There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Munnar - Tea, Dams and Elephants: Part 7 of India's Deep South

After the morning chill of Ooty it was pleasant to eat breakfast on the restaurant terrace. We like a good breakfast (why skimp when it is already paid for?) and Lynne took some fried potatoes and a pea-stuffed paratha from the buffet before asking the egg chef for a couple of fried eggs. He broke the yolk on the second one and before she could say anything he dumped it in the bin. Hotel chefs may have standards to maintain, but Lynne was shocked by the waste of a perfectly good egg.

Heading into town we discovered that Munnar was closed - private shop keepers and restaurant owners had left their shutters down in protest against taxation levels. Thomas also told us that he queued for petrol last night as Kerala’s tanker drivers were starting an indefinite strike today. We were leaving Kerala the next day and Thomas was confident all would be resolved before our return in four or five days - if not some major re-planning would be necessary.
Munnar's position in southern India
Trade unions are strong in Kerala, hence the frequency of strikes. It is India's most literate state (98% literacy compared with the 58% national average), the least corrupt, and most politically aware. Since 1981 the Government of Kerala has been in the hands of either a coalition of the left led by the Communists or of the centre led by the Congress Party, swapping every five years. 2016 was an election year and it was the Communist’s turn to win. [And in the election, on the15th of May, the Left Democratic Front did indeed win 93 out of the 140 seats. Kerala is out of step with much of India, the right wing NDA, who form the National Government, won only 1 seat].
Through the tea plantations to the museum, Munnar
We headed for the tea museum beyond the largely shuttered town.
Tea Museum, Munnar
In 1857 John Daniel Munroe came to the Kannan Devan Hills to settle a border dispute between the princely state of Travancore (now mostly in Kerala) and its neighbours. Although immediately attracted by the area’s beauty it was not until 1879 that he formed the North Travancore Land Planting and Agricultural Society. Tea was omitted from his original plan, but AH Sharp planted the first 50 acres in 1880 and now tea bushes cover these hills like vines cover the Cote d'Or. After much consolidation and change of ownership, and the departure of the British, many of the tea estates are in the hands of the huge Tata conglomerate, owners of Jaguar-Land Rover among much else.

As we examined the freshly picked tea, a museum guide climbed onto the wilting bed and treated us to a lecture extolling the benefits of green tea, not a traditional product of this area but one they are pushing hard. Among the many benefits claimed (so many they were, literally, too good to be true) is that green tea keeps you slim. ‘That is why,’ he told us ‘there are no fat people in China.’ Obviously he has not visited China recently. Ours were almost the only European faces in the room, but the lecture was conducted in English. Munnar is in Malayalam speaking Kerala, but only just over the border from Tamil speaking Tamil Nadu and only a couple of hours from Karnatica, where the language is Kannada. The national language is Hindi, but very often the middle classes, the sort of people who can afford a holiday and visit museums, prefer English.

Examining the freshly picked tea in the 'wilting room', Tea Museum, Munnar
The museum was running the machinery that does the cutting, rolling and sifting of the wilted leaves before oxidisation (for black tea). We had seen it all operating before in the Pedro tea factory in Sri Lanka, but here we were allowed to take photographs.
Rolling machine, Tea Museum, Munnar
We also watched an informative film. It was good on history but I would be surprised if the workers have quite such an idyllic existence as the propaganda suggested.
Cutting, Tea Museum, Munnar
After paying for the museum we were disappointed that they charged us 5 Rupees for a cuppa before we made our way to the chaotically disorganised shop.

From the tea museum we left Munnar…
Looking back to Munnar
…drove through tea plantations….

Tea plantation with ranks of silver oaks as wind breaks
 …and beneath trees hung with bees’ nests…
Trees hung with bees' nests, near Munnar
 ….for 13 km to the Mattupetty Dam. Built between 1948-53, it produces valuable hydroelectricity but it is not particularly high or impressive…
Mattupetty Dam
…. though the area attracts local tourists in their hundreds, possibly because of the beauty of the lake behind.
The lake behind Mattupetty Dam
Ten minutes’ drive along the lakeside brought us to Echo Point. There is no ‘point’ but there is a line of stalls along the roadside and the general air of a seaside resort. We took advantage of the stalls to buy some roasted cashews – always at their best when fresh – and then found our way between them down to the beach. The attraction, as the name suggests, is the echo. Several people shouted and we clapped our hands, but the faint response was underwhelming. Then a child of five or six started yelling. Once the right register is hit the echo was seriously impressive, bouncing back, forth and back again among the surrounding hills.
Through the stalls at Echo Point
Sorry, but I have no picture of the echo
Thomas suggested we drive on to another dam and we agreed, there is not much to see or do in Munnar, even when it’s open, so we might as well. We were happy just to be in this extraordinarily beautiful area of bare, haze shrouded hills and green valleys, their floors and sides carpeted with tea bushes. Ranks of silver oaks march through the tea and stands of eucalyptus line the road.

