Munnar : A Short Symphony in Green

Munnar Travel Blog

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Green staves and music
Marion and I have only known each other for approximately 10 glances and a likewise number of sentences exchanged when we find ourselves gravitating towards shared accommodation in Munnar town centre.  Munnar has a reputation for upping one's budget.  Many is the time I have found myself sharing close sleeping quarters with an international array of brave and often very attractive solo female travellers.  Had I been born to the form and mentality of a lady-killer I might possibly have been able to turn more of these recurrent situations to personal profit over the many months past, but, somewhat regrettably I was not, and consequently such arrangements have remained almost exclusively ones of nascent friendship and economic expediency.
The fabulous Pullivasal Tea Estate seen from the main Cochin Road
  Always look on the bright side of life.

It feels like a surprisingly long day already although in reality just a five hour jolty winding bus from Fort Kochi to the uplands of this tea plantation district perched in east Kerala right on the border with the state of Tamil Nadu.  Marion's a bit whacked out from the ride and so drops onto bed sheets and into late siesta mode whilst I go for a couple of chaise and sugary orange jelebi, paid for in the end by a  most hospitable Keralan school mistress Christina (she plucking up the conversation having noticed me write this name, my grandmother's, on a postcard) and her beautiful and clearly very clever daughter Rosemarie.  

Following this warm welcome to Munnar I trek up just a little ways, light on my feet with contentment, to get out of the now shadow-soup bowl topography of the main and none-too-pretty town (politicians spouting high decibel rants from a temporary platform and the 'S' bend of the Munnar river being used as a 'U' bend as usual in India; all of the town's street waste just swept into its much abused body) to invite my first embrace by the earthen hills, rocky bluffs and green tea plant vistas that will form the beautiful surroundings of my next few days in the ever-changing landscape of India.
Beautiful lake reservoir viewed from the bus on route to Kovillur/ Top Station. You can disembark and walk around this magnificent scenery.
  I lie on my back with the becalmed evening sun on my face reading with rocky hills in the distance, loose red-brown soil and grass warm to the touch beneath me and the odd stare and friendly call from local plantation workers on their way into town or back.  There's a soft crackle of electricity in the air and a blackbird sits upon the wire from which it resonates.

On our way into Munnar yesterday on the Cochin Road Marion and I had received a tantalising preview of the glorious green epic poem of an environment we were about to stay amidst.  The perfectly kept and clipped undulations of the stunted tea bushes rolling past the bus windows; waves of a pea green sea.  Bonsai botany on a grand scale.  A well manicured Mother Nature.  Topiary as topography.
Boy in the tea
  It's not a landscape entirely new to my experience.  I paid a visit to the Cameron Highlands in central Malaysia about this time last year and was also not long ago in the Indian hill station town of Ooty, also renowned for its tea as well as coffee and cocoa beans.  Jaipalguri and Darjeeling too.  It's an environment (with its attendant cooler climates) that never ceases to charm and relax me though.  And I ponder if this has anything to do with a vestigial pride, or rather a nostalgic pang for something inherently British (or of British origin anyway), having now been so long and far from home.  Thoughts of the ghosts of Empire mulled over a cup of fresh-tip tea.
Terraced slopes in Kovillur village, Munnar
  'Another buttered scone and a pot of Assam please m‘deary duck.'  This is a green and pleasant land after all.  One lain out at British behest for British success, as usual by the sweat of another nation (see Sri Lanka and Malaysia too).  The hills denuded of almost all other fauna for miles around to make way for this mono-culture mass-export enterprise.

Today we're straight back on the buses and heading a little higher still, the bus conveying us in a drunken waltz through eye-poppingly beautiful plantation, mirror lake and mountain range scenery to the 1,750 metre elevation village of Kovillur.  Marion and I bouncing from one side of the bus to the other to get the best of views, east and west, as the Magnificent Magic Nature Show switches from one channel to the other.
The girls and boys are mesmerised by my travel buddy Marion
  In Kovillur where chickens strut and horses stroll and boys tread landslides of carrots clean like French grape crushers by placing them in the concourse of muddy path streams, Marion with her bright smile, blonde hair and three words each of Tamil and Malayalam (this being border territory the language barrier is blurred and porous and one tongue seems as prevalent as the other) soon has the town's children and their folks eating from the palm of her hands like so many eager but nervous twittering birds.  This is a good thing because in my current hirsute state of ginger dishevelment the only reaction I manage to provoke is one of abject terror with one little girl stopping dead and staring at me with wide, wide, wider eyes until ’pop!’ she bursts, screams and howls and those beautiful Indian infant saucer eyes start erupting tears of horror!  I think it’s time I shaved.
Marion and her fan club :)A vi

