My brother-in-law Dr Ravi (younger brother of my wife Kshama) and his wife Sandhya have been inviting us to visit Munnar since long. Dr Ravi has been working with Tata Tea Ltd (presently known as Kannan Devan Hills Plantations Company Pvt Ltd) since 1990. However, somehow we could not decide and kept the matter postponing every time.
Dr Ravi and Sandhya were in Bangalore in the last week of April for attending a marriage ceremony. The oppressive heat of the Garden City of Bangalore this season made us think about the cool climate of Munnar. When I expressed my intention to visit the place this time, Ravi simply told me to join them in their return journey in his personal car. Incidentally, their daughter Shreya and son Tejas are studying engineering in prestigious colleges of Bangalore. Shreya is set to join a reputed company (campus placement) in July 2014.
We were picked up by Ravi early morning on the 26th of April from our house in BTM. We passed the Electronics City and were soon on the Highway to Hosur. In between we had our breakfast at the Kamat Group of Hotels. We also had our lunch on the way and were at Udumalpet by 2 pm. Our journey by ghat section started from here.
As we started mounting the Munnar hills, we could see only dried up plants and shrubs initially. But soon, the greenery of the hills started unfolding. Simultaneously the weather also started changing for the better. We started seeing the vast tea plantations of Kannan Devan Hills Plantations Company. We could also see streams of water at certain places. All of a sudden we found ourselves in an enjoyable cold climate of the hills.
A journey of nearly two hours brought us to the beautiful bungalow occupied by the couple. The tea company has provided residential quarters (bungalows) to the resident doctors along with servants to help. We were asked to wear Hawaii chappals immediately on entering the bungalow. We could find that the floor tiles were so freezing cold even in peak summer that one could not move barefoot inside the house! After dinner, we had to sleep duly covered by two blankets!
The History of Munnar
The Duke of Wellington (Arthur Wellesley - who defeated Tippu Sultan in the IV Anglo-Mysore war in 1799 and later defeated Napoleon Bonaparte at the famous Battle of Waterloo in 1815) is said to have been the first European visitor to Munnar in 1790.
In 1877, the Raja of Travancore leased out the Kannan Devan Hills measuring 1,36,600 acres to John Daniel Munro, the British resident, for an annual lease rent of Rs3,000 and a security deposit of Rs5,000. Munro formed the North Travancore Land Planting and Agricultural Society in 1879. The society planted coffee, cardamom, cinchona and sisal. However, these crops were abandoned later and only tea was found to be an ideal crop for the region.
In 1880, another European A. H. Sharp planted tea in 50 acres of land in Parvathy, which is a part of Seven Mallay estate now. In 1895, James Finlay and Company Ltd bought 33 independent estates and forayed into the region. The Kannan Devan Hills Produce Company was set up in 1897 to manage the estates.
The 1924 Floods
The Munnar plantations suffered a major setback in 1924 due to a disastrous monsoon. Heavy flooding and landslides almost redrew the landscape in several places. Large scale replanting had to be carried out.
The Tata Group entered the scene in 1964 to form the joint venture of Tata-Finlay Group. Tata Tea Ltd (TTL) was formed in 1983 with the acquisition of entire Finlay stake in the joint venture. TTL transferred the ownership to employees by forming Kannan Devan Hills Plantations Company Pvt Ltd in 2005. The employees hold the majority stake in the company now.
The word Munnar means the confluence of three streams. The place is located at the confluence of three mountain streams – Mudrapuzha, Nalla Thanni and Kundala. The hill station, 1,600 metres above sea level, was once the summer resort of the erstwhile British rulers. The early inhabitants were the members of the Muthuvan tribal community. Currently majority of plantation workers and the town population speak Tamil language. There is a reputed Engineering College in the town. A good number of reputed companies are said to be visiting the college for campus recruitment. One of the attractions for the corporates is said to be the low level of attrition from the students picked up from here! Quite surprisingly, there are no cinema theatres in the town now. The town did have two theatres earlier. But keeping with the times, the owners have converted them to real estate assets!
Eravikulam National Park
This park is famous for its endangered inhabitant – the Nilgiri Tahr (also known as Ibex). They have an estimated population of 700 here. The park is also home to several species of rare butterflies, animals and birds. It offers magnificent view of the tea plantations and is a great place for trekking.
The place is located 13 kms from the town and is at a height of 1,700 metres above sea level. It is known for its masonry storage dam and the beautiful lake that offers pleasurable boat rides.
