Munnar: Where tea plantations
CAN man improve upon nature? Can he enhance the scenic splendour of a towering mountain, a cascading waterfall, a palm-fringed beach? The question first struck me several years ago in Ladakh after seeing the Buddhist monastery at Thiksey near Leh. The monastery was perched on the top of a low pyramidal hill but what made the view so striking was the jumble of Tibetan-style dwellings covering the slopes of the knoll. Living quarters for the maroon-robed lamas, the houses, standing one below the other, the entire pile crowned by the red monastery building, turned the otherwise humble hillock into a spectacular pyramid.
There must be other such instances of man improving on nature but they likely wouldn’t extend over large areas: The terraced Mughal gardens, for instance, beautifying an already pretty Kashmiri mountain slope. Far away from Kashmir, though, amidst the high Cardamom Hills straddling Kerala and Tamil Nadu, Scottish tea planters, a century ago, unwittingly turned an entire highland country into a stunning mountainscape.
Centring around Munnar, 13
km east of Cochin, the tea estates here look like manicured landscaped
gardens, sprawling endlessly over hills and valleys. The Cardamom Hills,
rising to heights of over 8,000 ft above sea-level, are in themselves
very beautiful but the tea plantations make them breathtakingly scenic.
From a height, the tea bushes, pruned to a uniform height, seem like a
well-maintained, elaborately designed lawn with criss-crossing lines.
The lines, of course, are the narrow corridors between the bushes to
allow access to the pluckers. They could be concentric circles on a
hill, sequential parallelogram at another or just straight parallel
lines in a third. It’s the lines, in fact, and their alignment that
makes the panorama so picturesque: hill after rolling hill carpeted in
shades of green, each carpet uniquely designed.
But it is not just designer carpets that Munnar has on offer. Fast turning into the South’s most popular hill resort as Ooty and Kodaikanal turn evermore passe, Munnar, (at an alked 5,500 ft) has around it some shimmering lakes, gushing waterfalls, rare wildlife and great mountain views besides, of course, a bracing climate. It’s often misty though, and that can obscure views but you have got to trust your luck and, in any case, the mist doesn’t stay all day. While you could reach Munnar from Tamil Nadu via Kodaikanal or Madurai, approaching the hill station through cochin, as we did, would perhaps be a better idea.
Cochin, though a busy port and Kerala’s main commercial centre, is by itself a great tourist place. Straddling a wide inlet with islands and jutting peninsulas, the city has an extraordinary setting and more importantly, great historical associations. It has India’s oldest European-built church, reputedly the Commonwealth’s oldest Jewish synagogue, old Dutch, Portuguese and British mansions and quaint Chinese fishing nets.
In Kerala, it is the done thing these days to stay in "resorts" rather than hotels and we found ourselves one some 20 km away from Cochin (but not far from the airport) that was reasonably priced and had that rural ambience. Called Royal Village, the resort was a cluster of thatched cottages (with all modern amenities) built around an old tiled-roof mansion that was once the residence of one of Tipu Sultan’s chieftains. After a relaxed breakfast at our cottage’s verandah, we drove to busy Ernuakulam, the section of Cochin city that is on the mainland, then crossed a bridge to Willingdon Island.
Another bridge and we were on a peninsula that faced the Arabian Sea. It is here that Cochin’s historic districts — Mattanchery and Fort Cochin — are located. Fort Cochin is perhaps India’s oldest European settlement, established in 1503 by Portuguese sailors who followed Vasco da Gama. We visited St Francis Church, the oldest European-built Christian place of worship in India, where Vasco da Gama was buried when he died in 1524 (his remains were later removed to Portugal). When the Dutch wrested Fort Cochin from the Portuguese in 1663, they converted St Francis into a Protestant church and added a gabled front facade; today it has a decidedly Hindu air about it with notices asking visitors to remove shoes before entering the nave. Don’t miss the Dutch and Portuguese gravestones, now plastered on opposite walls at the entrance, and, of course, that of Vasco da Gama.
