Every cup of tea tells a thousand stories. Down in the busy by-lanes of our cities, tea tells the story of a few moments snatched out of the rat race for a refreshing recharge. But walk through the meandering paths of the Kanan Devan Hills in Munnar and you hear a different story: of men, women and the forces of nature coming together to deliver a divine journey through flavour country. At the Kanan Devan hills, tea is life.
We think of tea as just a drink, but it is a wholly inadequate description of the brew that is the second-most common beverage drunk in the world, only losing out to plain old water. It is not just the volume of tea consumed in India which sets it apart, but also the relevance it holds in our private and public lives. A walk through Munnar is a reminder of what tea means to our lives.
The drink that refreshes Kerala
Tea might boast of myriad ways of preparation, with each state, district, locality and even corner tea shop finding a different variation to make the perfect cup of chai. But it is the one beverage that India, across all its divides of language, religion, community and class, turns to whenever an invigorating burst of freshness is called for.
No state emphasises this better than Kerala, where a day without chaya is unimaginable. It could be the sweet savour of the elakka chaya (elaichi tea) at the end of a journey or it could be the Spartan savour of the kattan chaya, served strong and black, to bolster your reserves for the long day ahead. Or even the sweet sour zest of sulaimani chaya to ease your stomach after a heavy biryani meal.
Image: Vasanti/ Kanan Devan Photography Escapade 3
The chaya kada or corner tea stall has itself become a stand-in for all the best qualities of Keralites everywhere. The jokes about Neil Armstrong landing on the moon and finding a chaya kada, for instance, speak of their entrepreneurial spirit, fuelled by refreshing cups of tea. Closer home, the tea stall serves as the excuse to get together and talk about everything from Mohanlal to Marxism. Even the making of tea is often an art form at many chaya kadas, thanks to the graceful dance of ‘metre tea’, where the tea is mixed by pulling it from one tumbler to the other, held at least one metre apart.
From those thousands of cups of tea we drink every day, emerge thousands of stories of laughter and sorrow, of laughter and tears, of happiness and love. Yet, not all the stories are written after the tea is poured into your cup.
At the Kanan Deval hills in Munnar, the taste of tea tells another wonderful story of a strong community of lives lived in the lap of untouched natural beauty.
Tata’s touch of humanity at Kanan Devan
For the people at the Kanan Devan hills, tea represents the balance of work and a vibrant community life. By their very untouched and pristine nature, the Kanan Devan hills were perfectly suited for becoming one of India’s leading sites of tea production. But this also meant that, from the start, tea planters had to evolve a community life in this remote region.
Nowhere is this care and concern for community better visible than in the Srishti Welfare Centre, through which the Tatas continue to provide education and vocational support to the differently-abled children of plantation workers. “Srishti is the heart of Munnar,” says Victoria Vijayakumar, a programme coordinator at the Centre. “At Srishti, we give an opportunity to work to everyone, irrespective of their skills and capability. And everyone gets equal salary.”
Srishti Welfare Centre
Through its DARE programme, Srishti helps children with a range of physical and cognitive disabilities learn the necessary life skills and integrate themselves into the mainstream. The Centre bolsters this training with vocational programmes that offer disabled persons a life of dignity and produce a range of wonderful products. Aranya Naturals, for instance, creates vivid hand-dyed fabrics from the profusion of natural materials available in the Kanan Devan Hills. The Athulya hand-made paper unit manufactures a range of stationery, turning waste into wealth. The Deli, on the other hand, produces a range of delicious breads, cakes, cookies, samosa, puffs, rolls and even biryanis and hot beverages.
Vinu Joseph, Chief Manager at the Kanan Devan Hill Plantations captures the beauty of Srishti perfectly when he says, “A lot of love and affection goes into this project. There’s so much to learn and so much to appreciate here.”
Whether they make fabrics or bread rolls, what gets them going every day is still chai. “When we want a refreshment, it tea for us,” says Victoria. “But tea is more than that. In Munnar, tea is life.”
A cup of sunshine
This is the vast life-world of tea that Tata Tea Kanan Devan capture in their Photography Escapade 3. In Episode 3 of the four-part series, 10 photographers from around the country continue their visual journey across the lush landscape of the Kanan Devan hills in Kerala’s Munnar district in search of the remaining talismans of fire and water.
Image: Anand/ Kanan Devan Photography Escapade 3
As they continue their journey, they discover the warmth that suffuses the Kanan Devan Hills, from the gentle sunshine that births life to the care and passion that sustains the community of those who shape and guide nature to deliver the refreshing taste of India’s favourite beverage. In discovering the community of lives built around the verdant landscape of tea, they discover the hopes, dreams and love that flow like rivers into every cup of tea.
Watch the third episode of this exciting series to discover the wonder and charm behind your daily cup of tea.
This article was produced by The News Minute branded content team in association with Tata Tea Kanan Devan