Memories of Munnar: A childhood in a tea garden

They say you can never go home again. Nonetheless, I try.

Climbing the steep, tea-draped hill that I recklessly careened down 20 years ago on a bicycle, I notice little has changed, in this part of Munnar at least. Our old bungalow still cascades solidly down the slope, in a series of rose gardens and strawberry patches. In my childhood bedroom, the fireplace crackles with wood, still delivered by truck once a month. And, the lawn is still periodically dug up by herds of wild boar and trampled by elephants, loudly blundering through the vegetable garden at midnight.

As the sun sinks, a chilly darkness descends, and the only sounds are rustling trees and the piercing call of nightjars, in this bungalow with no neighbours. It has been about 140 years since the pioneer European planters hacked their way through the lush shola forests, planting tea and building these remote sprawling homes to conquer the hills. They created a distinct style of plantation life, a blend of English and Scottish traditions, blurry at the edges after years in India. Like our butler’s meatloaf: wholly British, with a pleasing kick of local spices.

Yes, there were butlers. There still are. Uniformed butlers serving canapés, pies and aspic pudding at cocktail parties hosted every week in the bungalows on each estate. Hurricane lanterns and roaring wood fires on stormy nights. Hand-cranked rotary phones, with their own exchange, offering fascinating opportunities to eavesdrop on cross connections. Trout fishing and picnic baskets. Reassuringly, while touristy Munnar is now an angry tangle of tour buses, choked roads and souvenir stalls, much of the tea estates and surrounding forests have remained unchanged for more than a century.

I’m on a mission to find the Munnar of the pioneer planters.

Memories of Munnar: A childhood in a tea garden

My father, who worked with Tata Tea in Munnar, points me towards A Centenary of Planting in the Kanan Devan Hills by Amita Baig and William Henderson, published in 1978 by Tata-Finlay. The tea company, Kanan Devan Hills and Munnar are inextricably intertwined in a complicated, colourful history.

In 1888, the Kanan Devan Planters Association was created to unite the planters, living in rugged isolation. In 1964, the Tata-Finlay collaboration was formed and Tata Tea launched in 1983. Then, in 2005, Kanan Devan Hills Plantations Company succeeded Tata Tea, becoming the first employee-owned plantation company in India.

K Mathew Abraham, Managing Director and CEO of KDHP, explains how Tata’s 24 estates were combined into seven to optimise productivity. This still means that the company owns 24,000 acres of tea and protects about 20,000 acres of forests, swamps and wetlands. Hence, though Munnar town and touristy sites like Madupatty Dam, Top Station and the entrance to Eravikulam National Park are jammed with long lines of tourists, a sludge of plastic bottles and those inevitable souvenir stalls crammed with cheap pink teddy bears, dream catchers and back scratchers, the estates still look the way they did a century ago.

Stating that one of KDHP’s objectives was to protect Munnar’s eco system, Abraham says that within the estates, “there is no change in land use from early 1900. We have a land management plan, and maintain the jungles, rivers, animal corridors and shola forests between the tea fields”.

This is evident as we drive on lonely, semi-paved roads, punctuated with ‘elephant crossing’ boards, in search of Kundale Club, a members-only golf course tucked between the forests. Started in 1917, it boasts a little club house, 100 members and no affiliations. In keeping with tradition, we arrive with a picnic basket in the car boot, packed by Krishnan, the butler at the stunning 1917-built colonial bungalow we are staying at. Krishnan is famous for his elegant meals, founded on recipes from British planters’ wives, that have been adapted into a practical, comforting cuisine over two centuries, using local ingredients grown in kitchen gardens. Like the other butlers, who double up as cooks here, he has stuck to tradition for the 30 years that he has worked at the bungalow: every meal begins with fragrant soups made from freshly plucked, seasonal vegetables, followed by pies, or casseroles and a roast. And there is always dessert: he says he knows how to make 1,500 puddings, which include a deliciously grainy walnut crumble, old-fashioned pineapple upside-down cake, and pleasingly pink, buttery rhubarb pudding served with a jug of cool, rich cream.

