THE GATEWAY TO THE NILGIRIS
Set in the foothills of the Nilgiris, Coimbatore is a popular staging post for many hill destinations like Ooty, Coonoor, Valparai and Munnar. It also makes an ideal base for those wanting to explore the wildlife reserves of the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve and the Periyar Tiger Reserve. We decided to spend a couple of days exploring this city before taking off for the green hills of Valparai. For most tourists, the city is little more than a jumping off point for hill stations and wildlife reserves but we had an educational and enjoyable time with our children in this city of museums. Its various temples, rivers and the beauty of the surrounding Western Ghats make it one of the top tourist destinations in India.
Coimbatore, also known as Kovai, is a major city in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Located on the banks of the Noyyal River surrounded by the Western Ghats, it is the second largest city in the state after Chennai and 16th largest urban agglomeration in India. It is the largest city in the Kongunadu region. It is administered by the Coimbatore Municipal Corporation and is the administrative capital of Coimbatore district. The city has gained fame for its development – healthcare and education standards are pretty good in Coimbatore. It is one of the fastest growing tier-ii cities in India and a major hub for textiles, industries, commerce, and manufacturing in Tamil Nadu and it is also now an information technology centre.. The city of Coimbatore is best known for its huge production base of textiles, specially the famous South Cotton and handloom woven Kovai Kora cotton sarees– an industry that has earned it the nickname, Manchester of South India. It is also a centre for other industries like engineering, earning fame for its Coimbatore Wet Grinders, used in the food grains industry, auto components industries, machines and pumps. In fact, it is also called the Pump City of India!
The city is one of the largest exporters of jewellery, wet grinders, poultry and
auto components, with “Coimbatore Wet Grinder” and “Kovai Cora Cotton” recognised as Geographical Indications by the Government of India.
Coimbatore was part of Kongu Nadu during the Sangam period between 1st and the 4th centuries CE and was ruled by the Cheras, as it served as the eastern entrance to the Palakkad Gap, the principal trade route between the west coast and Tamil Nadu. Coimbatore was located along the ancient Roman trade route that extended from Muziris to Arikamedu in South India. The medieval Cholas conquered the Kongu Nadu in the 10th century CE. The region was ruled by Vijayanagara Empire in the 15th century followed by the Nayaks who introduced the Palayakkarar system under which Kongu Nadu region was divided into 24 Palayams. In the later part of the 18th century, the Coimbatore region came under the Kingdom of Mysore and following the defeat of Tipu Sultan in the Anglo-mysore Wars, the British East India Company annexed Coimbatore to the Madras Presidency in 1799. In 1804, Coimbatore was established as the capital of the newly formed Coimbatore district and in 1866 it was accorded municipality status with Robert Stanes as its Chairman. The city experienced a textile boom in the early 19th century due to the decline of the cotton industry in Mumbai. Post independence, Coimbatore has seen rapid growth due to industrialisation. Coimbatore was ranked the best emerging city in India by India Today in the 2014 annual Indian city survey. The city was ranked fourth among Indian cities in
investment climate by Confederation of Indian Industry and 17th among the top global outsourcing cities by Tholons. Coimbatore has been selected as one of the hundred Indian cities to be developed as a smart city under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s flagship Smart Cities Mission.
As we left the airport and drove out on Avinashi Road, in a few minutes we reached the Kasthuri Sreenivasan Trust Art Gallery & Textile Museum, looming up on the side of the road. This textile museum showcases various aspects of the textile industry from its history to the processes of textile production. The ground floor room is dedicated to the history of textiles, starting with the whorl wheels of the Egyptian Nile Valley Civilisation and the spinning wheels of historical India, through the growth and development of spinning and weaving until the industrial revolution. Among the exhibits are the Saxony Wheel, introduced in Europe at the beginning of the 16th century and actuated by a foot treadle, thus freeing both of the operator’s hands, textiles preserved in African caves, and the Mule which is an automated version of the traditional spinning wheel. A room has antique textiles, including sarees and crafts. Visuals show the costumes from the ancient Indus civilization to the British colonial period. Various textile production techniques like weaving, knitting, crocheting, lace making, etc are also exhibited. Handlooms include those using banana fibre, pineapple fibre, screw pine and ramie.. A rare exhibit in the section is a piece of ultra-fine Muslin. A Japanese wedding dress and other fabrics display a range of creativity and skill.
Equally interesting is the Art Gallery which showcases historical Indian art, European art, pieces from different parts of the world, and modern art. Established by the late Kasturi Srinivasan, a Padmabhushan awardee, the culture centre has an auditorium and facilities for temporary exhibitions.
