October 01, 2006

The Planter's Life

Ran as one of two articles on the subject. Do get your hands on the piece that ran alongside about similar stuff in the coffee plantations of Coorg, by Usha Rao Banerjee. One irony: Ms Banerjee says she's a tea person. I usually prefer coffee. :)

The wind soughing in the trees—nay, conducting loud conversations, making little jokes and chortling at them, shrieking every now and then—streams burbling away around every corner, serried ranks of tea bushes covering every hill, green turning blue in the distance... Argh. And the prose turns purple. The hills have a way of doing that to you, up there in the clouds near Munnar.

And no, I don’t mean the parts of Munnar and its neighbourhood that have been the joy of tourists and travellers for the last century and a bit. (Not that Munnar is anything to scoff about; like Brighton, it is Bracing, even if a bit overrun with holiday-makers.)

Munnar is tea country, you see, and most of the land there, including most of the town, is owned by tea plantations, acres of rolling hillside covered by tea bushes as far as the eye can see, dotted here and there with sets of barrack-style blocks of houses that were formerly known as coolie lines (now more politically correctly referred to as workers’ lines, though the job has remain unchanged), occasionally also an in-plantation tea factory, and perched on some vantage point, the planter’s bungalow.

And, till not so long ago, the only way you could find yourself living in one of those bungalows was if you worked for a plantation company, or knew someone who did. Neither of which I can claim. But here we are, watching the mist roll down from the higher mountains, slowly blurring the outlines of the hills in the middle distance, and a polite cook is murmuring the lunch options while we sip our morning cuppa on the porch of a gen-oo-wine planters’ bungalow. How now, brown cow? Let me explain. I’ll have to cram in some history. Stay with me.

In the late 1800s, many an ambitious sahib—and not a few younger sons—began experimenting with various commercial crops. Coffee and various spices were tried, before I was generally agreed that the land best supported tea. Vast tracts of hillsides were cleared, and in 1877, the first tea bushes were planted. (They’re still going strong, by the way.) Over the years, many of the smaller plantations merged, or were bought over by the larger ones, until, just before the turn of the century, the James Finlay Group acquired pretty much the whole shebang. Some 33 estates were put under the management of the Kanan Devan Hills Produce Company. In the 1960s, the Tata group bought in, and the company became Tata Finlay. In ’76, the Tataa bought out the Finlay group, and the company became Tata-Finlay Ltd , and later, in 1983, it was all just Tata Tea Ltd. This century hasn’t been kind to the Indian tea industry, though—no, this isn’t that kind of magazine, son, we’ll leave the details to the business glossies—and for reasons too complex to get into here, in 2005, Tata Tea transferred ownership of the plantations to a company formed by its employees, the Kanan Devan Hills Plantation Company. KDHP controls roughly 95% of the privately-owned land around Munnar. The only other players around are Harrison Malayalam, with a couple of plantations, and the Woodbriar group, which bought over a former HLL-owned plantation (of which more anon).

KDHP didn’t have it all easy. The increasing competitiveness of the tea market suggested that they’d need a spot of bet-hedging. And, quite nicely for them, a bit of down-sizing had left a few managers’ bungalows tenantless. This year, they began letting in guests, starting with a half-dozen properties under the brand name The Tea Sanctuary (somebody got a raise for that bit of positioning, I’m sure). And in the porch of one of these edifices is the jolly sight of a jaded Bombay writer sipping tea and scribbling in a notebook.

The Woodbriar Group’s foray into hospitality differs in the details—their properties once belonged to HLL—and while they’re a small player in Munnar, with just one plantation, they have substantial holdings in Tamil Nadu.

There we are, all up to date and knowledgeable. (You can come back now, laddie.)
We were the guests of both The Tea Sanctuary (living in one bungalow, and being given the grand tour of several others) and Woodbriar (in the Talliar Valley Bungalow, Munnar, and the Stanmore Bungalow, Valparai). While each of the properties we saw was unique in terms of location, exteriors, plan and d├ęcor, they did have enough in common to give you a general description. Single-story structures, they’re built in the rambling colonial style, with large gardens, garage areas off to one side (or what were stables), connected, but separate kitchens and staff quarters. The structures are of that era, with thick walls and doors, high roofs, long passageways, you get the picture. Both companies have gone to some pain to ensure that the original (or appropriate) fixtures and furniture enhance the heritage experience; you’ll find even the cutlery bearing old British hallmarks. I can vouch for the authenticity of it all; never have I been so afflicted with nostalgia pangs for my grandparents’ bungalow. Except for the fireplaces (which the old folks didn’t need, in their coastal home), it all rang true.