On our way we encountered a line of parked cars and motorcycles and a crowd of some fifty people standing on a bank staring excitedly into the valley. It looked a strange scene, but Thomas knew exactly what was going on and very soon we found ourselves among the crowd. You might think that Indians, who live in a country full of wild elephants, might find them less exciting than we do, but not so. Only around 30,000 elephants survive in the wild and development has resulted in fragmented populations so you have to be in the right place to see them. This was the right place and we had arrived at exactly the right time to see a family walking through the edges of a tea plantation.
Elephants among the tea bushes, Munnar
The magic of a zoom lens showed us there were four adults, a juvenile and an infant.
Elephants among the tea bushes, near Munnar
After watching for a while we moved on to the Setuparvatipuram Dam (also called the Kundale Dam). Sri Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma became Maharajah of Travancore at the age of 12 in 1924. According to the plaque the dam was opened in the 25th year of his reign, i.e. 1948 or 49, the year Travancore joined the Union of India and the monarchy was abolished. The monogram on the coat of arms is RV for Rama Varma not VR for Queen Victoria.
Plaque on the Setuparvatipuram Dam
 Boating opportunities were available nearby and families picnicked in the woods beyond, otherwise Asia’s first ever arch dam is elegant but unremarkable.

The Setuparvatipuram Dam
Wherever people gather, others gather to sell them things. We called at a stall where a cheerful lady was hawking bags of sliced mango and pineapple for 10 rupees each. Lynne and I chose pineapple, Thomas picked a bag of mango and accepted the offered sprinkle of salt and chilli. Having never eaten pineapple with salt and chilli, I followed his lead but regretted it; a sweet and perfectly ripe pineapple requires no enhancement. ‘It was good with the mango,’ Thomas commented ‘as it was under-ripe.’ I remembered how good chilli sauce had been with under-ripe mango in Laos in November. A lesson learned, I thought.

Cheerful purveyor of pineapple and mango, Setuparvatipuram Dam

We drove back to Munnar for lunch. With all the private restaurants closed we had to eat at a hotel, so Thomas went off to join the other drivers and we settled for an overpriced soup.  Lynne chose the perhaps inappropriately titled ‘Tsunami seafood soup’ largely because it was St David’s Day and the menu promised leeks. I had onion soup with cheese dumplings. With a couple of chapattis both were pleasant if not memorable.

18% of Kerala’s 33 million people are Christians, a higher proportion than in any other Indian state. Many Keralans, including Thomas, describe themselves as ‘Catholics’ but there are a several denominations that fit that description; some recognise the Pope in Rome while others do not. Legend says that St Thomas, the apostle, came to southern India shortly after the death of Christ and these churches, some of the most ancient in the world, trace their origins to his evangelising. Outside the south, Christianity is rare in India and usually the result of European missionary work, while here it is indigenous.

Munnar has a number of churches, but Thomas decided to show us the British Church.  In 1894, the wife of the plantation’s general manager died and was buried overlooking the town. The plot developed into the British cemetery and eventually a church was built beside the graveyard. Neo-Gothic Christ Church was consecrated on Easter Sunday in 1911 and outside and in looks oddly familiar. Memorials to members of the British community, many of whom died tragically young, make interesting reading. In 1981 Christ Church, (like St Stephen’s in Ooty) was passed to the Church of South India, an alliance of Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians and Baptists.

Christ Church, Munnar
We drove back through Munnar and out the other side to another viewpoint, but it was now too hazy and after a couple of largely unsatisfactory photographs we returned to our hotel.

A viewpoint, but it is too hazy, Munnar
At dinner my beef tenderloin with coconut, chilli, chutney and yoghurt was good and Lynne enjoyed mahi mahi fish with baby vegetables and a few French fries. For some reason we were given complimentary desserts. A nutty/honey cake was good, but another cake, stale and teamed with a sort of green blancmange formed a combination of the weird and the regrettable. Afterwards Kerala’s drink laws sent us back to our balcony and diminishing supply of duty free.

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