Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Munnar the charm of Kerala

______________ Munnar: The Charm of Kerala ______________ 

In this travelogue, we take you to Munnar-- a hill station hidden till 1790s from rest of India. Munnar was developed during the British rule primarily for growing tea. It has the right climate-- cool and moist which suits tea plants. Located 130 kms east of Kochi, it is a 4-hour drive through busy roads in Kerala.

Asirvathams (Rajan and Trixie from Bangalore) and Bhargavas (Harsh and Neeta from Secunderabad) drove to Munnar in a hired Maruti Ertiga in March 2014. This picture story written by Trixie, is a personal account of the journey.
Close to Kochi airport is a victory tower erected in honour of Adi Shankaracharya. An imposing structure towering above the coconut trees. The suggestion to visit the monument was given by Tuhin Choudhary, an avid traveller himself.

High noon sun was pretty hot while we waited outside the airport for Rajan and Trixie to arrive from Bangalore. We spotted a sugarcane juice kiosk. The owner had migrated from Bihar.

Our drives up and down the hills were enlivened by photo stops for picturesque waterfalls and magnificent bridges.

India has variety in the way shops are named. For example a hardware store selling floor tiles in Kerala calls it a 'Tiles Park'. See the picture taken while following a tiles delivery van.
Another observation we made was on different architecture for churches. 

Padani (juice  tapped from the palmyra palm tree) served in palm leaf cups and nongu  - 3  fleshy fruits  in thin white jackets, scooped from the purple-colored whole fruit of the palmyra palm (a first for Neeta). 
At Valara waterfall viewpoint, we had the delicious fresh pineapple sliced and served in paper cups with salt and masala.  

We also saw two motor cyclists who had driven all the way up.

At Munnar, we soaked in the atmosphere of the High Range Club, redolent of the British times - wooden  interiors and bay windows; charming Ladies' room with mirrors, curtains and diwans; cute Kids Room with giraffes and lions painted on the walls; a piano that Neeta and I could play on; a welcoming dining room and very comfortable, spacious rooms overlooking the gardens with gorgeous flowers. See the pictures below.

The flower bed in front of our cottages-- riot of colour.
High Range Society also runs schools in Munnar.
Harsh's postcscript: Talking of flowers, the garden in High Range Club is a treat to the eye. You can spend hours admiring the beauty of each flower. Initially I thought of inserting few collages of the flowers like the one below:

But I couldn't resist the individual flowers in single frames which are simply stunning. Isn't it?



Hope it wasn't an overdose of flowers! If it was, please pardon my exuberance with my lens.

Trixie's story continues. Harsh and Rajan played their game of golf in a course all to themselves. Please carry your IGU card to avail a discounted green fee of Rs 50/- against the normal Rs 500/-

Neeta was prompt to organise some lime juice for all of us and Harsh managed to add fresh fruit to the breakfast menu and salad to the dinner menu!  

We walked through a spice garden with its own spice products outlet, with a tour guide taking us in a jeep and telling us which spice was which.  Harsh took plenty of pictures in a green field of rice with a well beside it, which had an old-fashioned cane basket. 

It had just rained when we visited the spice garden. Rain drops were still perched like pearls on rice leaves. Picture below tells its own story.

We saw two Kerala cultural performances in rustic theatres.  The first was  a Kathakali dance.  Before the actual performance, one of the dancers completed his elaborate makeup on stage. 
This was the demon getting dressed up! See his full make up in pictures below.

Thereafter, another dancer demonstrated the different mudras (hand gestures) and facial expressions while a narrator explained their meanings. 

This was followed by an actual Kathakali dance performance where a demon pretends to be a beautiful lady but shows her true form when repeatedly repulsed by a king.  The demon lady's loud shrieks from the back of the hall (when she changes into her demon form) got the heads of the audience turning.   

The king and the demon clash in a bitter fight where the demon is demolished.

A note for fellow travellers: For both these performances, please book your tickets in advance during the holiday season.

We then went to an arena where we saw a performance of Kalaripayattu, said to be "the mother of all martial arts".  Among the world's oldest fighting systems, Kalaripayattu is in existence from at least the  12th century AD.   The name literally means a space/school (kalari) of exercises/fighting (payattu). Some of its stances and techniques can be seen in judo and kung fu. 

Before beginning the performance,  the performers first worship the deities - Ganapathi, and the snake god;  the gurus, the Puttara or altar with diyas to the gods who support the power and concentration of the students; the weapons; the soil on which the performers practice; and the competitors.  To enter a kalari, one should step in with the right leg, touch the ground with the right hand and then touch the forehead (and chest). In this way, respect is paid to the soil on which practice takes place, and students express their dedication to the space and the training itself. 

