The Nilgiri Library stands tall, spectacular in her white and terracotta garb, classy Victorian architecture embraced by a splendid serenity. She has weathered the ravaging Ooty climate, particularly the plundering rains and withstood the test of time. It is interesting to look at her two lifetimes: in her incipient days on the one hand and the post-centennial struggle to preserve this world-class landmark, on the other.
Records from Fredrick Price’s Ootacamund a History say that Mr. Sullivan, founder of the Nilgiris, breathed life into the concept of a library in 1829 : “A subscription has been set on foot for a public reading room at Ooty.”
A Committee was appointed.
It found that the Government would not help them realize this dream. They and the members resolved to make the public bungalow of the present premises a Library. The land was bought for Rs. 2,250 and the building was completed at a cost of Rs. 25,468. Quite a challenging accomplishment considering the little help they got from external sources; the Library in its present structure was completed only in 1869.
In her second lifetime (if we may call it so), there was a proposal from the local administration in 1966 for the amalgamation of the Central Library with the Nilgiri Library.
The then Chairman of the Committee sent the following reply to the Collector, “I am directed to inform you that the members of the Committee have no wish to see this century old private Library merged with any other institution.” The proposal was withdrawn. Notwithstanding early inception struggles and her growth challenges in later years, today the Nilgiri Library stands tall and is a symbol perhaps, of wisdom that comes with age.
Among the Library’s most interesting facets is the 50 by 30 reading room with teak wood flooring and ceiling, unique in South India. The ambience is perfect for any fervent scholar or an ordinary reader lazily turning the pages of magazines and journals reclining on the large but cozy sofas. The large windowpanes shed such wonderful light inside, and the term ‘temple of learning’ may be very appropriate.
First editions, copyright editions, only editions, priceless editions and original manuscripts are all found here.
Roman and French books line teak wood glass cases in the Wardrop Room where Queen Victoria’s oil painting imparts an imperial touch to the tranquil ambience. A 16th century Bible in Greek, bound volumes of the classic Punch magazine, exhaustive recording of the World Wars in embellished leather-bound magazines, erudite literary commentaries by literateurs in Contemporary Reviews dating 1875 glint in gold letters on the shelves hitting the ceilings.
The expanse of fiction right from Aesop’s Fables vaults across oceans of books to The Inheritance of Loss. Look no further also, if you are looking for a book on the Nilgiris itself.
As for the heritage status of the Nilgiri Library, William James of British Columbia, Canada a visitor to the Library rightly observes, “It is so great to see this Library has lasted this long.” The members and management of the Library have preserved the heritage and culture of Nilgiris where ‘lifetimes can be spent’. Mr. I.K.Gujral, former Prime Minister of India, during his visit to the Library wrote, “It is a joy and great satisfaction to visit this historic Library. It is indeed a heritage place that preserves such a treasury of old and valuable books. I must say a word about the building too. It is a heritage by itself that needs and gets very tender care. My all good wishes and moral support for this effort of labour.”
Among the many scholars, writers and readers who visited the Library were Hugh and Coleen Gantzer, eminent travelogue writers. They chronicled: “It is a wonderful experience to visit a good library and from our brief visit (we think) this is a Great Library.”
The Nilgiri Library as she grows older ensconces for us what is precious and very dear to us in these days of turbo-charged times – serenity and the eternally fascinating world of books.
Ross Macdonald’s lines come to the mind as golden beams of the setting sun coruscate through the majestic French windows: “The walls of books around, dense with the past form a kind of insulation against the present world and its disasters.”
- R Kamala
First published in the print version of The Local, Jan 31, 2007