Another bus a little later and we join the parade of visitors to the Top Station.  One of Munnar’s highest and most renowned viewing points.  It’s a popular place with day tripping beauty-sippers and Marion and I have to weave our way through the choking line of cars, bikes, mini-buses, rickshaws and jeeps that are, in that all too depressingly human way, thinking they can get juuuust that little bit closer to their goal if they honk their horns and hector the other road users pushily enough.  The burgeoning better moneyed Indian middle class (those to whom travel is suddenly a viable and novel use of leisure time) exactly like their Chinese counterparts seem to take pride in being as moronically and nature-murderingly lazy as physical possibility and law permits them to be.
A Stevie in the Tea ;D (can you spot him?)
  The less steps taken on foot the better as if every one risked removing an inch from their purposefully boastful waistlines.

The view from Top Station whilst not of revelatory beauty for anyone like Marion and I who has been on The Road long enough gorging themselves giddy on Mother Nature’s treasures but is impressive.  Perching oneself on grass stubble and stone on the rocky outcrop lip staring into the steep valley drop fringed with hazy hill crests bleached to blue silhouettes by the heat provides a fine setting for letting the soul off its leash for a flight whilst the body relaxes.  This meditative moment momentarily threatened by another common expression of new money (or frankly any) societies these days : ‘Look I own a mobile phone.
village matriarch comes to see what all the fuss is about and seems mildly disapproving.
  Listen, a phone I own with a comedy ring tone.  Look it plays music too.  Listen to it drone, drone, drone...’ 
I glare accusingly at the Indian lad with his palm-sized ghetto-blaster who thinks this is an appropriate environment for selfishly hurling his terrible taste in music into the public domain and he swiftly turns it off.  Good for him.  He now will not have to climb 1,000 feet down to retrieve it from where I was contemplating hurling it.

Marion and I meet and befriend a lovely young American/ Israeli couple who sit and join us in gazing out into the great blue-green yonder.  We all sit up there on our little ledges and edges of the world nattering for some hours.  Sam and I hit it off pretty quick as I pick up on and point out a reference in his conversation with his Missus to the dead American stand up comic Bill Hicks who proudly sits in my personal pantheon of Top Rockin’ Human Beings and whom it turns out was Sam’s cousin!  ( ’Yeah, he died when I was about fourteen.
  We went to see him at one of his shows in New York one time but I was only eleven and so with his material I wasn’t allowed to actually go in and watch the show.’
)  Cool.  Small World.  Of all the people in all the places to meet etc, etc...  

They’re here with a private hire car and offer us a lift back to Munnar which we gratefully accept.  I introduce myself to Augustine the driver whom I slip in besides for what will be my one and only ride in the iconic white Indian Ambassador cars that often glide around the streets of India’s cities like metal swans swamped by ugly ducklings.  Their out-of-place, out-of-time curvaceous elegance cutting a swathe through the dust and litter.  He draws attention to certain points of interest along the way and the sun picks out those he doesn’t with its magic-imparting gold-dusting dusk brush inviting photo opportunities galore.
Marion and the view from Top Station
  All of the roofs (usually corrugated metal sheet) of the tea plantation factories and the workers villages that surround them were apparently painted green during the Second World War so as to completely camouflage them from aerial bombardment - though untutored on the subject I’m not sure mainland India ever became a major theatre of the war?  Nor would I have thought a halt in tea production a critical hit to the Allied Forces war efforts.  That said I am minded of the scenario in Asterix in Britain whereby the Brits are eventually conquered by the Romans after the latter stop respecting their adversaries' requirement to stop fighting each day to take 'elevenses' and attack them during afternoon tea.  'How uncivil of them!'  These days, Augustine points out, the roofs are usually bright red.
Another view from Top Station, Munnar

