Photographing the Western Ghats - (Part 1)
It is six o’clock in the morning when we begin our journey to the hill station of Munnar, in the Western Ghats. Early mornings in India are a must; the time before this immense country wakes up is always magical and Kerala is no exception.
As the sun rises behind the Ghats, on India’s Eastern Coast, we leave Kochi and the sea behind and head north-east into the deep shadows of the hills towards the former summer capital of the British Raj in southern India.The road that connects Kochi to Munnar climbs from sea level to over 1500 meters, winding its way through ever deeper shades of green punctuated by the crimson flowers of the aptly-named ‘Flame of the Forest’ trees that line road.
In the early 19th century, when hill stations across India were being developed by the British as spa towns, salubrious places for rest and relaxation not unlike Bath or Brighton, the journey to Munnar was hard and treacherous, requiring passage through complete wilderness. Still, such was the allure of this highland retreat that Europeans kept on coming.
Travelling on litters, in chairs, on horseback, or by foot if they were able, they braved the hardship of the journey in search of escape from what was known as ‘tropical fatigue’.
We’ve been travelling for about 2 hours when we decide to stop at a road-side café. It’s a tiny place with just four tables at the edge of a forested gorge and an extravagant list of teas on its menu: ginger, cardamom, vanilla, cinnamon and a whole host of other fragrant combinations.
As we wait for our order to arrive, a grapefruit tree with fruits the size of small footballs in front of us is teeming with tiny birds in primary colours – their plumage is so saturated they looks as though they have been dipped in an ideal palette: acid green, lapis lazuli blue and a burnt orange that recalls the colour of the water at sunset. It was meant to be just a quick tea-stop but the views and the miniature birds are irresistible and before we know it, the cameras are out and we’ve been sipping chai and shooting for a full hour.
It is midday by the time we approach our destination. The heat of the plains is far behind us now and cotton-like clouds hang low over Munnar’s meticulously groomed tea estates as we enter the last stretch of road.
Just around a corner, in the crisp mountain air, a group of women are hard at work collecting the top-leaves from tea bushes and putting them into baskets they carry slung over their heads. It’s time for another stop.
As we approach, the tea-pickers turn to us and smile; theirs is back-breaking work – the bushes are low and wide, and the women have to stretch over them to reach the new leaves, their baskets getting heavier as they make their way up the steep gradient of the hill. Behind them, as far as the eye can see, the tea plantations that make this area famous are a surge of green interspersed with huge dark boulders.
Where the plantations end the mountain slopes are covered in thick tropical vegetation – this is easily the most dramatic landscape in South India and a network of accessible paths means that over the next few days, we will be able to capture it from an almost infinite number of viewpoints.
Deriving its name from moonu aar, meaning ‘three rivers’, Munnar lies at the confluence of three mountain streams on the forested slopes of the Western Ghats, in an area that ranges in altitude from 1,450 meters to 2,695 meters above sea level.
The relatively cool climate that made it an ideal refuge from the summer heat of the plains in colonial times now makes it a popular place for honeymooners in search of the ‘Switzerland of India’, as Munnar is often dubbed. It is an area of outstanding natural beauty that offers terrific opportunities for landscape photography as well as access to a unique environment that differs sharply from that of the coast.
Our base in Munnar is an old Planter’s Club overlooking pristine tea estates and the green peaks above them. We stay here because of its location and unique character. Nestling at the end of a long drive flanked by a stream in which the mountains reflect, the Club is where the managers of the vast tea estates around Munnar come to relax.
The plantations, which stretch for some 20,000 hectares all around, were first established during the time of the British Empire and a faded colonial atmosphere lingers still in the Club’s once exclusively-for-men’s bar.
Truly, time here seems to have been standing still; in the evening, after settling in our rooms, we gather for a G&T under the curious stare of bison and tiger heads, trophies from bygone days hanging on the bar’s wood-paneled walls below rows of hats belonging to retired planters. In the adjoining lounge, a grandfather clock chimes every quarter hour as it probably has done since the days of the Raj.
By remarkable coincidence, one of the photographers in our group spots a framed image of the ship on which his father served whilst in the Royal Navy, a memento of the crew’s visit to the Club in the late 1940s.
The following day, we rise early to explore the endless patchwork of greenery that surrounds us. A short, but very steep, drive from the Club is the Rajamalai National Park. Situated at the foot of the Ainaimudi, South India’s highest peak (2695 mt.), the park was set up to preserve the Nilgiri Tahr, a protected species of mountain goat renowned for its friendliness that came close to extinction after 1795, when the Duke of Wellington set up camps in these hills.(The British remained in the area for the next 150 years, marveling at how easy it was to shoot these tame animals as they wandered through their camp.)
In the 1980s, an American biologist studying the Nilgiri Thar discovered what the locals had long known – that the goats are very fond of salt and will happily come to anyone who offers it to them. Feeding anything to the animals is now prohibited but, oblivious to this rule, the first small herd that we encounter as we make our way into the park comes to nudge our pockets.
Though the park is also home to many other species, including elephants, gaurs, lion-tailed macaques and leopards, we’re here primarily for the scenery; mid-morning, when we reach Rajamalai Gap, the sun breaks through the clouds and we are rewarded with breathtaking views over craggy peaks and undulating valleys.
It’s an impressive landscape of greens and blacks. Rajamala means ‘king of hills’ in the local Malayalam language, and the highland vista before us is indeed majestic. Standing above a bare granite outcrop at an altitude of almost 2000 meters, it is easy to see how the Scottish planters who first discovered this area might have felt at home.
Tranquil, green, cool and remote this is as far as the British in South India could go from the hot, tropical lowlands, and as close as they could come to something resembling ‘home’ – a congenial climate in which they could recuperate from the rigors of office and the ills of summer on the plains.
Here, with unabashed nostalgia, they unpacked their woolens, hedged the meandering footpaths with trees and flowers indigenous to the British Isles, lived in rose-framed cottages with English fruit orchards and vegetable gardens in their backyards, and generally tried to evoke the natural and social environment of Britain down to its familiar institutions, the club, the library, the parish church.
Preserved by the Indian elites who took over after Independence, the follies of European intruders remain etched in the landscape, lending Munnar and its surroundings a distinctive atmosphere, which we explore with our cameras throughout our stay in the area.
More than just a curious monument to the British colonial presence in India, for photographers, this once cliquish resort where, as one historian has put, “rakish officers, vampish ladies, ambitious bureaucrats, and bored housewives engaged in endless parties and gossip” presents itself as a kaleidoscope of panoramas; shifting patterns of green, sometime picturesque and sometime grand, bordered by forest and framed in places by European intervention.
Munching on cheddar and cucumber sandwiches on the banks of a stream we agree that it is its strangeness, not its familiarity that makes it visually compelling.
We photograph the Western Ghats on our Pepper Coast Photography Expedition
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