They say you can never go home again. I still try.
When I climbed the steep, tea-covered hill that I ruthlessly cycled down 20 years ago, I noticed that little has changed, at least in this part of Munnar. Our old bungalow is still falling down the slope in a row of rose gardens and strawberry fields. In my children's room, the fireplace crackles with wood, which is still delivered by truck once a month. And the lawn is still regularly dug up by herds of wild boar and trampled by elephants, who trudge loudly through the vegetable garden at midnight.
When the sun goes down, a cool darkness falls and the only sounds are rustling trees and the pervasive call of night glasses in this bungalow without neighbors. It has been about 140 years since European pioneers made their way through the vegetation Shola Plant forests, tea, and build these secluded, sprawling houses to conquer the hills. They created a certain style of plantation life, a mixture of English and Scottish traditions that were blurred around the edges after years in India. Like our butler's meatloaf: purely British, with a pleasant dash of local spices.
Yes, there were butlers. There is still. Uniformed butlers serve canapés, pies and aspic pudding at cocktail parties that take place every week in the bungalows on every property. Hurricane lanterns and blazing log fires on stormy nights. Hand-cranked telephones with their own switching center offer fascinating options for eavesdropping on cross connections. Trout fishing and picnic baskets. Fortunately, the tourist Munnar is now an angry tangle of coaches, congested streets and souvenir stands. However, much of the tea plantations and surrounding forests have remained unchanged for more than a century.
I am on a mission to find the Munnar the Pioneer Planter.
My father, who worked with Tata Tea in Munnar, shows me 100 years of plants in the Kanan Devan Hills by Amita Baig and William Henderson, published in 1978 by Tata-Finlay. The tea companies Kanan Devan Hills and Munnar are inextricably linked to a complicated, colorful history.
The Kanan Devan Planters Association was founded in 1888 to unite planters living in harsh isolation. The Tata Finlay collaboration was founded in 1964 and Tata Tea was introduced in 1983. In 2005, Kanan Devan Hills Plantations Company followed Tata Tea and became the first plantation company in India to be owned by employees.
K Mathew Abraham, Managing Director and CEO of KDHP, explains how Tata's 24 properties have been combined into seven to optimize productivity. This still means that the company owns 24,000 acres of tea and protects about 20,000 acres of forests, swamps, and wetlands. Though the city of Munnar and tourist attractions like Madupatty Dam, the mountain station, and the entrance to Eravikulam National Park are crowded with long lines of tourists, there is a mud of plastic bottles and these inevitable souvenir stalls that are crowded with cheap pink teddy bears, dream catchers, and back Scratches, the lands still look like they did a century ago.
Abraham explained that one of the goals of KDHP was to protect the Munnar ecosystem. There has been no change in land use within the settlements since the beginning of 1900. We have a land management plan and maintain the jungles, rivers, animal corridors and Shola Forests between the tea fields ”.
This becomes clear when we drive on lonely, half-paved roads, punctuated with "elephant crossing" signs, in search of the Kundale Club, a member-only golf course that lies between the woods. Started in 1917, it offers a small clubhouse, 100 members, and no memberships. Following the tradition, we arrive with a picnic basket in the trunk, packed by Krishnan, the butler in the breathtaking colonial bungalow from 1917, in which we spend the night. Krishnan is famous for its elegant meals, which are based on recipes from British planters and which have been processed over two centuries with local ingredients from vegetable gardens to create a practical, soothing cuisine. Like the other butlers who double here as chefs, he has been stuck in the bungalow tradition for 30 years: every meal begins with fragrant soups made from freshly picked seasonal vegetables, followed by pies or casseroles and a roast. And there's always dessert: he says he knows how to make 1,500 puddings, including a delicious walnut crumble, an old-fashioned pineapple upside-down cake, and a pleasantly pink, buttery-like rhubarb pudding topped with a jug of cool, rich cream is served.
Stephen, the local caretaker, starts lunch in Kundale in the cozy single room of the club, which is dominated by a graceful wooden bar. Animal trophies, including the heads of the now protected Nilgiri-Tahr and a wild leopard, stare glassily over the picture. The wild Gaur arrive later, and their shiny coats curl over the strong muscles.
District for agricultural workers
When Stephen solemnly places a tray with a steaming teapot on the porch, he chats about how he watches the golf course every evening, how they gather. His father Karuppaswami worked here for 45 years until he died five years ago. This is a common story in Munnar, where families have worked in the same city and for the same company for generations.
High Range Club, Munnar
Back in town, in the High Range Club, the guardian has a similar story: his grandfather worked here too. This iconic growers' club, completed in 1910, is still central to the city's social life.
It was always sporty: planters came on horseback to use the golf course, play cricket and tennis. Sporting meets with clay pigeon shooting, tent pegs and sack hopping. The pleasantly shaded men's bar, dark with wood paneling, still smells of leather and whiskey, although it's now dry.
Here, too, the walls are filled with animal trophies from long-forgotten hunts, but the most striking feature is 52 hats, which are arranged above a wall. From 1928, the association began the tradition of hanging the hats of planters who had served in the high range for 30 years at farewell farewell parties. Today, when old planters return – this is an active, well-connected community that even has a fast-growing WhatsApp group – they still gather in the same bar under the same hats.
Next to the club, the mysterious Lodge Heather is silent, except when a herd of cows trudges past. Founded in 1902, the Scottish Masonic Lodge became notorious for locals who called it "Thalavetti Kovil", meaning a church in which people were beheaded for seeing the church Dorais (British managers) meet there secretly.
It's locked and there's no soul around, so I give up and go to Munnar's most moving British monument, the centuries-old Christ Church. Hewn from rough granite, its intricate stained-glass windows let in a kaleidoscope of colored sunshine. In the muted silence, I read brass signs, fondly remembering the pioneers who fought homesickness, cholera and the jungle. Then I climb the steep hill next to the church to look for the tomb of Eleanor Knight, the site's oldest tomb. According to legend, when she and her husband Henry Mansfield Knight climbed this hill, she said playfully that she wanted to be buried here because it was so beautiful. Shortly thereafter, she fell ill and died of cholera at the age of 24.
I drive out of Munnar and stop at the MSA (Munnar Supply Association), which was built in 1900 and is said to be the oldest department store in southern India.
When we lived here, we bought our weekly supplies here. VN Thampachan still maintains shelves with old handwritten registers and carefully fills out new ones: all planters are members and have accounts with MSA.
He chats about how he lived in Munnar all his life, worked with the Tatas for years, and finally retired at 58 to take on this job. "When I was young, we came here in the 1970s to see the Europeans who came on horseback with their dogs," he smiles. “In 1978 I entered for the first time to buy my first watch. I was so excited."
With its red oxide floors, wooden shelves with local jams and freezers filled with bacon, this room also looks unchanged. On my way I see an older man smiling at me. He grins: "I remember you. I always drove you to school." Thampachan nods in agreement and they ask about my family. There is a strong sense of community thanks to the local high range school where children of tea pickers, farm workers and managers share classrooms.
And in the midst of tourism and the wave of trade, the core of Munnar has remained essentially unchanged. It is defined by the people who have lived here for generations and who share a rich collective memory and unshakable loyalty to this small, extremely independent city: a Munnar that you as a tourist will never see.