The place boasts of the first hydroelectric project in Kerala. It is a popular picnic spot with immense scenic beauty.
This exclusive museum for tea was set up by Tata Tea some years back. Located at Nallathanni Estate, the museum has curios, photographs and machineries each of which has a story to tell on the origins and growth of tea plantations in Munnar. You can also see a video on the story of development of Munnar tea plantations.
Located at 1,700 metres above sea level, this is the highest point on the Munnar Hill range. It offers a panoramic view of neighbouring Sate of Tami Nadu. The visitors can also enjoy the Neelakurinji flowers blooming over a vast area.
The Homely Stay
We got up in the early morning to hear the pleasant singing of various birds. As we started our morning walk, by getting out of the bungalow, we were attracted by the whistles of a rare singing bird. The whistling of this bird is exactly like the one from school boys to chide the young girls. The bird has been quite appropriately named as ‘whistling school boy’! Its specialty is that it suddenly appears from nowhere on any time of the day and starts it’s whistling! Our walk was quite enjoyable as we could see the vast tea plantation while moving across the curved roads. The bungalow is situated near the Grahamsland Hospital. We had to walk down and climb up on our return journey. We enjoyed this walk on all the six days of our stay in Munnar.
As we came back, the hot special Kannan Devan tea was waiting for our arrival. We had special breakfast on all the six days. The items varied from Kerala Special Appam to our own Masala Dosa. Needless to say we also had sumptuous special lunch and dinner throughout. The Ravi-couple proved to be quite good hosts!
Dr. Ravi is an expert in four-wheel driving. Sandhya is equally good in driving. Surely one needs some expertise to drive in the hills. We were taken around Munnar by them to cover all the places of interest meticulously. In addition to the places of interest listed above, we were taken to two special places that are exclusive to the officials of Kannan Devan Hills Plantation Company.
The High Range Club
The elite planters’ club was set up in 1905 in one of the scenic locales of Munnar and till today retains the classical atmosphere of early 1900s. The club offers membership to only corporate executives of Munnar plantation companies, and provides accommodation facility also to members of the affiliated clubs.
The club maintains an excellent 18-hole Golf course and excellent facilities for billiards, tennis, squash, table tennis and a modern gymnasium. There is also a children park and a library with a decent collection of periodicals and fiction. The visitors can enjoy a variety of dishes in a classic ambience enhanced by period furniture.
The Kundale Golf Club
The Kundale Golf Course was set up in 1895 by the early British and Scottish planters at an altitude of 7,000 feet - surrounded by tea estates and forest with gurgling streams running along the course. You can say this golf course is set up in paradise! A round of Golf here is likely to be interrupted by frequent chirping & calls of birds and other wildlife in the jungles surrounding. This is an exclusive club meant for the corporate members of the High Range plantation with a beautiful 9-hole course which opens up during the monsoon.
We were at the club between 5-6 pm. The place is such a beauty that one does not feel like leaving it early. The person in-charge here told us that if we were to remain there for another 30 minutes to one hour, we could see herds of bisons moving around. We left the place reluctantly. But on our way back we were lucky to see wild elephants moving in the greenfield nearby!
We were equally lucky to see a couple of Nilgiri Tahr on our way to Eravikulam National Park. Actually a large number of visitors had piled up at the park to see this rare endangered animal. However, none of them were lucky as the rare animals failed to turn up at the park on that day. Quite surprisingly, we were rather welcomed by them on our way, as the pair of animals appeared in front of our vehicle as if from nowhere! In fact we could take a few camera shots quite comfortably.
The Elephant Visits
We were told that the wild elephants are in the habit of occasionally appearing near the bungalows in their search for food. In fact the bungalow where we stayed had the fortune to receive this great mammal at the garden twice! The gates of the bungalow were closed at that time. But the great animal never bothered to push open the same. It just pushed out the huge concrete pillar on one side of the gate to which the gate was fixed and it simply gave away! The father of the then occupant of the bungalow was present at the house alone. He was helplessly watching the Gaja Raja making a mess of the beautiful garden around the house. Fortunately it was satisfied by just eating the plants and flowers and walked away peacefully thereafter. It never tried to enter the house!
Good Bye Munnar!
The days went off so fast in Munnar that we were hardly aware that our scheduled stay at the lovely hills had come to an end. We were dropped at the Munnar Bus stand by Ravi couple on the 1st of May 2014 evening. We left the place by the KSRTC Rajahamsa at 5 PM. Our most pleasurable trip to the Munnar Hills had come to an end.