You should take a few days out in Munnar friends.  Especially if you’ve got time on your hands and have been in India a little while.  It’s a cool green draft of refreshment for the soul that may have become a little parched and jaded by one too many littered streets, dusty rusty bus rides, cattle crap slaloms and car horns at thirty five degrees.  It’s one of the most beautiful landscapes I have wandered through in this country - though I must point out I haven’t yet traversed its tantalising looking far northern and eastern extremities.  But so completely given over to this close crop symphony in green is the land, the shadow lines that separate the rows of tea plants the staves ruled along the emerald sheet music, that I do feel it’s one of those rare moments where man’s flagrant imposition on Mother Nature’s preferred design actually ushers in a greater aesthetic achievement.
Evening symphony in Green, one of the many Munnar tea plantations
  Unintentional of course.  Like the great rice terraces I’d seen in Yuanyang in southwest China.  Incidental functional beauty.  

Almost all of my time in Munnar, with Marion and after she departs, is spent in wandering my way between the tea.  Using the dusty ochre paths that wind and wriggle across the hills like sun-bathing snakes.  The rolling green flow of tea bushes, that are actually trees and would reach considerable heights if left to nature's course, is systematically punctuated by the slender bodies of silver oak trees planted purposefully in their midst.  The root networks of the latter help to bind and stabilise the slanting, acidic soils favoured for tea cultivation and also retain ground water well for hydration.  Nominal shade is provided by their usually small canopies and help to prevent the tea below from burning one plantation worker advises me but I am certain from observation that they are not very effective in this regard.
Girl in the Tea
  Their straight lines and symmetry break up the landscape pleasantly.  Their shadows arcing across the green tea carpet beneath them throughout the day like a graceful gathering of sun dials.  Or the legs of so many synchronised swimmers projecting from beneath the 'waves' up toward the sky.

The waterways and ponds in the areas nearer the town reflect the blue skies and some of the colours and forms of a spring that is just around the corner.  Sun flowers smile ( 'tourner soleil' Marion advises me of their French title), profusions of red hibiscus and poinsettia blooms contrast with their deep green surrounds.  The vines, jade fans of broad ferns, the curling fiddle-heads of those yet unfurled and ivy dance into each others entangling bodies and the soft, small frilly fronds of the mimosa trees are pleasing to the touch.
'Butterfly and Bloom'
  The long white trumpets of datura flowers dip down as if to offer their poison kiss to the purple blossoms they've become entwined with.  Butterflies in merry numbers make fine play of all this fragrant, bursting nature.  Several of the plantations have been cultivated in valley crooks strewn with fallen rocks and the landscape at these points takes on the appearance of a Japanese zen garden, just the forms around the boulders and bases of trees raked through green jewels rather than gravel-sand.  Come early evening the variegated fields of tea bushes, especially the lighter tips of as yet un-plucked plants, blaze luminescent into the evening air, glowing with the sunlight they have breathed in all day, their colour now an iridescent green extracted from the dusting of a butterfly’s wings.
The silver oak trees are planted amidst the tea bushes/ trees to halp water retention and soil structure

Most of the wider tea plantation areas are designated private property and whilst several invite minor incursions from curious visitors into their estate peripheries and factories, technically a lot of the region is out of bounds for trekkers.  I would advise not to sweat this one too much.  If you want to really drown yourself in the Green, just go ahead and act dumb and/or innocent and polite if an estate worker or other official spots you and gets a bit formal.  Most of them will just be happy to stop work and chat for as long as it takes the two of you to exhaust your marvellously modest clutch of words and phrases (glued haphazardly together with body language and mime) in each others languages.  And what is travel without the occasional little harmless trespass anyway?  The only time I am seriously challenged I challenge back that I can guarantee if he accompanies my route back to Munnar town we would not come across a single sign stating the fact of Private Property (actually true in this instance).
'Little Rebels'
  Of course this doesn't put me in the right legally, but he and I are polite, and I retrace my steps as the sun does his too, down his familiar road to dusk.

One worker tells me that there are 18 separate estates in the region (all with their own self-sufficient little plantation worker villages, schools and shrines) all of which are owned or sell their tea to Tata Corporation one of India's two many-limbed mega corporations (the other being Reliance).  Another kindly plantation hand Muthu, a worker on the large and extremely picturesque Pullivasal Estate, helps guide Marion and I through the emerald maze for a while responds to my enquiry that he works 8 hour days amidst the tea for the rate of 125 Rupees a day (approx £1.55 per day or £46/ £552 per month/ year).
Datura trumpets in bloom
  His chief role at this time of year, the dry season, is managing the vast irrigation and sprinkler systems.  His tasks will change as the seasons do.  

