symptom here; very cold temperature due to high altitude (Ooty is 8600 ft above MSL) and prevalence of frost but excessive radiation rays due to proximity to the sun and being near the equator. Another reason for having so much of grassland is due to biotic interference over past a many centuries. At present the grasslands are distinct ecosystems by themselves and occupying a sizeable chunk of Nilgiris mountain system and that of Ooty section too.

A little beyond where the altitude is not this much as that of Ooty, the vegetation is lush and not many grasslands are there. The famous silent valley, one of the most biodiverse places and mega biodiversity hotspot of the world is not far off from Ooty (aerial distance is less than 40 km and by road it is 133 km appx). The Shola trees are somewhat stunted and mostly not up to normal size of the species that its counterparts have in other places of Western Ghats and in Northern India.

The main species are Champa, Bishop wood, Myrtle, Calophylum, Cluster fig, Rhododendron, Olive, Mahonia, Ilex, Litsaea etc. The floor has a lot of mosses and many ferns including the iconic tree ferns. The ground species and grass species are many but they are not being discussed here. It is believed that the bluish flowers of Neelakurinji (Strobilanthus species) gave the name Nilgiris, the blue mountains to this part of Western Ghat.

Now Sholas are very few, they are all surrounded by grasslands or numerous tea gardens in difficult slopes, deep valleys, ravines etc. Good and slightly better slopes are all occupied by Blue Gum Plantations, Black Wattle Plantations, tea plantations or various vegetables that are being grown and exported to the plains. Some good Sholas are visible towards Mukurthi side.

When I came here in 1979 as a young forester, I had a different view. The blue gum plantation of Nilgiris was a showpiece. It was here that many species of Eucalyptus was planted on a large scale. It was the age of exotics and many of the alien species were tried in the country to commercialise the forestry sector. In fact during last 200 years, about 400 exotics entered Nilgiris and many to Ooty section of Nilgiris.

Eucalyptus, Black Wattle [1] and Silver Oak were Australian species introduced in early 1850s; Eucalyptus for pulp, firewood and timber and Black wattle bark for tanning industry and inner wood for rayon factory. The Silver Oak was mainly for the Tea Gardens which were coming up all around Ooty in mid-19th century. There was massive plantation of Eucalyptus and black wattle (Acacia mearnsii) in 1950s and it is said that more than 80000 ha were planted up with Eucalyptus.

Eucalyptus globulous, Eucalyptus hybrid and Eucalyptus teretecornis were the popular species in India in those days (though there are hundreds of species of Eucalyptus). I was fortunate to see the factories down below near mettupalayam and Coimbatore during my trip in 1979. It is not difficult to guess how the original vegetation of Ooty looked like as adjoining Silent Valley and many parts of Western Ghats still have some of the original pristine vegetation.

Even near Dodabetta, the highest peak (8680 ft) in Nilgiris and meeting point of Eastern Ghats and Western Ghats, some of the Shola vegetations are visible but in most parts it is gone. Only the Eucalyptus Plantations are everywhere, and black wattle plantations too. Sometimes other exotics like Cupressus, Thuja and Tropical Pines are also sporadically seen. The blue gum of blue hills, the eucalyptus was so synonymous with Ooty and Nilgiris.

Eucalyptus leaves are bluish green, but that of E. globulous is really blue making it symbolic of the Blue Mountains (Nilgiris) and Ooty. I still remember the blue leaves of E. globulous strewn all around everywhere with its distinct smell in many of its plantations. Over the last almost two centuries, the oil of leaves of E. globulous came to be known as Nilgiris Oil or Ooty Oil (oil is extracted from roots too from other species).

But alas! thousands and thousands of Eucalyptus trees are drying up in the last few years everywhere in and around Ooty City except in one or two small pockets; in the Provident College for Women campus where I could see about two hundred mature unaffected trees. It has been quite severe in the ridges and exposed sites. The trees are not dead outright, but in many localities the trees are exhibiting witches' broom [2] syndrome and gradually drying up.

