The state of Kerala can be regarded as consisting of three parallel environments, running north to south down the state. There is the coastal strip and backwaters, where the emphasis is on fishing and trade; the slightly higher agricultural strip where pineapples, bananas and a variety of other crops are grown; and the so-called High Range, part of the Western Ghat, where tea, coffee and spices predominate.
We spent a couple of nights near the town of Munnar, in tea country. To visit the plantations here you need to be with a guide who has a permit. So one morning we met up with local guide Vinid for a walk among the tea bushes. Join us there for one of Jo’s Monday Walks.
Tea growing and harvesting
As we climbed up through the plantation Vinid stopped to explain to us the different types of tea: white, green and black. He told us which leaves are used for each and how the processing varies. For white tea only the top bud is used; for green tea this bud plus the next two leaves; and for black tea the top four leaves. The bushes can be harvested every 10-11 days, more often in the monsoon season. A bush lasts for 100 years before its leaves are no longer viable, so that’s a lot of leaves and a lot of plucking!
At this time of day, when the shadows were still quite long, the bushes looked almost sculptural, and the different shades of green formed abstract patterns wherever we looked. The odd splash of colour was provided by the bright red of the Indian Coral (or Flame of the Forest) tree and the bright purple of trailing Morning Glory flowers. Darker accents came courtesy of the occasional large boulders that dot the fields; while Silver Oaks and Eucalyptus trees provided the light.
The life of a tea picker
The landscape here may be very photogenic, but it masks the truth about the tough life of a tea picker. Munnar was ‘discovered’, as far as the British are concerned, by no less than the Duke of Wellington, back when he was plain Colonel Wellesley in 1790. In those days the mountainsides were forested; but the survey teams who followed soon after recognised the potential of the land. Various crops were tried here but it was tea that became a resounding success.
After independence the British-owned tea plantations transferred to Indian ownership, most notably the Tata group whose influence is strongly felt in Munnar. Recently the company here has been largely under the ownership of the workers who all have a share in it. But despite this, and despite the many worker benefits introduced by Tata (free education, health care, housing), it is a hard life for the pluckers in particular. They work 8.00 to 5.00, six days a week. They live in very basic housing and are on minimum wages. Let’s remember them as we enjoy our walk.
I visited Kerala in 2017