by Aadil Fawme
Tea had been part of many Asian cultures for almost two thousand years before it was introduced to the rest of the world, not merely used as a social drink, but for many medicinal purposes as well. It exists in many different varieties and each country favors a particular color, fragrance and brewing technique for this much-loved plant. Tea was not brought to Sri Lanka until 1824, when the British shipped a specimen of the plant over from China to add to the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kandy, but within 50 years it would become one of the island’s major exports.
The production of Sri Lankan tea was industrialized in the 19th century by James Taylor, a Scotsman who, having witnessed the drink’s popularity amongst the upper classes of Europe, sought a way to manufacture this rare and expensive delicacy on a mass scale. Together with Edward Lipton, Taylor created the first of the country’s tea plantations which would change the face of Sri Lanka’s hills forever.
The majestic tea plantations scattered around Sri Lanka are a sight to behold. Each plantation produces tea with a distinct difference in taste, aroma and color, as environmental conditions alter the characteristics of tea. The glorious collection of mountains nestled in the central part of the island, sandwiched between rivers and rich valleys, are home to some of the best tea plantations in the world.
The tea that is cultivated in the mountains is sought after by tea aficionados from all over the world. The fresh mountain air caresses the tea and helps control its growth cycle, which in turn helps produce a more delicate plant that has a variety of tastes. It gets cold in Sri Lanka’s highlands, so you will constantly find yourself hugging onto the tea cup, desperately trying to warm up your hands with the heat radiating out of it, while you inhale the delicious and spirit-elevating aromas of the tea brewing in your cup.
The British built a train line to connect their tea plantations with Kandy and Colombo, to help ease the transportation of the product. This railway line passes through many of the hill stations that have long been revered as prime tea growing areas, and the train journey is known as one of the most beautiful in the world, with the train robustly zig zagging through many of the mountainous districts, cutting right through wave after wave of pristine tea plantations. The most famous hill station is Nuwara Eliya, where tea estates are situated above 6000 ft., providing a desirably cool environment which yields a harvest that is rather mild with a pleasant aroma, making it sought after all over the world. Ella, Haputale, Bandarawela and Hatton are other famous tea towns that attract people from across the globe mainly due to the tea tasting and tea plantation hiking events that help visitors experience the whole process of tea cultivation.
There are many tea tours conducted high up in the mountains amidst dew drop covered tea plants. Most of them will walk you through the activities involved in plucking, sorting, filtering and processing the tea leaves, before allowing you time to sit down and enjoy a cup of tea. One such tour is in and around the Rothchild’s Tea Factory which is situated in Pussellawa, snuggled in the hills of the Kandy district. A lot of the tours will allow you to get up and close with the culture and economic importance of tea in the country. Most of the tea pluckers rely on the plantations to help them support their family: entire families are structured and nurtured with the opportunities that the tea industry provides, resulting in the experiences surrounding it to constantly adapt to tourism trends.
The history, culture and joy associated with tea in Sri Lanka is bound to give you an insight to our way of life. From soil to tea cup, you can witness how tea bridges gaps, builds relationships and helps spread a feel good factor to all those who choose to sip on it. Come and taste the Ceylonese magic that grows in our mountains.
By Aadil Fawme