There have been newspaper reports of Black Wattle trees drying up, but I could not go to the wattle plantations as my tour itinerary did not cover that and this time my trip was a packaged family tour through tour operators, not official or study tour like my earlier trips. Now the question is why the phenomenon is confined to these two exotics only ? Why not the other exotics particularly the coniferous exotics ?

The tropical pines (Pinuscaribea and others), Thuja species, Cupressus species seem to have been not affected. The Eucalyptus trees on the ridges, mountain tops were almost entirely affected, but even the trees near the Ooty Lake (Boat House Lake) were also affected. The local people were of the opinion that the Eucalyptus trees have greatly affected the water regime and it is a result of that.

But then the trees near and around Lakes and water sources where there is no water stress on the trees are also drying up. The official version coming out in the net (not confirmed) is that it is due to rise in the pollution level, but a little away from Ooty towards Gudalur (about 10 km before Gudalur) where there is nota stark difference in pollution level with that of Ooty, there are about 40-50 ha of Eucalyptus plantations of mid-age trees which are not affected by the recent syndrome.

A doubt arises whether the species were really suitable for the locality, I do not think that protocol like provenance trials existed in 1850s when large number of exotics were brought to Nilgiris or even when large scale plantations were raised in 1950s. Even at this late stage, whether the intense radiation due to high altitude and proximity to the equator also have caused genetic changes or contributed to the present massive drying up need to be looked into.

Many things have been said about Eucalyptus in the last three decades and nothing much is left to be added. There might have been good exotics but there has been mass outcry against the exotics in the recent past. So, the current trend is towards the indigenous species everywhere.

The Nilgiris, like Manipur and North East is a haven of biodiversity having a number of unique and endemic species (it was declared a biospehere reserve uncer MAB programme of UN in the past). Here in case of Ooty and Nilgiris, during the present drying of trees, the Sholas are least affected by the factors whatever that affected the Eucalyptus and Black Wattle.

A good news is that the area under Eucalyptus in Ooty have been drastically brought down in the last few decades. Still, it could be a big challenge for the authority to replace all the dead trees with new plantations now. The Sholas and Todas had similar fate, the onslaught of colonial empire and commercial expansion has almost wiped out these two indigenous entities of Ooty.

The Todas are I think have become near extinct, the tribes which solely lived in these hills and valleys for almost two milleniums (since 3 centuries BC) are disappearing from here. Only thing visible now is the replicas of their beautiful huts which Tourism Department have constructed near Toda Valley for the purpose of tourists.

A few huts are near old Ooty and near Botanical Garden. There is also a move to reconstruct the Toda huts and their settlements, but there are too few Todas left, many have gone outside their community too. Toda huts are very popular with tourists and they would love to take a few selfies in front of such huts. But I do not think that they would ever come back. The Sholas too are not coming back.

But this time when they are replanting the blank areas due to dying of Eucalyptus, I am sure that more of Shola species would be used; may not be for restoring the Sholas but for reclamation of affected areas which would certainly add to the beauty of the queen of hills.

[1] Black Wattle was introduced in Manipur too and remnants are still found in Duncan Park in Ukhrul District. The Tadubi Maram Reserved Forest was constituted with the primary aim of raising black wattle plantation with the State Darbar approving tanning of animal hides for production of leather in Manipur. However, there is no record of significant progress in this regards.

[2] Witches Broom Syndrome is the phenomenon in a plant; when the leading shoot or apical bud is killed and plant is drying up, the survival instinct of the plant gives up multiple branches just below the point of attack giving a broomlike appearance hence the name. It is caused by many factors; pests, diseases, genetic alterations and adverse environmental conditions.

* Akham Bonbirdhwaja Singh wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer can be reached at bonbir13-(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on January 31 2023.

