The world around us is an ocean of green: undulating hills blanketed with dark green and soft green tea plants. India is the second largest tea producer in the world (after China) and the Munnar Tea Plantations, in the southwestern state of Kerala, is one of India’s major tea producing centers.
Exploring the Munnar Tea Plantations on Foot
This sea of 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.
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 which 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.
Meeting the Tea Harvesters
Inhabitants of Kerala prefer white-collar jobs and 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 to be 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 tea for the large bulk. The women cut protruding shoots from the top of the tea plants with pruning shears like you use for gardening, which doesn’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 tea leaves in humongous jute bags which they carry on their heads as they walk downhill at a fast pace. They hold a bamboo stick, which is their measuring stick and which explains the perfectly uniform height of the plants.
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 the 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.
- 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.
- As an ambassador of Insight Guides, I recommend checking out their series – there’s one on India as well (find it here). As an ambassador and long-time user of Reise Know-how maps, we recommend their maps.
- Here are more stories about India.