Munnar – The Tea Country of the South

- Shernaz Wadia

 
Madurapuzha, Nallatani and Kundala are the three mountain rivers whose confluence has given Munnar its name. (munn = three, aar = river) Once the summer resort of the British, today it undulates with the jade green of tea estates of Kanan Devan Hills Plantations, the former Tata Tea Company. It is a canvas of astounding beauty with its undulating green hills, sacred ‘sholas’, musical springs, gushing waterfalls, elephants, wild boars, panthers, barking deer, Indian gaur, plenty of other fauna and flora. From sunrise to sunset and season to season this land with its misty lush green hills, waterfalls, lakes and snaking roads, is unceasingly fascinating and a shutterbug’s delight. Its wide vistas and varied hues are awe inspiring

If this queen of the South doesn’t make you fall in love at first sight she will encroach upon your heart piecemeal and make it her own. Heavenly, ensconced at an elevation of 1600 mts. in the High Range area of Idukki district in Kerala, it sees an avalanche of tourists almost through the year. Munnar has neither a train station nor an airport. One has to come up to Kochi or Coimbatore and then travel by road. The distance between Kochi and Munnar by road is around 127 kilometres. It takes about 3 to 4 hours to reach Munnar by this very scenic route. 

More popular as Kanan Devan this thickly forested range of the Western Ghats was opened up and turned into what today are magnificent tea estates, by enterprising pioneers as far back as the 1870s. Tea has been its main agricultural crop since the first tea bush was planted by A. H. Sharp in the 19th century, in Parvathi which is now in the Sevenmallay Estate. Col. Arthur Wellesley, the young Duke of Wellington, was actually the first European to visit Munnar in 1790, in pursuit of Tipu Sultan. 

Red-roofed bungalows built during colonial times on its widely spread tea estates still retain their outer grandeur but the interiors have moved ahead with the times. The sitting rooms and master bedrooms of these imposing bungalows continue to have wooden flooring and bay windows, working fireplaces and sprawling gardens. They are a far cry from the ‘bungalows’ of the determined pioneers, which in reality were grass thatched huts with mud and wattle walls, surrounded by elephant trenches. 

On the back cover of her book, ‘The Story of Munnar’, Sulochana Nalapat says, “This book offers you some food for your right brain, in other words the soul of an enchanted place called Munnar. Here generations of people, black, brown and white, along with children of the wild, lived and died to produce a composite culture we may call plantation culture. They were neither demons nor gods; they came on stage, played out their roles and when the lights were out, blended into the bright blue of these skies, the perfect texture of this soil, and added sharpness to the icy winds that blow along the valleys laid out at the feet of the majestic Aneimudi.” 
 
Aneimudi, ‘elephant-headed mountain’ is the highest peak at 8841 ft. (2695mts.) above sea-level, south of the Himalayas. Also spelt Anamudi it is located in Ernakulam and Idukki districts of Kerala.  Legend has it that it is the abode of the benevolent Muniandi also known as Muniappan, Aandiappan and Munisamy. It is also believed that Muniandi was Emperor Nedunchezhiyan of the Pandya dynasty. 

So this ‘plantation culture’ has in it a bit of the blood, marrow, tears, fears and perspiration of many generations and cultures over the century and some more years it has spanned, to be what it is today culturally  and historically. The Kanan Devan Hills Produce Company came into being in the 1900’s. Later it came to be known as James Finlay and Co. When it was bought over by the Tatas it was re-christened Tata Tea. In 2005 Kanan Devan Hills Plantations Company Private Limited (KDHP), the first and the largest participatory management company in India with more than 12500 employees as shareholders, took over the majority of tea plantations in Munnar from Tata Tea Limited. 

Matupatty, about 14 kms from Munnar, offers leisurely boat rides on its calm lake with a picturesque view of its dam, built in 1953. It also boasts of the Indo-Swiss Cattle Development and Research Project. Here high-breed varieties of cows are produced by purely artificial insemination. The jade green grass in the photo is specially imported Swiss grass. Elephant herds are commonly seen around this area.

The Kundala Lake, a superb picnic spot and Echo Point are other nearby places of tourist attraction.  

The Devikulam Lake has an interesting legend connected to its name. It is believed that when Ravan was carrying Sita away to Lanka, he had kept her well guarded on a hill, which came to be called Devimalai. Sitaji came to bathe in this lake it seems and so it has acquired fame as Devi’s Kulam (pond). The lake, not open to tourists, is a haven of peace.

This handsome guy is the Nilgiri Tahr, an endangered species of mountain ungulates. To see these beauties one must go to the Eravikulam (Rajamalai) National Park. Spread over 97 kms of grass, rolling hills and shola forested valleys this park is home to a wide variety of flora and fauna. Another dandy of this forest is the Indian gaur. The entry point into the forest is just 13kms from Munnar town.

The Neelakurinji or Kurinji is a unique shrub species that blooms in Munnar and carpets the hills with its violet hue. It can be found only in high altitudes between 1,600m and 2,600m. Apart from the delight it spreads it is special, in that it blooms only once in 12 years. The flowering season is between August and November, peaking in late September and October although some varieties exhibit little variation. Light blue in the early stages   the flowers turn a purplish blue colour when aged.  It last bloomed in 2018.The mass flowering and subsequent death of the Kurinji is the subject of many a hill folklore. One legend has it that the hills put up this spectacular pageant to welcome the gods, who visit these hills once every twelve years. One nomadic tribe of the Western Ghats, calculates age by the number of flowering seasons one has seen.

A visit to Munnar is incomplete without seeing the Tea Museum. About 2 kms from Munnar town, it is on the Nallatani road. For Rs.75/- per adult and Rs.50/- per child, this small but very interesting place houses artefacts and curios from the Colonial period. Most importantly, its model factory offers visitors a great opportunity to witness the entire process of tea manufacturing. It is amazing to see how tea changes from being a fresh, hand-picked leaf to the fragrant product that makes it to our homes and to tables across the world. For tea lovers, the aroma is irresistible. Visitors are also treated to a short documentary on the history of Munnar.
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Bio: To Shernaz Wadia (from Pune, India), reading and writing poems, has been one of the means to embark on an inward journey. She hopes her words will bring peace, hope and light into dark corners.

Her poems have been published in many Indian and international e-journals and anthologies. She has published her own book of poems "Whispers of the Soul" and two volumes of "Tapestry Poetry - A Fusion of Two Minds". It is an innovative form of collaborative poetry writing that she developed and co-authored together with her poetry partner Avril Meallem from Israel.
http://www.tapestrypoetry.webs.com

2 comments :

  1. This is a beautiful article, Shernaz. I visited Kochi about four years ago and visited the Thattekad Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary. All along the way I was fascinated by the verdant fields, small water bodies, date and palm trees and diverse avifauna. Short of time at my disposal, I couldn't go to Munnar. But now I will have to. Thanks for this wonderful write up. I love the poetic way in which you have described the history and geography of the place.

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    1. Saw this comment just today, Swaraj. Yes, Munnar is a captivating place and you won't be sorry for visiting it. So grateful for your lovely appreciation of the write up.

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