* Comments posted by users in this discussion thread and other parts of this site are opinions of the individuals posting them (whose user ID is displayed alongside) and not the views of We strongly recommend that users exercise responsibility, sensitivity and caution over language while writing your opinions which will be seen and read by other users. Please read a complete Guideline on using comments on this website.

  • Sajibu Cheirao-chingkaba : Gallery
  • COVID-19 Status 24 March : Govt of Manipur
  • Central Univ Punjab exposure tour to Manipur
  • Question of Survival
  • lived without love, not one without water
  • World Tuberculosis Day at Arunachal
  • COVID-19 : Impact in Manipur :: News Timeline
  • Pulling out of SoO pact with 3 groups
  • Legal hurdles in nailing drug peddlers
  • Sangai Fest: Moyon Dance : Gallery
  • Will lessons from COVID vaccine rollout ...
  • Of water scarcity: Beyond class room teaching
  • COVID-19 Status 23 March : Govt of Manipur
  • Manipur Univ to host students from Punjab
  • Mangrove, the magical tree
  • Ban plastics or set up recycling plants
  • Enforcing ban on single use plastic
  • Sajibu Cheiraoba Chak Katpa #1 : Gallery
  • Tri-Nation International Football Tournament
  • Modern Cancer Treatment in Manipur
  • International conference on Natural farming
  • Importance of farm pond for agriculture
  • Drowned :: Poem
  • Poireiton Khunthok (Abridged Translation) #1
  • Sajibu Cheiraoba (Meitei New Year) : Book
  • COVID-19 Status 21 March : Govt of Manipur
  • 'Implement NRC must precede delimitation'
  • Yuva Samvad - India@2047 organized
  • Serum for hair
  • As you sail through the noises
  • Seizure of PDS rice amid erratic distribution
  • Studying with a purpose in mind
  • Yaoshang Mei Loukhatpa #3 : Gallery
  • Liquor prohibition in Manipur
  • Lifting Bhagyachandra and elephant
  • COVID-19 Status 20 March : Govt of Manipur
  • Bishnupur Cricket Association meeting
  • Fake News & Disinformation New Challenges
  • Prospect, feasibility of natural farming in state
  • Manipur and water crisis
  • Lamta Thangja @Kangla Gate : Gallery
  • Sangai Fest: Kabui Dance : Gallery
  • COVID-19 Status 19 March : Govt of Manipur
  • Oil and gas scenario in Manipur
  • NPF's 'Gandhigiri' gestures towards NDPP
  • Spreading happiness as a career choice
  • Afforestation campaign: Test of Govt resilience
  • Poppy plantation & agents of desertification
  • My Memories of Imphal #14 : Download
  • Imphal Turel condition [18 Mar] : Gallery
  • COVID-19 Status 18 March : Govt of Manipur
  • Seminar on Awareness about lifestyle diseases
  • Pole Star :: Poem
  • Blunting of AIDS epidemic: zero-complacency
  • Conduct of election to Municipal in Nagaland
  • Saroi Khangba @ Imphal #2 : Gallery
  • Ima Keithel, a yearlong tourist's destination
  • COVID-19 Status 17 March : Govt of Manipur
  • Her Struggle
  • In Nagaland, NDPP rises & NPF falls
  • Dream Zone - School of Creative Studies
  • Sluggish project works abetting water crisis
  • Taking the NRC call to Delhi : Unifying factor
  • Nongmaithem Tombi Singh's contribution #2
  • Highways of Life :: Movie Review
  • COVID-19 Status 16 March : Govt of Manipur
  • Farewell Maharashtra student : Gallery
  • How healthy is your relationship ?
  • G20: Driving women-led development
  • Yogini Temple of Hirapur, Odisha
  • Holistic laws must to cleanse rot in exam
