I salute Tamil Nadu. It has it all…temples, beaches, Pondy, South Indian Thali’s and mountains…and that’s exactly where I was headed. Coonor, a heritage hill station…the queen of tea gardens, and last but not the least, a station on the World Heritage Nilgiri Mountain Railway. I was going crazy trying to get a ticket but as luck would have it, the train was all sold out. That’s when I cramped myself in a tiny Indica and started a three-hour journey in a sweaty 40 degrees. Mettupalayam, at the base of the Nilgiri’s, is the Nilgiri Railway terminus, the one which I wasnt going to experience this time. As soon as reached the mountains…the weather changed, and I think the temperature dropped to 20 degrees…or atleast it felt like it. Welcome to Coonor!
Coonor is the second largest hill-station of the Nilgiri’s. Primarily a tea garden town, Coonor is a popular getaway from Coimbatore, and thus weekends can be crazy. If you want to enjoy the town, go during the week, when it is much more quieter. Weather remains good all year round but Coonor, like any other hill-station, is beautiful during monsoons. Plan a couple of days to explore the local markets, the sites, the food and the tea gardens…and yes, if you can take the Nilgiri Train, even for a short trip, do it!
Good weather can make photography so easy. Where I was struggling to find that extra bit of energy, it was completely the opposite in Coonor. I shot 3 projects back to back and I could have shot more. The ladies of Coonor Ladies Circle first took me to the Panchayat Union Middle School in Bettatti, which has a total of 106 children. The school, which is funded by the Government of Tamil Nadu, was established in 1961. As soon as I got my camera out to shoot, I was mobbed by the children to take pictures. Wherever I walked, a group of boys followed me. Thus, rather than taking pictures of the toilet block constructed by the Ladies Circle, I ended up shooting the boys, who was happy to show off their biceps…atcleast whatever they had on those thin arms! The girls, in the meantime, hid from the camera…and ran away from me. Was it me or my camera, that is the question?
The Ladies took me to their next project…The Municipal Middle School in Attadi. Established in 1955, the schools has 86 students, mostly coming from nearby villages. Education is up to Class VIIIth and caters to both boys and girls. Mobbed yet again, I managed to get a few pictures of the project, which included the mats, benches, cupboards and tables, which the Ladies Circle had donated. But, it was the next project that we visited, which was the most exciting. I visited the Primary School in Erinkadu, Karumpalam. Set in the backdrop of a hill, this picturesque school with 85 children, is funded by the Government. When I reached there, it was lunch time and the children were being given their Mid Day Meal…a project started by the Government of India, to make sure that all children in primary schools get basic nutrition.
Children had queued up in the ground, armed with their thali’s (plates) and glasses. On one end of the line, were the two cooks, who gave food to the children. There was excitement in the air…the children laughing and waiting for the food, a weird tall man with a camera, and great weather added up just well. Just to pass on the vital information, the Ladies Circle has donated the plates and tumblers for all the children as well as some sports equipment. This was an afternoon to remember and thank you LC Coonoor…Vidya, Pratima and Deepa for a fantastic time in Coonoor.
Before I returned to my cab to take me to Coimbatore, we made one more stop. Coonoor Railway Station. Not only did I want to see the heritage station, built by the British, but also was interested in seeing a remarkable project done by the Ladies Circle Coonoor. To fulfil the need of providing a place to sit to the travelers, Ladies Circle has donated benches at the Railway Station. A noble idea, I say….for dreamers like me who like to sit and enjoy looking at trains passing by!
And yes, finally I have a picture of myself…the ghummakkad…sitting with the children during the mid day meal!