Continuing on the Avinashi Road, we came to the science and industrial museum endowed by the family of the late G. D. Naidu, an Indian inventor and engineer who is also referred to as the Edison of India – In 1937, he made the first motor to be produced in India, His other creations included super-thin shaving blades, a distance adjuster for film cameras, a fruit juice extractor, a tamper-proof vote-recording machine and a kerosene-run fan. Apart from machines, he also took an interest in agriculture. Keeping with the spirit of G.D. Naidu, the museum offers an insight into the working of electrical, electronic and other devices, advances in science and technology, and historical film cameras, projection TV’S, ball point pens, floppy disks, calculators, type writers, PA systems and printers, and the design and technology behind daily use items like boxes and shavers, and exhibits from the industries of G.D. Naidu. My children were fascinated by the science behind some magic tricks, scientific facts and informative displays.
In the same building, the GEDEE Car Museum celebrates Naidu’s passion for automobiles, showcasing the history of automobiles from 1885 to present times which was also very educational for my children. It has given special pride of place to information about car designers. The cars in the museum includes a1925 Hispano Suiza from Mysore, a 1938 DKW, 1937 Hansa, 1939 Hanomag and 1957 Goggomobil and a
1949 Mercedes-benz 170 S, and they have also displayed fully working replicas of the 1886 Benz Patent-motorwagenand the 1896 Ford Quadricycle. The museum also has a restoration workshop attached. The museum campus has an institute of the Coimbatore Indo-german Cultural Association, where we bought some interesting educational products.
Being a bustling business city, Coimbatore has many branded hotels. A short drive from the museum brought us to Vivanta by Taj Surya where we tucked into a meal comprising of regional fare, including the earthy dishes of the Badagas and other communities of the Nilgiris.
Coimbatore’s oldest museum, the Gass Forest Museum, was established by Conservator of Forests, Horace Arichibald Gass, in 1902. The museum was closed and the buildings used as shelters for World War II evacuees from Malta and Greece in the 1940s. It became part of a forest college after independence, and was renovated and reopened in 2015. Apart from the stuffed animals, plant specimens and other natural history exhibitions, there are forest engineering models, and samples of rock, soil and minerals formation.
Do visit the Eachanari Vinayagar Temple, considered to be consecrated in 1500 AD. It is famous for its massive 6 foot tall idol of lord Ganesha, one of the biggest idols of the deity in south India. The best time to visit the temple is during the Hindu festival of Ganesh Chaturthi. Among the prominent temples in Coimbatore is the Marudamalai Temple, dedicated to the Hindu deity Lord Murugan or Kartikeya, situated atop a hill of the same name. The hills are a part of the Western Ghats and are home to various types of medicinal herbs. The surroundings are picturesque to look at. The Temple complex is built in a unique Dravidian style and is 1200 years old. The city’s famous Perur Pateeswarar Temple by
the Noyyal River is dedicated to the Hindu deity Lord Shiva and was built by the Cholas and is considered to be thousands of years old. The stone carvings inside the temple and its pillars are breathtaking and are few of the finest specimens of the art. The temple is said to be located at the spot where Lord Shiva himself performed the ‘Tandav’ dance. The golden statue of Lord Natraja (Shiva) is also one of the major attractions here. Anubhavi Subramaniar Temple is situated on the outskirts of Coimbatore and again is on top of a hill. The temple’s location is one of the city’s best viewpoints and provides panoramic views of the Western Ghats. One must climb a thousand steep steps to reach the temple. The temple also has a natural water spring that spouts water throughout the year.
About 30kms from the city centre amid the hills, Dhyanlingam is a temple and meditation centre consecrated by Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev. The meditative space does not ascribe to any particular faith or belief system, with symbols of all the world’s religions inscribed as a universal welcome at the entrance. A large ellipsoidal dome designed by architect Satprem Maïni and the Auroville Earth Institute, and constructed by volunteers of the Isha Foundation, using only country fired bricks and cement stabilized mud mortar, is the architectural high point of the space. An ethereal blend of vocals, singing bowls, drums and various other instruments amplified within the reverberating dome, transports one into a timeless space. Its 112-foot Adiyogi Shiva statue was recently unveiled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Maha Shivratri. Vasudev plans to teach Yoga to 100 million people by next Shivratri.
The Coimbatore Zoological Park & Conservation Centre (CZPCC) is set in the foothills of the Nilgiris, and is also worth visiting as is the Tamil Nadu University Botanical Gardens.
Coimbatore district is filled with lakes. The Siruvani river waters are considered excellent for taste and purity, and its waterfalls are pretty but not very impressive in the summer months. Singanallur Lake is fed by canals derived from Noyyal river and supports a rich bio-diversity of plankton, butterflies, and migratory birds. Sundakkamuthur Lake is popular with birdwatchers. Thunakadavu lake, on the way to Parambikulam, has a beautiful dam. Parambikkulam Wildlife sanctuary is a tiger reserve and a protected habitat of several endangered species. The forests are home to 4 indigenous tribes.
