Lost Archives: Ootacamund Flowers

 “Without the gift of flowers and the infinite diversity of their fruits, man and bird, if they had continued to exist at all, would be today unrecognizable. The weight of a petal has changed the face of the world and made it ours”
Loren Eiseley, How Flowers Changed the World

Open your doors and look abroad
From your blossoming garden gather
fragrant memories of the vanished
flowers and plants of an hundred years before.     
Rabindranath Tagore, The Gardener


Between those two quotes lies a tale. And a memory. And an archive. As always, Loren Eiseley nails it. Flowers do change the face of the world. But equally, as Tagore reminds us, the weight of a vanished petal from a hundred years ago – whether in a forgotten garden or a missing archive – hangs heavy on the world and makes it less ours. Less diverse, less indescribably beautiful. Lost flowers damage us all. But so do century-old floral archives that go AWOL. Consider this …

I’m in the Nilgiris, in Ootacamund — the queen of hill stations — or, as its now officially known, Udhagamandalam. Despite the garbage, the dwindling shola forests (dwarf evergreens), the invasive eucalyptus, and the failed monsoon this year, the hills are spectacularly beautiful. But I’m not looking for the contemporary 21st century version of these places. My sights are set a few centuries prior. I’m focused on the archival rearview mirror.

So, scratch that beginning, and let me start again. Rewinding … I’m in the Neil-gherries! in Ooty! For that is the way the Blue Mountains and the hill station were spelt – and seen – by the first British residents in the early 19th century. And that is the world I’m chasing: the world of botanical art produced by these settlers as they documented and depicted the Neilgherries as both strange as well as intimately familiar. Botanically speaking, that is. Strange in that the foreign flora included exotic native plants unique to its slopes,  chief among them being the blue wildflower shrub Kurinji, Strobilanthes kunthiana, which blooms only every 12 years and gives the NilGiris, the Blue Mountains, their name. Familiar in that the vegetation and landscape of these open grass-covered hills also reminded these homesick Britons of Blighty! Whether the comparisons made were with rolling Sussex downs or Scottish highlands or even – for those who hated the Neilgherries’ rainy season – with Lusitanian gloom!  The cool, temperate hill climate was pronounced ideal for British constitutions. And so the hills became further domesticated even as they were colonized. By the late 19th century, the Neilgherries had become – sometimes even more than was possible in the narrower, rockier, steeper Himalayan hill stations – idyllic little pockets of England-in-India providing much needed green respite from the burning alluvial plains and the hot Deccan plateau. Continue reading