Hiking Through Munnar’s Tea Plantations in Kerala, India

On this plantation, maintaining and harvesting the tea plants is mainly a women’s job. (©Coen Wubbels)

The world is an ocean of green. We’re surrounded by undulating hills blanketed with dark green and soft green tea plants. So many tea plants, all immaculately pruned without an inch sticking out anywhere, is no less than overwhelming. It’s a work of art.

My partner and I put on our sandals, start walking, and allow ourselves to get lost. Behind every bend there’s another ocean of green without any landmarks to define one hill from the other. We continue walking; another bend, another blanket of tea plants.

Exploring the Tea Plantations on Foot

On and on it goes, hill after hill blanketed in tea plants. (©Coen Wubbels)

To see so many tea plants isn’t that surprising though. India is the second largest tea producer in the world (after China) and Munnar, in the southwestern state of Kerala, is one of India’s major tea producing centers.

It creates some sort of a trance, this walking in an un-Indian tranquillity void of people. The state of Kerala offers good places to recharge your batteries, among them these former hill stations, which have been popular tourist sites since the British first arrived. Due to its elevation of around 2,000 meters the air is much cooler than on the suffocating plains. The state of Kerala is more developed and cleaner than the rest of the country, and the people are among India’s highest educated.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • You would like to see the origin of that tea bag you so absent-mindedly, or thoughtfully, put in your cup with boiling water each morning.
  • Apart from learning about the cultivation of tea, Munnar is a great region for leisurely walks and taking a break from chaotic (never-mind-how-fascinating) India.
  • Good for anybody interested in tea and/or for anyone who likes going for walks.

Meeting the Tea Harvesters

Gathering of harvested tea leaves. (©Coen Wubbels)

Inhabitants of Kerala prefer white-collar jobs yet, obviously, pruning and harvesting tea is pure manual labor. Not surprisingly, they employ workers from poorer states, Tamil Nadu in particular.

We meet a group of women down the road. Since we speak a couple of words of Tamil their reservation dissipates quickly: They welcome us to watch and take pictures of them as they work.

They like having their pictures taken – after they have made sure they have taken off their plastic protection sheets and straightened their saris. Seeing themselves on the camera screen afterwards brings laughter.

From Harvest to Factory

With our limited vocabulary and gestures we understand that this is rough tea intended to be sold in bulk. The women cut protruding shoots from the top of the tea plants with pruning shears like those you use for gardening. That doens’t do for prime quality tea, for which each young leaf needs to be handpicked.

The women are wrapping up their work for the day. They collect their belongings and put the harvested tealeaves in enormous bags which they carry on their heads as they walk downhill at a fast pace. In their hands they hold a bamboo stick, which is their measuring stick and which explains the perfectly uniform height of the plants.

The women are paid by the weight of tea leaves they harvested. (©Coen Wubbels)

Downhill, all workers gather at a meeting point along the main asphalt road, where a couple of men with scales and pick-up trucks are waiting for them. The weight of each bag is jotted down in a book with the name of harvester. We understand that the women will be paid according to how much they’ve brought in. The women return home while the pick-up trucks will drive to the factory where the leaves will be processed.

The Tata Tea Museum

A nearby tea museum explains the next stage of the tea production. Colonial furniture and black and white photographs of Munnar’s old days give a visual image of the colonial life here, while  explanatory panels in English tell the history of the British tea plantations.

Outside is a replica of a tea factory with machines to demonstrate how the tea leaves are steamed, rolled, dried and sorted according to size before they are shipped around the world and end up in your or my cup.

What will the destination of those tea leaves be? (©Coen Wubbels)

Practicalities

  • Nearby airports: Cochin (110 kms) and Madurai (140kms); train stations: Aluva, Ernakulam and Madurai; bus stations: Kochi, Aluva. To visit the plantations, you can rent a motorbike, bicycle or car (and driver) in Munnar.
  • In Munnar you’ll find tourist facilities such as hotels, restaurants and guides.
  • The Tata tea museum is at the Nallathanni Estate of Tata Tea, right outside Munnar. Opening hours daily 10am-5pm.

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