Munnar - A breath of fresh air!
"Munnar -The High Range of Travancore"
Munnar was quite different to the other places we visited during our tour-
Originally, This area was heavily forested , and was inhabited by Adivasi (tribal) communities, elephants and tigers.
The region was known as The High Range of Travancore.
During British rule, the region became popular with army and government officials and their families as an escape from the heat of the lower lands. Scottish pioneers were attracted by the similarity in geography to their homeland.
John Daniel Munro , a government lawyer, saw the opportunity for development and leased land for agricultural purposes in 1879. (Known as the Kanan Devan concession Lands)
The following year he and HG Turner a civil servant, formed The North Travancore Land Planting and Agricultural Society , soon enrolling other European pioneers, whohad plantations in the area.
The forests and surrounding countryside were extensively cleared, for cultivation of crops such as coffee, sisal, rubber and the first planting of tea in 1888.
In the early 1880's, Finlay Muir and Company Limited, another Scottish tea concern, looked to this area to expand their business, and bought the KD Concessions land in 1893. Later becoming James Finlay and Co. in 1895.
By the early 1900's, it was decided to concentrate on tea production. The Kanan Devan Hills village now covered 1,29,569 acres.
The rapidly expanding town was appropriately named Munnar,( a Tamil word meaning 3 rivers) as it sits at the confluence of the Mudrapuzha, Nalkithanni and Kundala.
This area was developing ahead of other rural areas due to the European planters. Roads were built .and the first hydro electric project commenced in 1900, Communication systems were established (postal service 1892 and telephones 1929)
A joint venture between the giant TATA company and Finlay and Co in 1964, continued to extend tea production, with TATA taking over most of the plantations by 1983, and becoming the largest integrated tea company in the world.
About 22,000 people in the Munnar region are employed by tea production companies.
This development has a downside though,deforestation, erosion and soil degradation, encreasing numbers in endangered or even extinct species of flora and fauna.
Tribal people have also lost their homes, and with integration into other communities have lost their traditional skills and indigenous knowledge.
There is some effort being made through establishment of laws regarding land development, and areas such as Eravikulum, being proclaimed a National Park in 1978 in order to prevent the threatened extinction of the Nilgiri tahr.
"Mountains, Goats and a Market."
Leaving Kumily, we settled back for the 70km journey to Munnar.
Soon we were climbing higher, up winding mountain roads, with each bend revealing evermore stunning scenery. A green carpet of tea plantations, with a dramatic background of mountain ranges provided plenty of photo opportunities. Exotic trees such as Sandalwood and Ebony were pointed out.
Nearing Munnar we stopped again, to admire the view of lakes and islets below us. ( I think it was the Mudapetty Dam, in hindsight, but I might be wrong) It was easy to see the attraction of this area for homesick Scottish pioneers.
The air was becoming noticibly cooler and less humid the higher we climbed.
We arrived in the bustling town of Munnar, and took the opportunity to buy crisps from a kiosk, as our guide enquired whether we needed to transfer to jeeps to cross the fragile bridge that led to our hotel. We didn't.
After checking into the Abad Copper Castle hotel ( 4km from town) and lunch, we set off to visit Eravikulum National Park, in the hope of seeing the Nilgiri tahr, a breed of mountain goat, indiginous to this region. They were in danger of extinction, but now are estimated to be upwards of 2,000 with 1,000 inhabiting this park. Leaving the mini bus, we headed up the roadway and paths til we reached a plateau. There were quite a few people there, many with binoculars , scanning the distance for sightings of the tahrs. After a few false sightings, we thought we were going to be disappointed. Then one of the nearby rangers indicated a rock near the summit of the distant hillside. Soon people were excitedly pointing, and a small herd were seen to be moving down the hillside. They quickly descended, followed by a smaller group, and soon were easily visible. We were amused by the reaction of an Indian man near us who stood bolt upright, with a look of shock on his face and exclaimed "Oh my God"!
As the goats got increasingly nearer, we were stunned to see the gathered crowd surge foreward with such speed and fervour, that we wondered if David Beckham had arrived as well! A few Indian men tried to run and catch the goats, which was quite worrying.
The goats were surprisingly tame, and we got quite a close look at them(without having to catch them first!)
We then returned to Munnar 16km away, to visit the market, and catch a glimpse of local activity. The market was full of stalls selling a variety of fruits and vegetables, spices and dry goods, to the local people. Surrounding the market were tea stalls, where local men were passing the time of day. Our guide identified unrecognisable vegetables etc for us. Cows wandered at will , I had been trapped by one earlier which wouldn't let me get off our mini bus! Before returning , we made a detour to the govt run liquor store for essential supplies, as our hotel wasn't allowed to sell alcohol that day!
"Now THIS does remind me of Scotland!"
After an early night to bed, when the temperature dropped suddenly during the night, I woke to this view, of mist over the valley, and was instantly transported back in time to childhood camping holidays in the Highlands of Scotland. By the time we'd eaten breakfast, the sun was breaking through and the mist was almost gone.
We eventually checked out of our hotel (not the most organised of staff), and set off for the 130km journey to Cochin.
On leaving Munnar, we started to descend the mountain roads, and stopped off for a short while near a waterfall where some boys were bathing. There was a kiosk opposite, and I was nearly out of film. Surprisingly, the owner had a good selection of new films. He spoke quite good english, and we chatted for a while, as he tried to sell me other goods. I bought a packet of cardamom tea, just as his wife, son and baby appeared. They were shy, but kept smiling at me, I was just wondering if they would mind me taking their photo, but before I could ask, the owner asked me if I could take their photo then send them a copy, I was only too pleased to. He carefully wrote his address on a piece of paper before it was time for me to rejoin our group on the bus.
Further on our journey we passed a procession of garland festooned women some carrying paper decorations and or baskets. our guide wasn't sure what the procession was for, but guessed it had some religious significance.
During our trip we'd heard about toddy, the local brew made by distilling the sap of the coconut tree. Our guide asked if we wanted to try some, we all did.
Our driver was dispatched to the nearby toddy shop, and returned with a plastic water bottle containing a beige coloured liquid. plastic cups of this local delicacy, were handed out to us as we eagerly tried toddy....YEUK! to me it tasted like liquid yeast. Our faces must have been a picture as we tried to swallow this vile liquid. As one of our group said, they were expecting a coconut flavour..visions of a Malibu! ah well at least I can say I've tried it!