And for now everything looks healthy and lush and productive though I had read whilst in the Darjeeling region that five years of successive droughts and wider changes in the climate and rainfall patterns (attributed to global warming by many) and consequent growth of pest populations were threatening the long term viability of the tea crop from that most famous of regions.  It must be said that the plantations I briefly travelled through there often looked tired and parched and lacked much of the healthy visual poetry of the Munnar plantations.  One of my most favourite landscapes to date.  Long may this little green symphony play to the eyes.

[ Blissful Bus to Kumily / Thekkady :  As an afterword I thought I'd mention the following bus ride as a recommendation for seeing some of the best scenery this landscape has to offer.  Even with three days in Munnar and the natural marvels on the ride to Top Station I still was not fully sated with how wonderful this landscape can be and the first 90 minutes or so of the ride are just phenomenal!  The first of a couple of daily buses from Munnar town to Kumily leaves at 11.30am from the Post Office bus stand and costs 75 Rupees (approx £1).  Whilst many people (such as I) head to the nature reserve pocket of Kumily/ Thekkady/ Periyar Lake from Munnar you may not be doing so, but at such little cost I would even recommend taking this bus as a fabulous half-day tour through the area.
  Just hop off at a stop when the landscape peters out to more mundane township drags away from the hill views and just hop on the next bus back to Munnar.  MAKE SURE TO SIT ON THE LEFTHAND SIDE OF THE BUS TO GET THE BEST OF IT!  

Buses are your friends.  Lose yourself too in a protracted walk through the area running west from Munnar town (along the riverside opposite that of the main run of the noisy, busy Cochin Road) towards the grand view points and valley strolls above and down through the Pullivasal Tea Estate (ignore Private Estate and 'No Thoroughfare' signs when required, it's a well trodden estate with a waterfall at its base that tourists can and do stroll to).  Once you ascend back to the Pullivasal Tea Factory and Shop on the Cochin Road you can wait and get a bus back to town for just 5 Rupees.
  Make sure you take just a ten minute stroll in the direction of town first though as these views of the Pullivasal Estate are some of the most impressive, especially come late afternoon.

Right, that cringey moment of Lonely Planet-style travel-preaching out of the way, I'll leave you to your wanderings :) ]
jethanad says:
great review Steve - I hope to have an opportunity to sample the delights of Munnar and Thekaddy, myself
Posted on: Dec 12, 2010
sylviandavid says:
Wonderful read, Steve. I laughed out loud when the little girl "popped".... loved this and love the pictures! Sylvia
Posted on: Mar 30, 2010
esposabella says:
Dang so your gruffy beard scared and scarred a little indian girl?!!! LOLOL.......go to one of those kids that have a chair on the sidewalk with the straight razor!!!
Posted on: Mar 30, 2010
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Green staves and music
Green staves and music
The fabulous Pullivasal Tea Estate…
The fabulous Pullivasal Tea Estat…
Beautiful lake reservoir viewed fr…
Beautiful lake reservoir viewed f…
Boy in the tea
Boy in the tea
Terraced slopes in Kovillur villag…
Terraced slopes in Kovillur villa…
The girls and boys are mesmerised …
The girls and boys are mesmerised…
Marion and her fan club :)A vi
Marion and her fan club :)A vi
A Stevie in the Tea ;D  (can you s…
A Stevie in the Tea ;D (can you …
village matriarch comes to see wha…
village matriarch comes to see wh…
Marion and the view from Top Stati…
Marion and the view from Top Stat…
Another view from Top Station, Mun…
Another view from Top Station, Mu…
Evening symphony in Green, one of …
Evening symphony in Green, one of…
Girl in the Tea
Girl in the Tea
Butterfly and Bloom
'Butterfly and Bloom'
The silver oak trees are planted a…
The silver oak trees are planted …
Little Rebels
'Little Rebels'
Datura trumpets in bloom
Datura trumpets in bloom
Green as far as can be seen
Green as far as can be seen
Tree slope, tea slope
Tree slope, tea slope
Gold snakes and green tea
Gold snakes and green tea
photo by: spocklogic