The onset of the south west monsoon never fails to revive old memories and hopes for the quintessential Ooty dweller for whom the monsoon is something to endure as well as to enjoy.
After the hectic days of the summer when Ooty becomes overcrowded, congested and noisy an air of unhurried calmness descends on the town during the monsoon as people go about their daily chores in layers of clothing and with the inevitable umbrella.
Incessant drizzle, gusty winds, wet landscape, dank houses typify the monsoon weather. The talk everywhere is about a tree fallen here or a road blocked there or a land slipped elsewhere. The longing for a bit of sunshine is on everyone’s lips.
But monsoon is also the time when Ooty looks bathed, preened and fresh with greenery turning a deeper hue and wild flowers in bloom.
The south west monsoon bursts out in the first week of June and peaks in July heralding major changes in weather and atmospheric conditions, particularly, in Ooty in central Nilgiris and the Kundahs in the western parts. During the first half of the monsoon the Kundah ranges and the western plateau are characterized by overcast, windy and extremely wet conditions. Even Ooty is marked by high cloudiness and low sunshine. Wind speeds are more than twice as high as during the rest of the year. Humidity is extreme (80 to 90 % relative humidity).
There may be a few clear days of ‘breaks in the monsoon’ but they are hardly a solace for the melancholic mood of the monsoon.
Mukurti and the three ‘western catchments’ of the Kundah range get the maximum rainfall averaging 2000 mm to 5000 mm annually. The intensity of rainfall on the plateau during the monsoon moderates as one move away from the Kundah range. Over as distance of just 45 km, the average seasonal precipitation declines from 5000mm over 90-100 rainy days in the west to less than 150mm over 10-15 rainy days in the east.
Thus, sheltered on the leeward side of the Doddabetta range, the weather conditions in Kotagiri, Coonoor and Ketti during the SW monsoon are brighter and far less hostile.
Ooty monsoon was too much for even an intrepid explorer like Richard Burton who visited the hills in 1851. As he beat a hasty retreat from the hills, he wrote in his diary, ‘What a detestable place this Ootacamund is during the rains. From morning to night and from night to morning gigantic piles of heavy wet clouds rise up slowly from the direction of the much-vexed Kundahs. In the interim a gentle drizzle, now deepening into a shower, now driven into sleet descends with vexatious perseverance. When there is no drizzle there is a Scotch mist. When the mist clears away it is succeeded by a London fog. The sun shorn of its rays spitefully diffuses throughout the atmosphere muggy warmth, the very reversal of the genial’.
The Nilgiri aborigines who have survived centuries of monsoons were both in awe and depended on the monsoon for their livelihood. What chance does a man stand ‘when the monsoon rain cloud rises or when the black elephant’s trunk rises’, queries a Badaga proverb.
The Todas who during the summer had moved their buffaloes to the western grasslands made sure they and their cattle were back in their regular settlements before the monsoon set in.
For the cultivating Badagas and Kotas the monsoon was the main harvesting season for their traditional crops like millets, barley, beans, garlic, mustard and potato. After the harvest they go about preparing the soil for the second planting- chickpeas, lentils, beans, carrot, coriander, radish, potato and turnips to be harvested in winter.
Of late Nilgiri monsoons have added another dreadful dimension to them – landslides. Where will tragedy strike next?