Tea estates and heritage bungalows are opening up their history to tourists

Waking up to a cold morning in Munnar is still the stuff of dreams. If the stillness of the night was profound, the morning establishes itself in bursts of birdsong. The sun is shy, playing hide and seek with the ghosts of dawn. The treetops are cocooned in mist. If one ever wants to get in touch with one’s soul, this should be the setting.

Slow winter

At Devikulam, eight kilometres from Munnar town, the morning begins slow. It is colder here than the town, the locals say. Most often in January, when temperatures dip, they leave little bowls of sugared water with sticks out in the open, which transform into a rustic version of ice candy the next morning. There is also talk of elephants who are frequent visitors to the estates. “When one comes alone, we run indoors and keep still,” says a worker at the tea factory. “They are generally not troublesome,” he adds.

Staying at the Lockhart tea estate bungalow, surrounded by acres of green, hemmed in only by the mountains and a vitriol blue sky on one side and a picturesque road on the other, calmness here is served in large instalments. There is no mobile phone to start with (the only service provider here is BSNL), no noise except an occasional one that emerges from the bungalow’s kitchen and a bus or two that trundles by.

The quaintness of the bungalow built by the British remains intact—long passageways with latticed windows that afford a view of the garden and the hills afar, and fireplaces in every room.

The estates belong to Harrisons Malayalam Limited, one of the oldest tea companies in South India, which is creating a narrative around its heritage. Established in 1857, it has witnessed the world around it grow and change. “As a company that has existed for 160 years, we do have a story to tell and we are beginning to tell it,” says N Dharmaraj, Whole-time Director and Chief Executive of the company. By opening out some of its estates and properties (Pattumalay at Vandiperiyar, Wentworth at Wayanad), an average tourist gets a peek into the company’s history and also of the beginnings of plantations in the State. “The story of the estates is not just about the business, it points to a way of life. Each estate has a history, a series of events that have enriched lives around it,” he says.

The tea estates at Lockhart have a factory and a plantation museum that are open to the public. So, tourists can devote a day educating themselves in tea and indulging in its cherished back-stories. Adventure activities are also being planned around the estate.

At the factory, a little away from the bungalow, it is a usual, busy day. Lorries bundled with sacks of tea leaves have lined up and workers unload the sacks, which would be opened, sorted and processed. The air is suffused with the delicious scent of fresh tea leaves. Smartly dressed employees, well-versed in tea talk, guide one through the processes of the factory, right from the cleaning of the leaves to the final product. The factory, built in 1926, is a sight to behold by itself—neat and functional.

From leaf to cup

Watching the leaves getting rolled in giant machines and inhaling the refreshing aroma, one learns that tea is a lot more than the packeted tea dust that is bought off supermarket shelves. “The orthodox teas that we manufacture are not the kind you mix with milk and sugar. Traditionally, it is enjoyed black and sugarless,” says Jobsy Thomas, General Manager, Lockhart estate, as he leads the factory tour. “Eighty to 90% of our teas are exported and around 20% go into local auctions,” he adds.

The plantation museum adjacent to the factory is an experience for history lovers—it displays a large collection of tea-related equipment to machines and things used by the British. A metallic shoe-cleaner for instance—its unique shape allows the user to clean the sole of the shoe before entering the house; a Remington typewriter, a thick-rimmed pair of glasses, bamboo baskets, even a giant metallic contraption that worked as a refrigerator. A string of black-and-white photographs brings back the Munnar of yore—including snapshots of the flood-ravaged hill station in the 1920s, the workers in the plantations, construction of roads and such. Most of the items at the museum and the photographs have been sourced from the various plantations of the company.

As the industry went through its highs and lows, as labour practices changed and with fewer youngsters showing willingness to take up the plantation jobs after their parents, the company is looking at reinventing and diversification. “Consumer awareness is increasing rapidly. So to be in the business, you need to know your story and share the best agricultural practices,” says Anil George Joseph, Vice President-Tea, of the company. Besides building a concept of ‘Harrisons Heritage’, it is also looking at different lines of branding, one such being the ‘Harrisons Yoga Tea’ label, which is a consolidation of all the Ayurvedic teas (green teas with herbs).

The evening unfurls its rolls of mist and a dainty cup of champagne-coloured white tea is warming our insides. There’s a lot to mull over—life, tea and other things pretty.