All pictures © Olaf Pignataro

 

Tea, or Chai, is the most widely drunk beverage in the whole world. The tea plant, Camellia Sansis, is a cultivated variety of a tree that has its origins in an area between India and China. It is a hardy plant able to withstand cold winters and has an economic life of at least 100 years. There are three main varieties of the tea plant: ­ China, Assam, and Cambodia ­ and a number of hybrids between the varieties.

The Assam variety, a single­stem tree ranging from 20 to 60 feet (6 to 18 metres) in height. Regular pruning keeps its height to a more manageable 4 to 5 feet tall.  When grown at an altitude near that of Munnar, in Kerala region, it produces tea with fascinating flavours , sought after around the globe.

Once, long back in 1857, a British resident named John Daniel Munro came to Munnar. He came across the place by accident: as the British Resident of Travancore kingdom, he was called in to solve a border dispute between Travancore and its neighbour Madras. Now, by seeing the beauty of Munnar, he got attracted and idea hit into his mind, starting the cultivation of crops, including coffee, cardamom, cinchona and sisal in various parts of the region. Later all these crops were abandoned around 1880.

Tea would replace everything else in the region soon enough with A.H. Sharp being the first to do so. Sharp planted tea in around 50 acres of land at Parvathy, which is now part of the Seven Mallay estate. In 1895, Finlay Muir & Company (James Finlay and Company Limited) entered the scene and bought 33 independent estates. The Kannan Devan Hills Produce Company was formed in 1897 to manage these estates.

Disaster struck the area in 1924. The monsoon that year was particularly bad. Heavy landslides and flooding destroyed the terrain. Many lives and property were lost. A lot of effort went into restoring the estates. It took the inhabitants a while to start re-planting the area. The Tata Group entered the area in 1964. They began collaboration with Finlay which resulted in the formation of the Tata-Finlay Group. Tata Tea Ltd. was formed in 1983. In 2005, the Kannan Devan Hills Produce Company Pvt. Ltd. was formed and Tata Tea transferred the ownership of its plantations to the new company.

 

Munnar is always synonymous to tea plantation, as the hills of the region are completely covered by the plants. Sporadic forests are home of endemic species including Nilgiri Thar wild goat and elephant. Eucalyptus trees add drops of light green and shade to the rows of tea plantations.

 

All photos © Olaf Pignataro. See a broader gallery of Munnar tea plantation on 500px.