Not far from the St. Francis is the Santa Cruz Basilica, a grand Gothic church with an ornate nave adorned by paintings on its ceiling. The surrounding Fort Cochin area has several old buildings including sprawling colonial mansions that look as it they have been transplanted from an English suburb. We took a walk though the narrow streets, browsed in curio shops, then had a freshly netted fried fish for lunch at the promenade lining the cape at the northern end. It’s here that the famous Chinese nets are located, vast triangular bamboo-framed cantilevered sieves that can be lowered into the waters to catch fish. Their design was possibly borrowed from the Chinese several centuries ago.
After lunch, we moved to Mattanchery adjoining Fort Cochin and visited the Dutch Palace (so named because it was renovated by the Dutch in 1663, some 100 years after it was built by the Portuguese and presented to the local king) with some of the most outstanding murals — depicting scenes from Hindu epics — anywhere in India. Not far from the Dutch Palace, in what is called Jew Town, stands the ancient Jewish synagogue. Jew Town was once a major Jewish enclave — and the centre of the spice and pepper trade, as it still is — but the so-called White Jews of cochin have now mostly emigrated (just a handful of families still remain) and the 434-year-old synagogue, famous for the hand-painted Chinese tiles (no two are alike) on the floor, is now more a tourist destination.
Weary after so much sightseeing, we rounded off the day with a relaxed cruise in the Cochin backwaters, our boat passing by the docks with their cranes and ships, Ernakulam’s new impressive skyline, the Bolghatty Island palace (now a hotel), the flamboyant Port Authority headquarters building on Willingdon Island and, lastly, the Chinese nets off Fort Cochin, looking spectacular against the backdrop of the setting sun.
Next morning, we set off for Munnar, stopping once at Tripunithura in the outskirts of the city to visit the Hill Palace of the Cochin rajahs. Surrounded by a terraced garden, the palace has a vast collection of royal jewellery, wood and metal carvings, paintings, porcelain and other antiques but its greatest treasure is surely the 1.75 kg gold crown that Vasco da Gama presented to the then rajah.
We reached Munnar by afternoon and checked into a hotel some 20 km away called Fort Munnar. Built in a mock-Gothic castellated style, the hotel, part of the chain that ran the Royal Village resort near Cochin, has wonderful views of the valley below and the mountain beyond. Next morning, our first destination was the Rajamalai hills at Eravikulam National Park, famous for the endangered Nilgiri Tahr, an endangered species of mountain goat now numbering only around 2,000. And we were lucky: several Tahr herds had descended that morning from the upper slopes and we could spot them all over the place. In the afternoon, we returned to Munnar town for luch, then headed towards Mattupetty dam, driving, as in the morning, through hill roads that wound past beautiful tea gardens.
The lake Mattupetty dam had spawned was a long zigzagging stretch of shimmering water with scenic mountains all around and you can do a quick round of it in a speedboat (Rs 200 for six), but we preferred to just sit by it and savour the atmosphere. Moving on, we visited a livestock farm built with Swiss expertise, then came to another end of the Mattupetty lake called Echo Point where any loud sound made on the shore resounds from the forested, opposite bank. Further down the road, we reached another lake, Kundalay, with two boats designed like Kashmiri shikaras. We were late and the boatmen had left. Proceeding further, we would have reached Top Station, 32 km from Munnar town, commanding an excellent view of the surrounding hills and valleys. However, at that late hour and with mists wafting in, we decided to head back to the hotel.
We tried to make up for missing Top Station by hiring a jeep the next morning and taking the steep rough road to Kolukamalai Hill (7,000 ft). But luck did not favour us. By the time we reached the top, there were clouds all over and the promised view again eluded us. But we visited what is probably the world’s highest tea garden and were shown around the plantation factory (and served a cup of the brew) for a fee of Rs 75 (a little unreasonable, we thought). By late afternoon, after a quick visit to the placid Anayirangal lake (visible from our hotel window), and stopping by to take a peek at the pretty little century-old stone-built English church at Munnar town, we were on our way back to Cochin. On the way, our driver stopped to show us a farm that had cardamom, coffee, tapioca, rubber and cocoa. Only in Cardamom Hills, perhaps, can such a diversity of plantations thrive together.