At Kundale, Stephen, the local caretaker, sets out lunch in the club’s cosy single room dominated by a graceful wooden bar. Animal trophies, including the heads of the now-protected Nilgiri tahr and a fierce leopard, stare across glassily. Later, the wild gaur arrive, their glossy coats rippling over powerful muscles.

Quarters for estate workers

Quarters for estate workers  

As Stephen ceremonially puts down a tray heavy with a steamy teapot on the verandah, he chats about how he watches them gather every evening on the golf course. His father, Karuppaswami, worked here for 45 years, till he passed away five years ago. This is a common story in Munnar, where families work in the same town, and for the same company, for generations.

High Range Club, Munnar

High Range Club, Munnar  

Back in town, at the High Range Club, the watchman has a similar story: his grandfather worked here too. This iconic planter’s club, completed in 1910, is still central to the town’s social life.

It was always sporty: planters arrived by horseback, to use the golf course, play cricket and tennis. Sporting meets included clay pigeon shooting, tent pegging and sack races. The pleasingly shadowy men-only bar, dark with wood panelling, still smells like leather and whisky, though it’s now dry.

Here too, walls are crowded with animal trophies from hunts long forgotten, yet the most striking feature is 52 hats arranged across a wall. From 1928, the club began a tradition of hanging the hats of planters who served for 30 years in the High Range, at boisterous farewell parties. Today, when old planters return — this is an active, well-connected community, which even has a rapidly-expanding WhatsApp group — they still gather in the same bar, under these same hats.

Next to the club, secretive Lodge Heather is eerily silent, except for when a herd of cows noisily trudges past. A Scottish Masonic Lodge, set up in 1902, it became infamous with locals who called it ‘Thalavetti Kovil’, meaning a church where people were beheaded, because they saw the dorais (British managers) meeting there in secret.

It is locked and there isn’t a soul around, so I give up and head to Munnar’s most poignant British monument, the century-old Christ Church. Hewn out of rough granite, its intricate stained glass windows let in a kaleidoscope of coloured sunshine. In the hushed silence I read brass plaques, in loving memory of the pioneer planters, who battled homesickness, cholera and the jungle. Then, I scramble up the steep hill beside the church, to search for the grave of Eleanor Knight, the site’s oldest grave. As legend goes, when she and her husband Henry Mansfield Knight climbed this hill, she playfully said she would like to be buried here, because it was so beautiful. Shortly after that, she fell ill and died of cholera, aged 24.

Driving out of Munnar, I pause at MSA (Munnar Supply Association), built in 1900, reportedly the oldest department store in South India.

When we lived here, this is where we bought our weekly provisions. VN Thampachan still maintains shelves of old handwritten registers, and meticulously fills columns in new ones: all planters are members, and have accounts at MSA.

He chats about how he has lived in Munnar his entire life, working with the Tatas for years, and finally retiring at 58, only to take this job. “When I was young, in the ’70s, we used to come here to see the Europeans, who would arrive on horses, with their dogs,” he smiles. “I entered for the first time in 1978, to buy my first watch. I was so excited.”

With its red oxide floors, wooden shelves filled with local jams and deep freezers packed with bacon, this space too seems unchanged. As I wander through, I see an elderly man smiling at me. He grins, “I remember you: I used to drive you to school.” Thampachan nods in agreement, and they ask about my family. Thanks to the local High Range School, where children of tea pickers, estate workers and managers share classrooms, there is a strong sense of community.

And amid the bustle of tourism and wave of commerce, this essentially is why the core of Munnar has remained unchanged. It’s defined by the people who have lived here for generations, sharing a rich collective memory and an unshakeable loyalty to this small, fiercely independent, town: a Munnar you will never see as a tourist.

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Printable version | Mar 4, 2021 9:13:05 PM |

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