An unusually well-planned museum in Munnar catches our fancy
It has rained in Munnar the previous night. Driving into the hill station early in the morning, it seems the day struggles to shake off its sluggishness. The mist hovers longer than usual, the narrow, winding streets, normally crowded with tourists, are a bit empty. Surprisingly, there’s a flurry of activity at the Tea Museum in Kanan Devan Hills Plantation (KDHP) company’s Nallathani Estate. A crowd of animated tourists has lined up to explore the world of tea.
"Look at this sundial," says the guide, leading one group to the entrance, pointing to the granite model, "Even today it gives you the exact time..." He pauses for a moment, staring at the clouded sky where the sun still battles to break through the heavy veil of mist. "Made in 1913 by the Art Industrial School at Nazareth, Tamil Nadu, the sundial is not going to mark time this morning. Let’s move on..." he continues seamlessly, much to everyone’s amusement.
The history of Munnar is inextricably linked with the story of tea cultivation, with the gardens dating back to the 1870s. In fact, the development of the Kanan Devan Hills by James Finlay & Co with tea as its exclusive crop is a landmark in the history of tea in South India. These British adventurers were also involved in generating hydro-electric power using the Pelton Wheel.
In fact, one of these used in the plant in Kanniamally Estate is on view at the museum. Other interesting exhibits that catch your attention are a rail engine wheel of the Kundale Valley Light Railway that transported men and material between Munnar and Top Station from 1908 to 1924 and an old manual telephone exchange and cranking-type telephones. While the railway was wound up after floods breached the tracks in 1924, the telephone system was still in use till the mid-1980s.
Inside a glass frame are two gold coins, which many visitors walk past without a second glance. The guide tells us that they were part of the currency in circulation inside the estates till the turn of the century; workers were paid in these coins so that they would be utilised within the estates itself."
Several other rare artefacts and photographs from a forgotten era are on display. A collection of shikar trophies, a 1920 vintage wooden bathtub, a wood-fired cast-iron cooking stove, a battered Remington typewriter in "working condition", period furniture, illustrated posters from 1901 and 1904 of the Munnar Fower Show and Agricultural Show, respectively, an Iron Age burial urn unearthed at a nearby tea estate, and more.
The museum is beautifully planned, with hands-on activities. There’s a tea tasting demo room where visitors can, with the assistance of an expert, taste a variety of teas. There’s also a mini-CTC and orthodox tea manufacturing unit that takes you through the different aspects of tea processing.
Chacko P. Thomas, Managing Director, KDHP, talks of future plans. "By April next year, we will have an audio tour of the museum in a few languages. We have some rare footage of Munnar and the tea estates that we will stream on large screens."
A small hall inside the museum doubles up as a theatre now, where a specially commissioned 30-minute English film tells the story of tea plantations in Munnar. A compact souvenir shop and a tea kiosk complete the package.
The guide is now with a new group. You can hear his commentary as you walk out. It fades out as you walk past the lovely, green estates but the stories linger...
The Tea Museum is open on all days except Mondays from 9.00 a.m. to 4.00 p.m.
Adults: Rs. 75, School children: Rs. 20, College students Rs. 35
Tea tasting (at 10.30 a.m. and 2.30 p.m.) — Rs. 100
Contact Tata Tea Museum, Nalluthanni Estate, Munnar, Idukki District. Ph: 48652 30561