Catching up with Nihangs in the quiet hills of the Nilgiris

  • Khushwant Singh, Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
  • Updated: Aug 26, 2015 13:26 IST
The Nihung post office was established post Independence by the postal department of India. (HT Photo)

Booking airline tickets early is a good and cheap option to go on a family holiday. I did exactly that and visited family and friends in Bangalore and Coonoor in the Nilgiri hills. However, little did I realise that the Coonoor visit would take me to the abode of the Nihangs.

Surprised? Yes, I was equally surprised when I reached Crossways, home of Ramneek and his wife Manal in Coonoor about 20 kilometres away from the polluted and filthy Ooty.

No No! Ramneek and Manal are not a Nihang couple by any stretch of the imagination, neither do they live in a dera. Nihangland it is because Ramneek and his family have an interesting tryst with the word Nihang, meaning armed Sikh fighter. Conversations with Ramneek revealed how his family was one of the earliest Sikh settlers in Coonoor. According to the tale , his great maternal grandfather Sardar Bahadur Dr Moola Singh, after quitting the army, had joined the Pasteur Institute of India in Kasauli. In 1916, he was transferred from Kasauli to the newly set up Pasteur Institute of India in Coonoor from where he retired in the 1930s as a deputy director.

Sardar Bahadur Moola Singh, during his stint, fell in love with the weather, people and flora and fauna of Coonoor and decided to stay back there itself. He soon bought a tea estate near Kotagiri (20km from Coonoor) and built a house close to it. He named it ‘Nihangistaan’ meaning the house of Nihangs.

Ramneek’s grandfather who had started investing with his father-in-law the Sardar Bahadur, travelled between Coonoor, and Sri Ganganagar frequently, preferring the former over the heat of Rajasthan. The family kept expanding its tea business and set up a tea factory in Kotagiri in the 1940s. The success story of the Sikh soon created a buzz. ‘Nihang ney Chanda gadh dita (The Sikh has conquered success)’ was the phrase adopted to describe the family’s success. The metaphor used to describe the Sardar Bahadur’s venture soon became institutionalised after which he named his factory the Nihang Tea Factory.

With a Nihangistaan and a Nihang Tea factory already in place, it was only a matter of time when the name Nihang would get permanently etched in the annals of the Nilgiris. Post Independence, the postal department of India set up a post office on the premises of the Nihang Tea Factory and named it the Nihung post office.

I visited it after Ramneek acceded to my request to drive me to the landmark post office. Hidden behind trees, the Nihang post office still exists as a small ramshackle building. Its exact location is Kotagiri taluk of Nilgiris district and the area around it is called the Nihang square. It stands as the branch post office of the Indian Post with pin code 643217. The word Nihang is written in English, Hindi and Tamil.

During the visit we caught up with the two employees who, of course, did not know the how and why of the origin of the name of the post office they worked in. The Nihang tea factory, unfortunately, has shut its doors, but Dr Moola Singh’s imprint is still visible. His descendants are perhaps one of the larger private tea growers in the area owning acres and acres of tea plantation. They speak Tamil as fluently as any person from the state of Tamil Nadu, and Punjabi as desi as any Punjabi.

Over the years, many Sikh families have settled in the Nilgiris giving it a very cosmopolitan character. The majority of them are retired army officers, who while serving in the Defence Services Staff College, Wellington fell in love with the place. Along with them, it is the Nihangs of Dr Moola Singh’s family that exemplify India’s slogan of ‘unity in diversity’.

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