We watched young boys exhibiting their flexibility, agility and concentration using weapons - swords, daggers, axes and sticks; athletic leaps and kicks; wrestling, self-defence and other martial art techniques. Some also swung two rods with flaming ends, in an intricate series of spell-binding movements. Another art was " flying like a bird" through one, then two, then three rings of fire - performed successfully as we held our collective breath.  

Kalaripayattu training is completed by a unique healing system closely related to ayurveda. It includes, among other things, massages that heal and make the body flexible, and teachings about marmas – vital points of the human body.

Although we have seen a tea factory before, our visit to the Kanan Devan Cooperative Limited (KDCL) tea factory was an eye opener.  We first entered a tea museum, where early machinery used by the British in Munnar was displayed, along with old photographs of the planters and their wives at social gatherings; heavy machinery being hauled up a hill by horse-drawn vehicles, and so on.  We were inclined to skip the video - but it turned out to be a well produced documentary of the entire region - the High Range hills and their transformation into tea plantations; the arrival of the Mudumals  - literally the "Back People" from Tamil Nadu (so called because they used to carry their children and belongings on their backs).  They were knowledgeable about the hills, the ecosystem and animals in the area and were a source of information to the British as they surveyed the land and mapped the area, planted tea, built houses and later established a tea factory.  
A cup of tea has universal appeal. But what William Gladstone said about tea caught our eye. See the picture below.

After the British left India, the Tatas took over the factory.  They also set up Srishti,a social enterprise to create training employment for women in garment-making and tie-dyeing, and to provide education for children with special needs.  During a time of economic depression, the  Tatas exited the plantations, but they continue running Srishti.  
 Tatas then offered shares to the employees who created a new entity, the Kanan Devan Cooperative Limited (KDCL) which has been successfully kept going ever since, growing and processing tea. The Vision statement displayed in the Tea Museum says it all.

Before our tour of the Tea Factory, we were given a thorough briefing by an extremely knowledgeable and articulate young man about the qualities, types and grades of tea, the process by which it is made in the factory,  its medicinal benefits and how it should be made for serving at home - never boiled with milk and sugar (as is usually done in India). Green tea should not be drunk on an empty stomach.  Is tea a plant, a shrub or a tree?  Much to our surprise,  we were told it's a tree - which is trimmed periodically and then cut to the almost the roots once in a few years.  There are tea trees that are 250 years old in Munnar and 400 years old in China! 

During our tour of the factory,  we saw how fresh tea leaves are processed in machines - tea is cut, torn and cured or 'crush-tear-curl' (CTC), and graded into different qualities depending on the quality of leaf and the length of leaf (long-leaf tea is lightest, with best flavour, tea dust is  strongest).  Tea leaves from the top of the plant stems are hand-picked and sorted to be made into white, green and black teas. Tea leaves from lower down the plant stems are of lower quality and stronger and are picked with shears - the leaves fall into the baskets of the pickers. 

After our visit to the tea factory we picked up a few packs of tea at the company outlet.
There are many spots with tea gardens in the background which offer the tourists a photo-op. Trixie and Rajan first.

Followed by Neeta and Harsh.

Munnar also has few other tourist spots like the Mattupatty Dam and Echo Point. Pictures during our drives.

We relished Gujarati thali during lunch at Puroihit Restaurant which had also been recommended to us by Tuhin Choudhary. Food at The High Range Club was delicious.
Pallivasal waterfalls during monsoon visit are a must-see. We saw only a trickle in March. See the dried grass/moss on the rock faces. It has seen many accidents despite warning board erected by village Panchayat.

We met some school children from a local high school. When asked about their ambition in life, three of them wanted to become footballers. Yes, football continues to be a popular sport in Kerala.

At a windy view point, we saw these woolen caps-cum-mufflers being sold. Talk of 'Promotion' and 'Place'-- the 4 Ps of marketing!

We had a lovely relaxing time in the green hills of Munnar, amid the tea and spice gardens, the flowers and the waterfalls.  

"Harsh you were lucky to see the mist in the early morning - we weren't able to get up", quipped Trixie. To experience the magic of a misty morning in Munnar, see the next story.

 Hope you enjoyed this travelogue to Munnar in Kerala, India.
Your comments/experiences/pictures of previous visits are welcome.

Bye till the next part on Misty Mornings and Bird Life of Munnar.

    - Harsh the Gumakkad with inputs from Trixie/ 30th May 2014

______________________ End of Munnar Part-1 _______________________