The wind soughing in the trees — nay, conducting loud conversations, making little jokes and chortling, shrieking now and then — streams burbling away, serried ranks of tea bushes covering every hill, green turning blue in the distance... Aargh. 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.
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 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 a plantation tea factory, and perched on a vantage point, the planter’s bungalow.
Till not so long ago, the only way you could find yourself 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, 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.
In the late 1800s, many an ambitious sahib began experimenting with commercial crops. Coffee and various spices were tried, before it was generally agreed that the land best supported tea. Vast tracts of hillsides were cleared, and in 1877, the first tea bushes were planted. 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 1976, the Tatas bought out the Finlay group, and the company became Tata-Finlay Ltd, and later, in 1983, it was all just Tata Tea. This century hasn’t been kind to the Indian tea industry, though, and 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 per cent 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.
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 downsizing had left a few managers’ bungalows tenantless. This year, they began letting in guests, starting with six 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.
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 Talayar Valley Bungalow, Munnar, and the Stanmore Bungalow, Valparai). While each of the properties we saw was unique in terms of location, exteriors, plan and décor, 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 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 hasn’t quite got the hang of it yet, while Woodbriar rocks. In fact the cook at Stanmore leads 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 the add-ons it can offer, like temporary membership at its clubs (notably the snooty High Range Club), 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: the shops and restaurants, the high-speed Internet and the boutiques, the fleshpots in general; they’re all far away. 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 Tea Sanctuary
The Kanan Devan Hills Plantation Co. has properties in: Parvathi (3.5km from Munnar), Sevenmallay (3.5km), Chokkanad (5km), Kanniamallay (6km), Yellapatty (26km) and Southaparai (28km). All have three double bedrooms, except Chokkanad, which has two. Arrangements for airport pickups (Munnar is 135km from Cochin), sightseeing, vehicle or bicycle hire, guides, can be made at cost. Tariff also includes temporary membership at the High Range Club and the Kundaley club. Website www.theteasanctuary.com
The Woodbriar Group
The Talayar Valley Bungalow is 22km from Munnar. Its Stanmore Bungalow is a few kilometres out of Valparai in Tamil Nadu, a 4hr drive from Coimbatore. Both have three double bedrooms. The company plans to open a few more of their bungalows to guests soon. Sightseeing, pickups, etc can be arranged through the staff. Website www.woodbriargroup.com