  • All thunder & lightening but no rain
  • Bora Festival #2 : Gallery
  • Deepika Mayanglambam : Felicitated by Y20
  • COVID-19 Status 15 March : Govt of Manipur
  • Will shorter TB regimen reach those in need
  • From a student, Dear Dhanamanjuri University
  • An inspiring story of a fish farmer journey
  • British Council announces STEM scholarship
  • State's reputation at stake as drug...
  • Briefing Union Home Minister
  • Thabal Competition #1 : Gallery
  • International River day at Lairouching
  • COVID-19 Status 14 March : Govt of Manipur
  • Lembi Leima : Film Premeire at Melbourne
  • Ballad For Gloom :: Poem
  • Dialectics of identity & development #2
  • Patriarchy opting for Gender Equality
  • Demand for NRC, panel testifies restive state
  • All set for HSLC 2023 exams
  • Yaoshang Mei Loukhatpa #2 : Gallery
  • COVID-19 Status 13 March : Govt of Manipur
  • Railways acts as engine of development
  • The Book of Ichigo Ichie :: Review
  • Platform for women to re-start their careers
  • The rising threat of forest fires
  • Land allotment scam amid uproar over eviction
  • Noting stand of Forest Minister
  • English Pronouncing Skills : Book Download
  • Day 5: Yaoshang Sports : Gallery
  • COVID-19 Status 12 March : Govt of Manipur
  • Representation to PM seeking appointment
  • Condemnation of CM N Biren's interview
  • Eco-friendly management of fall armyworm
  • Honesty is the worst privacy
  • Resistance to Govt efforts to protect forests
  • Tough times call for tough decisions
  • My Memories of Imphal #13 : Download
  • Day 4: Yaoshang Sports : Gallery
  • COVID-19 Status 11 March : Govt of Manipur
  • Why COVID-19 continues to be a pandemic?
  • International Women's Day
  • 'Electricity collaboration' diplomacy in BBIN
  • Day 3: Yaoshang Sports : Gallery
  • Yaoshang Sports: Yubi Lakpi at Khongman
  • COVID-19 Status 10 March : Govt of Manipur
  • UNHHRC access to Mizoram & Manipur
  • Govt to withdraw from SOO agreement
  • 4 Filmmakers invited for Indie8 Fest
  • Dialectics of identity & development #1
  • Thabal Chongba @Mongsangei #1 : Gallery
  • Yaoshang Pichakari #1 : Gallery
  • Featured Front Page Photo 2023 #1: Gallery
  • International Women's Day 2023
  • COVID-19 Status 09 March : Govt of Manipur
  • Yaoshang Sports at Khongman
  • International Women's Day at IBSD, Imphal
  • Nakatheng Chatpa @Kakwa : Gallery
  • Yaoshang Mei Loukhatpa #1 : Gallery
  • COVID-19 Status 08 March : Govt of Manipur
  • Sports item distributed at Bishnupur
  • Parents :: Poem
  • Call for world peace & harmony
  • Tips to play safe Holi
  • Yaoshang Mei Thaba @Imphal : Gallery
  • Yaoshang Mei Thaba @Nabadwip : Gallery
  • COVID-19 Status 07 March : Govt of Manipur
  • Yaoshang : Nostalgia, tradition & identity
  • GOI pressure on CM Rio to deliver solution
  • Update gun license otherwise
  • Art Exhibition @ RKCS #1 : Gallery
  • NE Convention on Indigenous Peoples Land
  • COVID-19 Status 06 March : Govt of Manipur
  • Yaoshang (Holi) Festival :: Book
  • Railways: Engine of new growth in NE India
  • Precautionary measures during Yaoshang
  • Persons suffering from Sickle cell disease
  • Training on mushroom at Khangabok
  • Floodlight boon for state's sportspersons
  • Act not think for the future of Meiteis
  • Yaoshang Sen Khaiba : Gallery
  • Students Tour to Nagpur #2 :: Gallery
  • COVID-19 Status 05 March : Govt of Manipur
  • Lampak is calling
