On Ponmudi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

On Ponmudi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

This article weaves two narratives – the one in normal text focuses on a trek; the other in italics, talks about tea estates.

It is an old story said in three parts. A lot may have changed since it was first written in 2009. A quick reality check was done through return to context in August 2014, which is appended as `Post Script.’ However, it is a limited update. Readers are requested to keep that in mind.

In the beginning of the nineteenth century, the plantation industry reached Kerala on India’s south western coast.

First in was coffee in Wayanad, the north Kerala district bordering Karnataka. This area used to belong to the erstwhile Madras Presidency. There were three potential sources of manpower for the estates. Of them, the tribal people flatly refused to work on the plantations seeing it as an invasion of their forests. The people from the Malabar region were averse to such work. Imported labor from Tamil Nadu provided the solution.

By 1866 more than 200 coffee estates were operating in Wayanad, two thirds of that owned by Europeans, the rest by investors from the coastal towns. Twenty two years later, news came of blight on the coffee plants in Kerala. It was believed to have arrived from plantations in Sri Lanka; in any case, much of the state’s coffee was destroyed by 1876. Experiments with other crops like cinchona, as replacement for coffee, proved discouraging. Eventually tea moved in; coffee continued to have a presence in Wayanad. Although the British East India Company’s first foray into tea in South India happened in the 1840s, large scale production of tea in Kerala commenced only after the coffee blight. Tea had to be necessarily large scale compared to coffee. As a crop it required regular human intervention. These interventions were affordable only if the scale of cultivation was large. The heart of the state’s tea country then was Peermedu. Later it was the undulating hills of Munnar.

The last major cash crop to reach Kerala and its hills was rubber at the turn of the twentieth century. With this, save the apex portion which was off limit by law, it was theoretically possible to clothe a Kerala hill in estates – rubber at low altitude, coffee at mid altitude and tea at high altitude. One definite casualty of this was the traditional forest aesthetic. From natural and heterogeneous, the idea of greenery became acceptable even if it was manmade and homogenous.

When my cousin Rajeev comes home on vacation from the US, we usually go on a hike. That’s how Agastyakoodam entered the frame.

At Neyyar Dam near Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala I got my first real look at Agastyakoodam peak. The face it presented to Neyyar Dam was beautiful, a perfect triangle. Agastyakoodam had always been there in the backdrop at Thiruvananthapuram, spoken of in hushed tones of respect. To see Agastyakoodam you had to be on the terrace of an ideally located house in the city and have a clear day. Slightly foggy or sky laden with rain clouds – you missed it. For the child in you, that added to the myth. I grew up in Thiruvananthapuram. So the myth was a big deal.

In the late 1980s, I remember listening in awe as a friend who was senior to me, prepared to join the annual pilgrimage up the 6237 ft high-peak. Nobody called it a trek; indeed there was no trekking in popular perception then. You went up a hill for pilgrimage. Then in January 2009, three of us – Rajeev, his nephew Gokul and I – decided to do the Agastyakoodam hike ahead of the annual pilgrimage. Booking the trek through the forest department turned out to be a small expedition. It was a whole day’s trip to Peppara and back; that was where we had to pay the fees and register our names.

Half way along the narrow forest road to the Peppara Dam and its warden’s office, Shahajad who was driving our hired three-wheeler stopped the vehicle to put some money in a box kept in front of a temple. It was one of the most beautiful sights. Besides the small box and a multi-tiered, soot-stained traditional lamp fixed to the ground, there was nothing to mark a temple there. But the atmosphere was exceptionally divine in a quaint, primeval way. It was set by four to five lovely trees called chempakam in Malayalam. They have a sprawling shape, the trunk acquires a silver color and in full bloom, has dainty white flowers. A week later at the botanical gardens adjacent to the Thiruvananthapuram zoo, I could gather the actual name for the tree – Eezhachempakam, Plumeria rubra Linn also called Temple Tree. In that small clearing filled with white sand, by the road in Peppara, the trees had woven a magnificent aura – if one’s gaze turned heavenward in the temples of the plains, then in the temples of the hills and forests, I felt a sensation of being embraced by nature.

The road to Ponmudi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The road to Ponmudi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Early next morning, all geared up for the multi-day hike, we met our guides – Binu and Raju; both from the Kani community. They were adivasis; tribal people, initially stiff and quiet but soon warming up to conversation after a round of hot tea at a smoky restaurant opposite the Bonaccord bus stop. That was in fact the end of the winding road. Nearby were tea estates. I knew at least one another similar road, leading to Ponmudi (3609ft), which highlighted a little known dimension of Thiruvananthapuram – you could land in tea country, less than two hours from Kerala’s capital city.

By 2009 (actually earlier), Thiruvananthapuram’s tea estates, likely the southern-most in India, were in trouble. It was a picture of neglect. Bonaccord epitomized it. The resident tea factory was in a state of disrepair and the tea bushes in their neglected condition had reverted to being an extension of jungle.

Bonaccord appeared trapped in a time warp on the peripheries of Thiruvananthapuram. It had sat there while the lands way below went through political upheavals rendering the area likely unviable for commercially successful tea cultivation. Now the tea factory was a ghost of its former self. Three floors high and the length of three tennis courts, it sported shattered glass panes and rusting metal; at one end was a room full of silent machinery that had ground to a standstill long ago. The day I was there, four to five officers sat settling accounts in a sun-lit room on the ground floor. The floor of the adjacent hall featured a spread of freshly plucked tea leaves. The company owning the estate no more worked the processing factory; it simply transported the leaves to distant Vandiperiyar and sold it.

For quite a while on the well marked trail, the plantation culture from the foothills of Agastyakoodam lingered. There were minor trails once used by Englishmen to move around, places where they used to rest and long forgotten horse trails with water halts for the animal. Raju and Binu proceeded at a brisk pace; like a pair of men out on work or going to the market. They had appeared clad in shirt and lungi, rubber slippers on the feet and crucially no rucksack for either. For guides everything else was forgivable but unprotected feet and no rucksack was questionable. So I had taken most of our provisions away from them and put it in my rucksack. In due course the duo laundered my lack of protest at the additional labor into a desire for carrying load. “ Sir likes to carry all the weight,’’ Raju said. Binu nodded his head approvingly. Ever heard that – a paying client who loves to haul load?

This was typical Kerala and the contrast the situation posed with treks up north where clients walked swinging their hands while porters lugged massive loads, was rather stark. But then on the other hand I reasoned, just as cuisine is different from state to state, so had to be the people and their mentality. There was nothing in this duo that betrayed a willingness to genuflect or be servile. Lungi tucked high to keep it out of the way they conversed about the world and set an impatient pace that soon had me, my rice and my vegetables frying in the heat and sweat. The trail, pounded by several years of pilgrims’ passage, was firmly etched into the hill slope. We passed a prominent stream en route – it was the beginning portions of the Karamana River which flowed downstream through the heart of Thiruvananthapuram city. A sole leech made its presence felt on Rajeev’s leg; the blood sucker had quenched its thirst long ago, bloated and fallen off, leaving behind a tiny bleeding wound. In days to come, that wound would itch. A leech bite is like a love affair. It can take a few days to get over the visitation – you bleed, you scratch, you reopen the wound, you scratch, till all that imprints the leech into your memory.

…..to be continued

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai)

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