Sri Lanka known the world over as ‘the Pearl of the Indian Ocean’ also happens to be among the most renowned for its tea plantations. The lush green tea estates are spread mainly throughout the central hills. The tea plant though not an endemic of Sri Lanka has been in the spotlight in every sector of the country and contributing to its economy.
When considering tea and Kandy, the bonds go back to the 19 century when the first tea plant was brought to the island from China by the British and planted at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Peradeniya. The very first tea estate, Loolecondera, was established near Kandy in 1867 by Scotsman James Taylor, on an area of 19 acres of land. Tea production in Sri Lanka has taken many turns and twists during the years that went by and is now one gigantic industry.
Marks of distinction
Kandy still bears the marks of distinction of the past with its gallant Tea estates. The spread of its wings was vast with extensions from Loolecondera estate to Hope, Rookwood and Mooloya situated to the east and Le Vallon and Stellenberg to the south. A census in the 1871 mentioned the total of tea estate land in the island as 625 estates with an estate population of nearly 81, 476 out of a total Kandy of 258, 432. The total number of estates in the island in the given year was calculated to be 996 with Kandy having the most number.
The other main tea growing areas in Sri Lanka are Galle, Ratnapura, Nuwara Eliya, Dimbulla and Uva. The hill country, especially Nuwara Eliya, produces some of the finest tea in the country. A number of plantations have gone out of production with the rapid developments taking place where tea estates are being blocked out and sold for non- tea growing purposes. Many of the tea estates in the hill country, which were privately owned, have, either by force of circumstances or for other reasons have been sold out.
During a recent conversation with and old man of the area, he revealed that there had been many lush green tea estates in Kandy, a few years back, as recent as 20 to 25 years ago. Walking along the roads for over thirty years, rearing his cows, this man has witnessed the ups and downs of the people and of the change that have taken place and tells some good stories. While walking his diary cows down the roads and pathways, he knows every stone every tree and every grain of sand in the area. Speaking with him I got to know what a large Tea estate there had been on the land above which he lives. The tea roots that were found and some remaining tea plants were proof that where our house is located (Heerassagala boundary to Hantane) was once a lucrative private Tea estate. The owners had blocked out and sold the land, that once were tea plantations.
When one is taking a walk further towards the Hantane area, yes, the tea estates are to be found. Yet, the trees are in a state of decay on some blocks of these estates. It was the old man whom I meet nearly daily, who told me, that this particular Tea estate was spread out as far as the Heerassagala Main road, now no traces of it are left.
Only a few blocks of Tea land now remain, from the many Tea plantations which were in those areas. The number of workers on the estates too is dwindling, due to them no longer wanting to work as estate labourers. Many of the tea factories are left abandoned while the houses occupied by the superintendents are also left unattended expect for the ones owned by the companies. Most of them are rented out or are put on sale. These structures are reminiscent of the British colonial times where there is still some aura of history and mystery.
Those tea factories which went out of production with time have now been converted into either museums or holiday bungalows or restaurants. These seem to attract many visitors who are taking great pleasure in the ambience of the place and the surroundings.
Talking to one of the small tea estate holders it became apparent that labor was becoming one of the reasons for the failure in production in the private and small estates (once these were the largest). Now some of the tea estates in the Hantane, Heerassagala, and even Galaha areas are converted into housing land. The mountains that once bore the beautiful sight of tea plantations covered with the morning mist are no more to be seen. Only a few traces of roots and the boundaries remain.
Taking a look at some of the figures island wide, a decrease in the total extent of land used in tea cultivation is seen. In 1971 the total had been 242,185 hectares and by the year 2000 it had reduced to 188,971. However, Sri Lanka did show some improvement in tea production despite the loss of plantation land. Attempts to obtain further details from relevant authorities failed due to their busy time schedules. The loss of land is visible, and is obvious. The house in which I now live, is also built on land which was previously a tea estate. To show evidence of it there are one or two remaining tea plants nicely trimmed and maintained as souvenir show pieces of a bygone era.
Now most of the land is bare, only the fences and the boundary markings and the look of ‘once been’ remain. Yet, there are still a few tea estates functioning, workers are seen in their usual attire plucking tea with wicker baskets strapped to their backs. Most of those who reside in the line rooms: the housing for estate workers and their families, are now employed elsewhere. This can result in damaging the tea industry. Only a few members of their families are willingly working in the estates due to fear of losing the shelter they have occupied since the early days.
It was a remark, of a woman resident of an estate, that made me wonder. She said, that she was about to lose her house in one of the tea plantations she was residing in as there was no one to go to work on the plantation as a ‘tea- plucker’. When she was told of the options to retain the housing her answer was ‘my mother is too old and my father is sick, I am working in a school as a cleaner and my daughter cannot be sent to work in the estate’. How many others are living with this mind set and whom can we point the finger at. There is a greater demand for housing land and it has to be met. Measures are taken by the relevant authorities but there should be contribution from all sectors to make it a success.
What has passed is past, but what is left must be preserved. Sri Lanka Tea has had a say in the international market and it should be remain so. A little more effort and the small and medium scale estate owners encouraged the tea industry would shine again.