The towns of the southern hill stations are tiny compared to those of the plains, and because the British authorities of the time were laying out a township in pretty much virgin territory, they seem to be more compact. This is particularly true of Ooty, where the Collectorate sits in a cluster of old buildings just down the road from St Stephen’s church.
St Stephen’s is a delightful light building, whose construction was quite controversial – the then Governor laid the foundation stone in 1829 and then seems to have shamed the Madras government into finding the money. The great wooden beams for the interior were taken from the Tipu Sultan’s Lal Bagh Palace in Srirangapatnam, following his defeat in the great battle of 1799.
Opposite are the colonial buildings, of brick and wood, put up 100 to 150 years ago and surviving remarkably well. The Nilgiri Library has just celebrated its 150th anniversary with a makeover, and the Collectorate (or administrative HQ) is always spick and span. Higginbothams book shop has been freshly painted. The predominant colour for the bricks is red; and where there are wooden shutters (more usually found down in the plains) these tend to be green. The Madras Club’s new bamboo blinds, or chicks, are a splendid shade of green – it could be described as British Racing Green, but the paint shop in Dindigul knows it as “Country Club Green”!
It all makes a refreshing change from the white concrete boxes of modern India. Concrete painted white is singularly unsuited to a tropical climate, as we found to our cost when we had to repaint our house in Chennai yearly. The whitewash, if you don’t watch the painters like a hawk, gets diluted 50/50 to make it go further, and at the first shower trickles down the walls and into the garden where it makes greasy grey puddles. Even undiluted, it turns grey with mildew after the monsoon and the whole house looks quite unappealing.
Perhaps the early painters knew something which is now forgotten. I have a theory (unproven) that maybe that particular red and green contained some element (lead? arsenic?) which was inimical to mould and mildew and kept the buildings looking fresh. Whatever the case, they are much more attractive than the modern ones.