“Is the tea from the gardens here?” I asked the caretaker of the bungalow as he handed me a fine bone-china cup full to the brim with the kind of rich, dark brown brew that lovers of the beverage will instantly recognise as the best way to drink regular Indian chai—vigorously boiled with water and milk and generously sugared. He said yes, and I felt a strange thrill go up my spine. As someone who loves tea (though not with much discernment, unlike Lounge columnist Aravinda Anantharaman, aka Tea Nanny) and drinks it enthusiastically, I have had my share of “exotic” teas—from a super- expensive White Tea to fragrant bush tea or Rooibos in South Africa, but I had never before sipped a cup of tea sitting in the very gardens from where the leaves had been plucked.
I was at the Kadamane Tea Estate in Sakleshpur, a traditionally coffee-growing area in Karnataka’s Malnad region, nestled in the Western Ghats. This is coffee country—Kadamane is only one of a handful of tea estates that thrive in the area. Spread over 7,500 acres, with roughly 1,000 acres under tea cultivation while the rest of the estate is allowed to grow wild, the tea gardens of Kadamane have a manicured beauty to them; the kind of neat and orderly calm that one appreciates more as one grows older. I have been to many coffee plantations—in Coorg, Chikmagalur, even Sakleshpur—and admired their lush greenness, but if coffee plantations with their straggly growth (the coffee bush is, frankly, quite unprepossessing) are wild teenagers, tea estates have a grand and queenly beauty to them. I was enchanted.
At the heart of the Kadamane estate is Sinna Dorai’s Bungalow—a heritage building that dates back to the 1930s, says Radhika Cariappa, who manages the bungalow and lives on the estate. The bungalow used to be home to the assistant manager, or “Sinna Dorai”, of the estate—and is surrounded on three sides by rolling, tea-bearing slopes. “The land was purchased in the 1920s by the Earl of Warwick, and some people say he bought it as a hunting ground. Eventually, however, it was thought that the elevation and the amount of rainfall it gets would be well-suited to a tea garden—coffee just wouldn’t grow because of excess rainfall—and tea cultivation formally started in 1929,” says Cariappa.
The estate was owned for a few decades by the Brooke Bond Tea Company. In the 1960s, it was bought over by the Chennai-based business conglomerate Murugappa Group—which owns such varied businesses as Cholamandalam Financial Holdings Ltd, Cholamandalam MS General Insurance Company Ltd, Coromandel Engineering Company Ltd, and Parry Agro Industries Ltd. It is under the Parry’s brand that the company sells a small amount of packaged tea; the rest is sold at auctions.
The bungalow was converted into a guesthouse fairly recently, in 2009. “My husband is the manager of the estate now, and we were well-connected with the families living in the other estates owned by the group (in Valparai and Nilgiris-Wayanad, both in Tamil Nadu). Over time, we ladies started feeling that we had nothing to do. So we proposed turning the planters’ bungalows into guesthouses, and the company agreed,” says Cariappa.
It has been a wild success. The bungalow gets booked months in advance, and most people who visit it gush about it on social media. Yet, since people come to know of it mainly through word-of-mouth, it retains a quaint, uncommercialised charm.
The almost 100-year-old plantation holds many stories and secrets. For the longest time, before Sinna Dorai’s bungalow was opened to the public, the existence of the estate itself was not well-known outside the region, possibly something to do with its very vastness. Locals from the surrounding area were not encouraged to wander in—Cariappa says this was because of recurring cases of littering and vandalism—and the owners were fairly strict about entry.
But there are other legends too.
Later in my room, I find a laminated booklet with some six-seven pages of text telling the story of the “bear girl of Kadamane”. Written by Angus F. Hutton, an employee of Brooke Bond, it is a first-person account of a thrilling hunt for a man-eating tiger in the Sakleshpur hills in 1951—but that’s not the exciting part of the story. While on the hunt with local tribesmen, Hutton found something rather unexpected in the forest.
“We rounded a bend and up ahead, saw a small patch of open grassland, some 30 yards across, that was bathed in bright sunlight,” wrote Hutton. “Suddenly, a ‘creature’ of some sort, on all fours, came out from the bamboo on the opposite side and sat blinking in the sunlight. We all froze. I thought at first ‘it’ was a black panther— but no, ‘it’ had no tail; maybe a monkey or a bear cub? No, ‘it’ was not hairy enough. Then I suddenly realised ‘it’ was a small human being…with long shaggy hair and covered with dirt.”
The hunting party had unwittingly discovered a six- or seven-year-old human child that was apparently being raised by a bear. The rest of Hutton’s tale describes the thrilling rescue of the “bear girl of Kadamane”, who was in all likelihood a girl from the local Sholaga tribe who had been carried away by a tiger three years earlier and had somehow survived to be raised by a female bear, which had lost a cub around the same time. The story became a sensation at the time and was reported in newspapers across India— Jungle Book come to life.
The story stays with me as I travel across Kadamane in an old Jeep towards a “picnic spot” on the estate, generally arranged for the bungalow guests on their second day. After half an hour of a bone-rattling ride through tea gardens punctuated by patches of wilderness, we arrive at a secluded cul-de-sac in the forest. A stream runs through the spot, and the warm sunshine filters through the tall trees on all sides. Here might a leopard come to drink late at night, or a herd of elephants cross the stream to go to the other side. My driver, Rafiq, points to a sunken depression in the sand by the bank of the stream and says that it looks like fresh elephant tracks—and then nonchalantly lays out a picnic lunch with chicken biryani, pineapple curry and raita, washed down with copious amounts of tea from a thermos.
In the evenings, there isn’t much to do back at Sinna Dorai’s bungalow, except sit around the campfire and tell ghost stories, perhaps. One of the older members of the staff regales me with yet another Kadamane legend—apparently, some 30 years ago, a chopper crashed in the area, creating quite a sensation. According to the storyteller, it was an “army helicopter carrying cash” and the staff from the estate and locals from the villages around spent over a week looking for the chopper, which had, according to ever-growing legend, “rained cash” all over the area.
Later, I find corroboration of the incident in a report from The Hindu—it was an Indian Navy chopper that crashed, and though there is no mention of a rain of currency notes, the story does say that locals helped the navy locate the fallen helicopter.
Next morning, as I leave, Cariappa hands me a box of Parry Agro’s K-Chai from the Kadamane estate and tells me I can pick up more if I want from the small store at the gate.
I do—I pick up over a kilogram, and hope that every sip will remind me of Kadamane’s campfire stories.