The bedrooms here were uniformly large and airy, with large attached toilet-cum-bathrooms. There are concessions to the weather and technology here, with proper plumbing and water-heaters. Living- and dining-rooms are shared, but since there are never more than two other sets of guests on the premises, it still all stays nice and cosy.

You have a small staff at your disposal. A butler/housekeeper, a cook, and perhaps a gardener. The Woodbriar folk score higher here, as well as on the food front. That is, when it comes to the authenticity bit. While both claim to cater to Indian or English palates, the KDHP staff haven’t quite got the hang of it yet, while Woodbriar rocks. In fact the cook at Stanmore lead all the rest, rustling up bakes and pies that sent me off on another misty-eyed trip to the past. KDHP, with its huge holdings and presence in Munnar, makes up with in the add-ons it can offer, like temporary membership at its clubs, access to its private fishing lake and the like.

At all the properties, you’re offered a rather special experience. The crisp, fresh air, cool climate, and all around, up hill and down dale, rolling miles of so many shades of green that it makes your heart lurch with joy. The clouds are ever-near, birds sing, a rabbit may hop across your path... it’s enough to make a romantic out of anyone.

And a good thing too. Because the house and the environment are all you’ll get. Be very clear: the shops and restaurants, the hi-speed net access and the boutiques, the fleshpots in general; they’re all at an inconvenient distance. So you’d better go there with someone you love. Or at least get along with. And just let the plantation experience take over.


The information

The Tea Sanctuary (Kanan Devan Hills Plantation Co Pvt Ltd) currently has 6 properties available, Parvathi (3.5 km from Munnar), Sevenmallay (3.5 km), Chokknad (5km), Kanniamallay (6 km), Yallapaty (26km) and Southaparai (28km). All have three double rooms, except Chokknad, which has two. The company is considering including another 11 bungalows in the Tea Sanctuary fold.
Tariffs: Rs 6,000 to Rs 6,500 per room per day (packages for longer stays are available), which includes breakfast. Lunch and Dinner can be prepared at Rs 250 (veg) / 350 (n.v.), with mineral water, snacks, etcetera extra. (The irony: the tea company doesn’t throw in any free pots of tea.) Arrangements for airport pickups (Munnar is 135 km drive from Cochin), sightseeing, vehicle or bicycle hire, guides, etcetera can be made at cost. Tariff includes temporary membership at the High Range Club and the Kundaley club, with access to the facilities. Sports facilities cost around Rs 100 per hour. Golf at either course, however, will set you back Rs 1000 a game (and you must visit the Kundaley Club even if you don’t play; it’s a stunningly beautiful location). As will a session of angling for rainbow trout in a private lake far away from the madding crowd.
Contact: Web: www.theteasanctuary.com/. Email: tourism.munnar@kdhptea.co.in. Phone: Munnar: (04865) 230561-5; Delhi: (011) 41644787. Or via Kaizen Hospitality.

The Woodbriar Group’s Talliar Valley Bungalow is about 22km from Munnar. And its Stanmore Bungalow is a few kilometres out of Valparai in Tamil Nadu, a four-hour drive from Coimbatore. Both have three doubles, with the possibility of putting in an extra bed in some rooms. The company plans to open a few more of their bungalows to guests soon.
Tariffs: Rs 6000 per room per day (packages available). Includes all meals, plus organised activities including picnics, visits to the factory, cutting and making your own tea, even planting a tea bush that will bear your name, if you wish. Sightseeing, pickups, etcetera can be arranged through the staff.
Contact: Vinoo Robert, +91 9895030563, vinoo.robert@teil.in, www.briar.in/

[Not in the published article]
Other notes.
The plantations are all in pretty remote areas. Landlines are available, which is good, because the only cellphone service provider in those areas is BSNL, which does not permit private operator subscribers to roam on its network.
Net access? Hah.
If you’re driving, remember that plantation roads are usually rutted, steep and tortuous. Yes, even more so than standard issue hill roads. And even the ones that are a mere few kilometres away from civilisation will take a good half-hour of careful driving by the novice. And yes. This is mist country. Fog lamps are genuinely useful here.

Published in Outlook Traveller, October 2006.

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1 comment:

Harish said...

Hi Peter,
read the piece a couple of weeks ago on my usual train trip to chennai on the weekends. enjoyed yours.