Track through small green bushes and slender trees
Kerala,  Monday walks,  Travel galleries

Gallery: a walk in a tea plantation

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.

Path through small green bushes and slender trees
Path through small green bushes and slender trees

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


  • rkrontheroad

    So green and lush. I should be drinking a cup of tea while I read this, but it’s coffee in the morning. This reminds me of the coffee fincas in Guatemala I’ve visited, so important to the local economy but hard work for the employees.

  • ThingsHelenLoves

    Do the tea bushes have a scent? I love a cup of tea, anything but green! I had a little chuckle when you said your not a tea drinker, have you seen Ted Lasso? There’s a great running joke on there about tea. Jokes aside, I do feel for those workers. Those conditions are no joke. Although I suspect secure work on the plantations might be better than the alternatives ?

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I don’t recall a strong scent but I would imagine they do have one. I haven’t heard of Ted Lasso – I just looked it up and see it’s on Apple TV which we don’t have. I do agree about the secure work. The conditions seem tough but are probably better than some alternatives in India and par for the course for agricultural work in a lot of places.

      • ThingsHelenLoves

        There’s a running joke on Ted Lasso about us Brits being mad for tea when it’s nothing but, ‘hot brown water’. It doesn’t sound remotely funny here but with a Texas drawl and through the eyes of an American dropped in England, it’s hilarious.

        • Sarah Wilkie

          Funnily enough, ‘hot brown water’ is exactly how I describe most American coffee 😆 I like it good and strong but I find away from both coasts the US taste is for coffee that barely tastes like anything to me!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Yes, it’s a beautiful landscape but life for the pickers and the others that work here is indeed tough. On the other hand, maybe they’d take that over other options, such as no work at all?

  • margaret21

    My own experience of watching the tea picking industry at work was in Karnataka (But also the Western Ghat). It was the same, but different from yours, in that it was a small organic operation with a bit of a niche market. The workers did all the jobs involved in tea (and coffee) production (steaming, drying, pounding, packaging), and this kept them busy in various ways throughout the year, and they seemed a small, closely knit team. Hard to know whether this was the experience of the workers you saw, in a bigger operation. Lovely photos! Still don’t like tea though, and as for chai … :(.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      That sounds like a much better environment to work in. Although I have to say the company did seem to do some good things for the community – they had a school for disabled kids and a crafts workshop employing them in things like dyeing scarves. But I don’t like tea either – give me coffee any day!

  • restlessjo

    That’s a long day out in the sun, isn’t it? I’m sure the free health care etc are worth having, but there’s no way out of the lifestyle on minimum wage. I’ve had a couple of opportunities, most notably in the Azores, but have never visited a tea plantation. Probably because I’m not a tea drinker. Thanks for the information and those lovely, lush photos, Sarah.

  • Mike and Kellye Hefner

    You have taught me something today, Sarah! I have never known a thing about tea and never knew I wanted to know anything about it until I read your post. I drink black tea (iced – I know, crazy American) all day long, and it’s interesting to know that it comes from the top four leaves of the plant. I love that the workers all share in the ownership of the company, but the working conditions don’t sound great. Oh how many things we take for granted… I will drink my tea with a newfound appreciation of where it comes from. Thank you for another interesting post!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I’m glad you found this so interesting 🙂 I too knew little about tea or considered in any detail where it came from. I don’t drink tea myself (I much prefer coffee!) but if I did I would like you appreciate it all the more for knowing this background info.

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