Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Make Nilgiri teas great again

  • Nilgiri teas are wonderfully light and carry the sublime aroma of the hills
  • Their estates have some of the most progressive labour and environment protection practices

The story of Indian tea includes several fascinating chapters, like this one about the Nilgiris and how it came to be. Nina Varghese, a journalist and planter’s daughter, narrates the riveting account of Chinese prisoners of war (PoWs) and Nilgiri tea on her blog Tea and Tarry. The Nilgiri hills had been identified as suitable for a British sanatorium. In the 1850s, W.G. McIvor, credited with the creation of the Ooty Botanical Gardens, wrote to the superintendent in Madras to send 500 convicts to Naduvattam, a hamlet near Ooty. He wanted labour for cinchona, grown for quinine, an antidote to malaria.

Between 1856-60, following the opium war between Britain and China, Chinese PoWs arrived in India from Singapore, Penang, Dinding and Malacca. The jails in Madras were running full and McIvor’s request was timely. The superintendent sent 556 PoWs to these hills. Tea planting had started in spurts and these PoWs also worked on them.

The Nilgiris picked up as a tea-growing region, thanks to the efforts of a planter, Henry Mann. He got the seeds for chinary bushes from Scottish botanist Robert Fortune, who is believed to have been the first to bring tea saplings to India, planting them on his own Coonoor Tea Estate. Established in 1854, it is the first tea plantation in these hills. In 1859, the Thiashola estate—which continues to produce fine orthodox tea to this day—was set up, with the Chinese prisoners tending to it. Dunsandle estate, now owned by the Bombay Burmah Trading Company, also came up around the same time.

By the turn of the century, 3,000 acres in the Nilgiris were under tea cultivation, to favourable feedback from brokers in London. Varghese’s story continues with research by Chennai-based entrepreneur James Ajoo. Ajoo found that H.F.C. Cleghorn, conservator of forests for the Madras Presidency, asked for tea masters to be sent to the Nilgiris. In 1864, following this request, two tea masters from China reached the Nilgiris; one of them was John Ajoo, a direct ancestor of James Ajoo.

In the 20th century, the tea’s status was consolidated. Its flourishing chinary bushes, growing at 6,000ft elevation, produced premium tea. In the 1980s, after the erstwhile Soviet Union became a significant market, the Nilgiris converted to a largely CTC-producing tea region, encouraged by government incentives; the tea’s pristine qualities were forgotten.

It’s time to return the Nilgiri tea to its rightful place in the world of Indian tea. Its gardens have some of the most progressive labour and environment protection practices. The teas are wonderfully light and carry the sublime aroma of the hills. A true escape in a cup.

TEA TAKES

Some of the oldest estates here, specifically those producing orthodox teas, are Glendale, Adderley, Craigmore, Billimalai, Kodanad and Chamraj.

Tea Nanny is a weekly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry.

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