The tiny, Indian village of Door lies in the hills, near Ootacamund.
It’s now a place trekkers pass through without hardly giving it a glance, their eyes firmly set on reaching the town of Ootacamund, once a summer bastion of the British Raj. It was there in, “Snooty Ooty,” that pink-faced civil servants ruled India away from the scorching heat of the plains. Over the years, their presence transformed Ooty into a bizarre version of Surrey.
Door remained, as it was, an Indian village of little distinction, clinging to a terraced hillside that is now covered in tea plantations.
There is little now for the uneducated eye to see except for those inquisitive enough to venture off the beaten track, into huge areas overgrown with Rhododendron bushes, an interior now almost impenetrable, it’s fringes used as a toilet by passing trekkers suffering from Delhi belly and its embarrassingly dramatic evacuations. The bushes have more or less taken over but a sharp eye can see, in some of their branches, the rusted and frayed remains of wire mesh that hangs like spiders webs here and there.
It was this site that gave to the tiny village of Door its great reputation in the late 19th century, greater even than Snooty Ooty. There are anthropologists and historians who claim that Ooty was built on Doors’ singular claim to fame.
Long before the British arrived in India, Door had acquired a reputation for breeding fowls. How this first came about is lost in folklore but all Indian villages and many Indian families breed hens so, in that sense, the good Hindus of Door were no exceptions.
Over the years however, for reasons that may partly be due to altitude or climate or simply the random nature of genetics, people began to notice that the hens of Door were slightly bigger than average.
It was a British army veterinary surgeon that began to take an interest in the phenomenon. Amongst his many interests he collected butterflies and when his busy duties allowed, he’d vanish off up the hills towards Door in search of rare specimens. Sometimes, carried away by his endeavours and exhausted by the thrill of the chase, he’d stay overnight in a ramshackle lodge that called itself, the Hotel Lux. A hand-painted sign over the front door announced that the establishment served, “Lunches, Dinners and Snakes.”
In a place known for the fine quality of its laying hens, breakfast was invariably an omelette. When he started eating there, he’d asked how many eggs were in the omelette. A flash of betel stained teeth and a wiggle of the head followed by the raising of three fingers, provided him with his answer.
Over the years this changed. His little joke about how many eggs, now asked in the local dialect, elicited the answer of, two and then one, although curiously, the size of the omelette remained the same.
Early one morning, he woke up shivering from the cold in a damp pre-dawn light and decided to go down to the kitchen to see if the “Chai-wallah,” had any tea to offer. There, on the table were three of the largest eggs he’d ever seen.
Those eggs were to make his reputation, give him a supplementary pension and transform the economy of Door for many years.
What he’d stumbled across was that the hens of Door had begun to blossom into beasts that would become known as the “Door King Chicken.” Sadly, the sun only rose over Doors chicken industry for less than a decade. Attempts to breed the Door King in other parts of India failed dismally and the breed quickly died out. A faded sepia photograph from the period shows the Door King to be about the same size as a brown Labrador or a large turkey. Its demise would probably have been brought about by genetic factors in the end. Things can’t simply keep getting bigger. In the case of the Door King, it was something much simpler. The breed became easy prey for predators. It was quite simple. The fact was, that its legs failed to grow at the same pace as its body which made it unable to escape any attack. Bizarrely, this was sometimes of a sexual nature and the loss of a hundred or more of the valuable birds was hushed up when they were crushed as the British High Commisioner’s brown labrador escaped from its compound in Ootacamund and attempted to mate with them.
The loss of the Door King Chicken meant that the village to which it owes its name fell into decline and became a place for travellers to pass through on their way to the sedate, geraniumed delights of Snooty Ooty.
What is odd is that the hens of Door are now much smaller and should a traveller stay overnight in the village, they will find that the tiny omelette they receive for breakfast will contain six eggs.