  • North East endorses Modi but with conditions
  • Elephanta Caves
  • After village chief, anti-poppy vow by legislator
  • The good & the bad of Yaoshang
  • My Memories of Imphal #12 : Download
  • Sangai Fest: Khutpak Chatkoi #2 : Gallery
  • 538th Birth Anniv of Cheitanya Mahaprabhu
  • COVID-19 Status 04 March : Govt of Manipur
  • Gender gap in STEM: Its impact & solution
  • On Rethinking Corruption
  • How sports help in development of women
  • Lanna Thouram of Chaoren #2 :: Gallery
  • Water use during water crisis: Hunphun/Ukhrul
  • COVID-19 Status 03 March : Govt of Manipur
  • World Wildlife Day : Awareness Cycle Rally
  • Farewell to students from Maharashtra
  • Bodoland International Knowledge Festival
  • Startups & NE India connect
  • Minister Biswajit's anti-poppy stand
  • Show no leniency to poppy growers
  • MANITEX @ Nilakuthi #3 : Gallery
  • Dr Surpriya Hawaibam: Ophthalmology Award
  • Time to get back to basics to end TB
  • In light of reintroducing Damodar Swami
  • Can Myanmar-Bangladesh promote ASEAN
  • Play organic Holi with natural colors
  • Must prepare to derive benefit of border trade
  • ST demand has come a long way
  • Likon Sanaba @Ningthoukhong #2 : Gallery
  • State Project Co-ordinator for Manipur
  • COVID-19 Status 01 March : Govt of Manipur
  • National Science Day at Lilong
  • Lessons from the inferno @Sainik School
  • Messi -- The Name Is Enough -III
  • Tourism is a cross cutting industry
  • Spike in electricity demand
  • Lungnila : Long wait for justice
  • Hiyang Tannaba @ Loktak #4 : Gallery
  • COVID-19 Status 28 Feb : Govt of Manipur
  • Owner of Translucent Umbrella :: Poem
  • Scope of Pentatomidae as bio-control
  • Water shortage, sip on the rocks
  • 'Nagaland Poll- voter turnout of 85%'
  • Challenges to fruition of rice procurement
  • State needs Old Cachar Rd & more highways
  • Nongmaithem Tombi Singh's contribution #1
  • March Calendar for Year 2023 : Tools
  • COVID-19 Status 27 Feb : Govt of Manipur
  • Indigenous Peoples & Forest Rights
  • MPSC Civil Services Aspirants concerns
  • Bridal Beauty Sustainable Show @ Delhi
  • Student delegates from Maharashtra
  • Perennial apathy hallmark of Imp-Jiri road
  • Irrigation & agricultural productivity
  • Saroi Khangba @ Imphal #1 : Gallery
  • The delimitation issues of Manipur
  • Smoking rates decline in Cambodia but...
  • Plenty of money; Famine of leadership
  • Leader versus Boss
  • Fermentation tech of Beauveria Bassiana #2
  • Ugly side of competitive exams comes to fore
  • Economic development & investment
  • My Memories of Imphal #11 : Download
  • Sangai Fest: Cherry Blossom @Mao : Gallery
  • COVID-19 Status 25 Feb : Govt of Manipur
  • The drunken 'Nagaland'
  • Who made who
  • Phone pe Panchayat
  • Lanna Thouram of Chaoren #1 :: Gallery
  • Singarei :: Poem
  • Singju Festival @Heingang #1 :: Gallery
  • Students Tour to Nagpur #1 :: Gallery
  • 6th Intl Women's Polo #1 :: Gallery
  • Lui-ngai-ni Fest @ Chandel #1 :: Gallery
  • Mangani Leihun of Chaoren #2 :: Gallery
  • Shopping List for Shivaratri :: Gallery
  • 74th Republic Day @ Kangla #5 :: Gallery
  • Jiribam Keithel [June 2022] #2 :: Gallery
  • MK Binodini's centenary - oral literature
  • Aribam Syam Sharma :: Filmography
  • Chinese New Year @Bangkok 2023 :: Gallery
  • Olympians & National awardees of Manipur
  • Downloadable Manipuri Calendar for 2023