We spent the last evening in the city shopping for fabrics, before tucking into dinner at Sree Annapoorna, including some dishes typical of Kovai cuisine, ending with superb filter coffee.
The next morning, we awakened early for the drive to Valparai. About an hour out of Coimbatore, we came to Pollachi, where we took an early lunch break. After Pollachi, we came to the Aliyar forests. The Aliyar dam, in the foothills of Valparai, offers some ideal diversions, including a park, garden, aquarium, play area and a mini theme-park maintained by Tamil Nadu Fisheries Corporation. The scenery is beautiful, with mountains surrounding three quarters of the reservoir. Boating is also available. After this, the climb began, with a series of hairpin bends. At one of the bends, we were pleasantly surprised to
see a herd of Nilgiri tahr grazing near the roadside. This endemic mountain goat is stocky, with curved horns as its striking feature, and is on the red list of endangered species of the world. Continuing towards Valparai, the grasslands began to give way to tea plantations neatly laid out on the slopes. We stopped at outlets to buy Nilgiri tea, fresh honey and other produce. Presently, we came to Stanmore Garden Bungalow, a heritage tea planters’ house set on a hilltop with panoramic views of plantations on every side. Over an afternoon tea in the gardens, we enjoyed watching and listening to Malabar whistling thrushes, whose lazy and rambling calls are likened to an `idle boy whistling’! In the evening we trekked down through the estate to the river, for a view of the forests on the opposite bank – elephants are sometimes spotted but we did not see any.
We awoke early for a drive to the Puthuthottam Estate, where we were hoping to see lion tailed macaque, a monkey with a silver-white mane and a lion-like tufted tail. This species is endemic to the Western Ghats ranges and listed as endangered by IUCN, therefore we were excited at the idea of seeing the troop that frequents the estate’s bungalow. When we reached the monkeys were not visible, much to our disappointment, but a 3km walk through the estate yielded the sight of a huge tusker, a herd of gaur or Indian
bison and a minivet and flycatchers. After a cup of tea in the 150-year-old bungalow full of old wood furniture and antiques, we walked to a patch of forest where we finally saw a Malabar giant squirrel and a little later, a troop of about a dozen lion tailed macaque. The bungalow’s manager pointed out fresh pugmarks of a leopard that had passed by this area.
After breakfast, we visited the Monica Bungalow, which is another heritage plantation bungalow. Nearby, we also visited the tea factory to see the various stages of tea processing. Another highlight of our tea estate tour was a glimpse of a troop of Nilgiri langur, a Nilgiris fixture.
NILGIRI HILL STATION GETAWAYS
Coonoor: About two-and-a-half hours from Coimbatore Airport, Coonoor is a pretty hill town with tea and coffee plantations, British colonial bungalows and scenic hills. It has also become known for its cheese factory. The ride on the old Blue Mountain Train from here to Ooty is an exciting journey.
Ooty: About three hours from Coimbatore, Ooty is the Queen of the Nilgiris and one of the most popular among South India’s Hill Stations. Called Udhagamandalam and also Oootacamund, it is known for its botanical gardens and British colonial architecture.
Yercaud: Four hours from Coimbatore, this hill station in the Shevaroy Hills has tea estates, a scenic lake, a waterfall and Lady’s Seat with good views. Munnar: Five hours from Coimbatore, it is an exciting place to see birds like Nilgiri tahr, Nilgiri marten and also the Nilgiris tea plantations.
The hairpin bends on the road to Valparai
Nilgiri tea plantations of Valparai Lion tailed macaque at Valparai Gaur or Indian bison at Valparai
Tea stall in Valparai Valparai is known for its tea estates and floral riches
Kasthuri Sreenivasan Trust Art Gallery The excellent GEEDEE Car Museum at Coimbatore
The GD Naidu Science Museum
Dhyanlingam Adiyogi statue
Tamil Nadu Agricultural university’s botanical gardens’ entrance in Coimbatore
Aliyar dam reservoir park in Coimbatore
Parambikulam wildlife sanctuary
Sundakkamuthur Lake, Coimbatore, is popular with birdwatchers
Valparai is known for its tea estates
Malabar whistling thrush
Malabar giant squirrel
The hills abound in butterflies Giant spider at Valparai
Coimbatore is the gateway to many hill stations
Textile shopping in Coimbatore is a must
Breathtaking lake views en route to Valparai
A garland seller
A mountain goat enjoys the view
Stanmore Bungalow offers heritage accommodation
Stanmore Bungalow bedroom
Typical Kovai cuisine of the Nilgiris