At Bogawantalawa for tea
Written by by Ryan Holsinger, photography by Dominic Sansoni
It’s close to freezing deep in the Bogawantalawa Valley. A night watcher, or kaval, strikes 5am on the estate gong. Nothing fancy, just a heavy metal contraption that makes a huge din. A superintendent crawls out of his warm bed battling the biting cold. Here in Sri Lanka’s golden valley of tea, the day has already begun.
Sandwiched between Horton Plains to the north and the Peak Wilderness sanctuary to the south, Bogawantalawa has been the golden valley of Sri Lanka’s tea industry for well over a century.
The origins of the name – Bogawantalawa – are rather blurred, as are its boundaries. One explanation for its name lies in the Sinhalese pronunciation of the word ‘bagawantalawa’. The Lord Buddha is referred to as Bagawa in certain prayers and talawa relates to plain. Indeed, looking south from Bogawantalawa some of the mountains of the Peak Wilderness range appear to form an image? of a reclining Buddha. The area covers approximately 15,000 hectares, although here too that fact is up for debate. At its northwestern edge is the Castlereagh Reservoir, while its southeastern extremity goes almost up to World’s End – an 870m sheer precipice at the southern edge of Horton Plains.
With just the right climatic conditions and a situation that lays it square in the path of both the northeastern and southwestern monsoons, Bogawantalawa is probably the best place on earth to make tea.
A Scotsman named James Taylor planted the seeds of tea cultivation in Sri Lanka in 1867, radically altering the physical and social face of the hill country. After a leaf blight all but destroyed a thriving coffee industry in the mid-1800s, the planters turned to tea as an alternative. But nothing could prepare them for the success they encountered. Tea quickly became the backbone of the local economy and has remained so ever since.
News of its success spread quickly and enticed adventurous entrepreneurs from all over Britain. Reminiscent of a gold rush, hundreds of intrepid seekers of fortune made the long journey here, with nothing but their savings, to blanket these mountains in tea – and their hopes and dreams.
Ask any planter and he’ll tell you that making tea is an art, a tradition, or a culture, but never a job. Its process – handed down from senior planters to their assistants – and finer workings are closely guarded secrets. Becoming a superintendent is a long learning process in which decorum and character are just as important as competence. Up in the mountains, where services are scarce, a planter plays many roles. He is a leader, a justice of the peace, a medic, a builder, a planner, and so on.
The superintendent must make ‘muster’ by six in the morning – a sort of dawn conference at which he and his subordinates will decide how the day will unfold. Instructions are handed out down the hierarchy – which fields are to be plucked or pruned, how many labourers are needed, and so on. The tea pluckers are mainly women who, with basket hanging from head, graze the top of tea bushes to pinch off the proverbial ‘two leaves and a bud’.
The labourers of the tea estates form a distinct ethnic group – the so-called Plantation Tamils. They were brought here from South India by the British to work the fields when they found the indigenous Sinhalese to be less than enthusiastic. Today the estate Tamils are still the most disadvantaged group in the country. Poor housing, lack of education, alcoholism, and domestic violence are keeping these people in the doldrums.
In contrast, the life that early planters created for themselves is the stuff of legend; never a cakewalk, but definitely of the opulent blend. Colonial ‘bungalows’ – inaccurately named – are actually sprawling affairs, and their manicured lawns sprawl even further. An army of servants attend to every whim. Well-trained butlers serve up sumptuous meals, and a game of croquet is always on the cards. Bestowing their bungalows with names like Kew, Campion, Loinorn, Norwood, Brownlow, Venture, and Kirkoswald, the planting fraternity made them their homes.
A planter’s wife could expect to have a huge garden and the means to sculpt it as she pleased. Competition for the best garden was fierce. Those battles have left a legacy of fabulous rose gardens, terraces, anthurium jungles, and lawns. Always enthusiastic about visiting and being visited, the ladies were known to constantly eyeball each other’s gardens.
Nowadays the post-colonial Sri Lankan planters have been reined in a bit, but their famed lifestyle is still on offer to guests. A series of four classic colonial tea estate bungalows, stretched out 32km along breathtaking scenery at the edges of Castlereagh Reservoir, make up the Tea Trails collection (www.teatrails.com). Originally built between 1890 and 1939, and brought up to magnificent condition, each bungalow – which has four to six suites/rooms – is serviced by its own manager, butler, chef, and trained staff, who help re-create the life and era of the colonial master – untouched by the 21st century. Indeed, Tea Trails is now part of the prestigious Relais & Châteaux collection of hotels.
Other accommodation options include estate cabanas, which are booked through the various plantation companies. These are serviced hideaways that offer basic comfort but always with stunning views or settings – often far away, always isolated. The Northcove Cabana on Loinorn Estate is one of the best.
To speak just of tea, however, is a deep injustice to this vast and diverse valley. Among its countless secrets are its gems. Murmurs from the gem world speak of the best Alexandrite coming from the Maha Eliya region of the Bogawantalawa Valley. Blue Sapphire of the highest quality has been found in plenty close to the surface, making a dig highly worthwhile. The sheer volume of gems being found suggests that Bogawantalawa could rival Ratnapura, in Sri Lanka’s southwest, as the epicentre of the local gem industry.
While most of the mountains here are covered in a carpet of tea, most of the mountain ridges are dotted with mini-forests that form high-altitude corridors between Horton Plains and the Peak Wilderness. As a result, the area is an ecologist’s treasure trove. Although hardly ever seen, leopards are not uncommon. Most planters have a story to tell about how they lost their German Shepherd or fat rooster to the stealthy, spotted beasts.
Also seldom seen, but roaming around nonetheless, are sambar (sambhur) and deer who have made the cool mountaintops their home. In full view, though, are a riot of birds, bees, and butterflies. The rugged landscape with its fantastic views completes a very pretty picture to enjoy over a cup of pure Ceylon tea.
Colombo, Sri Lanka
Titles on an Estate
People on tea estates address each other in a peculiar and most particular way.
The superintendent is called ‘PD’ for Periya Dorai – Tamil for big master.
The assistant superintendent is ‘SD’ for Sinna Dorai: little master.
'KP’ stands for Kanaka Pullai, who is the bookkeeper.
Appu is the chief butler.
Thotum is a gardener
James Taylor – the father of Ceylon tea – was a Scotsman who in 1852 arrived in what was then the Crown Colony of Ceylon. He planted the first seedling of tea in Sri Lanka in 1867 on 19 acres of jungle clearing. Today the spot is Field 7 of Loolecondera Estate, close to Kandy.
By 1872 he had set up a tea factory to produce and package tea. By 1875 James Taylor’s tea had made it to the London Tea auction, and by 1890 he was producing more than 22,000 tonnes annually. Taylor joined forces with Thomas Lipton, and the duo forged a partnership that saw Ceylon tea claim its place as the best in the world.
The highland of Sri Lanka, and indeed the Bogawantalawa Valley, was inhabited by a small species of elephant known in Sinhala as kuru aliya. However, big game hunting and deforestation in the mid-19th century caused its extinction. Today, some 5,000 Asian elephants still roam wild across the country. The famed Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage, where 70 or more pampered pachyderms – including babies – make the twice-daily romp down to the river to bathe, is deservedly popular. For an epic natural experience, September welcomes ‘The Gathering’, when hundreds of wild elephant migrate to the Minneriya Tank to swim, bathe, play, and chomp their way through the verdant vegetation