The Western Ghats run along the western edges of the Indian subcontinent. These hills were once home to grasslands and shola or tropical montane forests. A part of these ghats make up the Nilgiris or blue mountains. When the British lived in India, they sought the hills to escape the tropical heat. And in the south, the Nilgiri hills were identified as suitable for a British sanatorium. These hills have for long been home to the Badagas, Kotas, Kurumba communities.
The British introduced several non-native species like eucalyptus - infamous for its water-sucking nature - acacia, wattle, cinchona, and of course tea in these hills. In the 1850s, W.G. McIvor, who is credited with the creation of the Ooty Botanical Gardens here, wrote to the Superintendent of Madras and asked for 500 convicts to be sent to Naduvattam to work on his cinchona plantation, He was growing cinchona to produce quinine, which was a known antidote to malaria.
Following the opium war between Britain and China, Chinese PoWs from Singapore, Penang, Dinding and Malacca were bought to India. The jails in the city of Madras were running full and McIvor’s request was timely. The superintendent in Madras sent 556 PoWs to these hills. Along with cinchona, they were put to work in tea planting, which was still a fledgling industry.
The Nilgiris picked up as a tea-growing region, thanks to the efforts of Henry Mann, a planter. He sourced chinary tea seeds from the Scottish botanist Robert Fortune and planted them on his estate. The Coonoor Tea Estate, established in 1854, is thought to be the first tea plantation in these hills. Other estates like Thiashola estate and Dunsandle estate also came up around this time.
By the turn of the century, 3,000 acres in the Nilgiris were under tea cultivation, to favourable feedback from brokers in London. In the 20th century, the Nilgiris with its flourishing chinary bushes, growing at 6,000ft was producing a fine tea that had a loyal market. However, 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 Nilgiris today has lost some of the sheen of its past glory. However, there are several small farmers who have taken to cultivating tea, who are trying to restore the industry while also supporting the livelihood of the communities who live here. We, at Iron Kettle, work closely with farmer clusters in the Nilgiris and support them with agronomy interventions, so that they can earn better prices for the leaves they harvest.