The Unique Landscape of the Munnar Tea Plantations.

A few years ago I took a journey around some of the tea plantations located in the foothills of the mountains of South India, above the town of Munnar in Kerela.

These photographs and accompanying article show some of the uniqueness of the landscape, its cultural relevance to British history and the complete lifestyle which surrounds the production of the tea we drink for the people growing and picking the plants.

I am walking through a strange, alien landscape of densely leaved hip-high plants, each over 200 years old and I know I am not really supposed to be here. I am in the hills above a town called Munnar, sat in the foothills of the Western Ghats mountain range of Kerela, South India. The jungle covered hillsides of lower elevations have here given way to a far more open and artificial landscape. Coming to a halt, I am surrounded to all horizons, by nothing but tea plants.

Around 200 years ago the British arrived in this area of India and, finding the climate agreeable to tea growing, cleared most of the trees which then covered the landscape and planted in their place the now ubiquitous tea bushes. The landscape they created now lays bare every flow and curve of the earth’s body, such is the strikingly uniform height of the densely green tea plants. It is broken only by the interlacing dark winding paths taken by the tea cutters.

Walking through the landscape the only sound is the occasional 'clack clack' of the cutting tools used by the women as they wend their way in small groups through the tea bushes. One never knows exactly where such groups will be but they are easy to spot in their bright clothing and the sound of their cutting carries far across the otherwise silent landscape. With their large, scissor-like cutters held always at waist height, it is their continual snipping away of new growth that causes the entire area to be of such a noticeably uniform and closely trimmed height. Occasionally I happen upon a group of worker's houses nestling in a sheltered spot amongst the hills. Children come streaming out and the odd face would peer from a doorway and smile.

Most of the tea plants here date from the British colonial era, making them around 200 years old. They are only now beginning to be replaced and replanted, as they begin to lose their high yield levels in their old age.

It is from the tea bushes of these hills that familiar and well known brands such as Tetley Tea are produced. Tetley Tea is the biggest tea brand in the UK and is itself owned by one of the biggest companies in India: Tata (well known in India for being the company behind the ubiquitous Tata lorries and trucks which keep India moving).

Tata is the paternalistic employer of the region. The tea cutters work for around 10 hours a day with morning and afternoon breaks and a long lunch. They are not paid a great deal, even by Indian standards, but their children are provided with free schooling and each worker is guaranteed free medical care. Each family is also given a small allotment on which to grow their household vegetables and keep some animals. Benefits such as these make the lifestyle into a much more attractive package which explains why families willingly remain as tea pickers for their entire life. The work is divided by gender with the women spending their days amongst the plants picking or cutting the plants and carrying the bulging sacks of leaves down from the slopes to the weighing houses, so their pay can be calculated. The men meanwhile, populate the warehouses, engaged in the processing of the leaves into the familiar dark tea we see in our tea bags and, to a lesser extent, the Indian green tea which has also recently found a market here in the west.

Looking across the landscape before I return to into Munnar, I am again struck by its uniformity, its strangeness and its cultural importance. It has a strangely abstract quality but it is the tea workers within it who bring this otherwise still and silent landscape to life. It is, after all, an agricultural landscape as much as our own farmland, though one created for a singular, one-product market.

It is strange to realise that, without the British obsession with tea, none of this landscape or industry of culture would exist.