In the colonial days, when the heat along the coast became oppressive, the British masters and their families and servants would betake themselves to the interior hills of Sri Lanka, especially to the resort town of Nuwara Eliya, known for its rhubarb, strawberries, roses, hollyhocks and privet hedges. Nuwara Eliya is ringed by tea plantations. The British began cultivating tea in the 1870s, after the coffee bushes that had covered much of the land were stricken by a leaf blight. Tea, coconuts, rubber, cinnamon and other spices have since, along with gemstones, been Sri Lanka’s most reliable and profitable exports.
Sri Lanka resembles a pear-shaped island. Most of the tea plantations are located in the heartlands of the lower, central bulge. Tea growing takes place on three elevational levels. These include the top-quality, high-grown tea in the central hill region at 4,000-6,000 feet, with bright character and superior flavor due to the cooler air; medium-grown tea at 2,000-4,000 feet, known for being full-bodied with good color and strength; while strong and colory low-grown tea is produced below 2,000 feet. Much of the high-grown tea is cultivated on large estates whereas smaller gardens (usually under 10 acres) dominate the lower levels.
Sri Lanka’s unique rainfall pattern guarantees an almost unbroken harvesting season within the country. Two separate monsoon seasons hit the island throughout the year; one from the north-east and another from the south-west. When production falls off on the teas from the western side or Dimbulla teas, there is a rise in production on the eastern side or Uva teas. The production of premium teas is aided by the presence of cool, dry winds. During the peak of the cropping season, teas can be picked at such a rate as to require a 24-hour processing cycle at the factories.
Directly and indirectly, over one million Sri Lankans are employed in the tea industry, which is the country’s major employer, and many of them are young women. The minimum working age is twelve. Most of the tea workers, male as well as female, are Tamils whose forebears came from southern India. They are Hindus and do not always get on well with the Buddhist Sinhalese, who comprise more than two thirds of the country’s population. A separatist Tamil political party has as one of its goals the creation of an independent nation in the northern part of Sri Lanka.
In 1965, Sri Lanka led the world in producing tea, but now it has fallen behind India and is the third biggest tea-producing country globally. In colonial times, some British tea planters presided over estates ranging from 4,000 to 6,000 acres. A plantation manager — a periya dorai, Tamil for “big prince” — would ride around on a high-bred horse and live in a fancy bungalow with many servants. In 1976, land reform came to Sri Lanka. Since then, no individual has been allowed to own 50 acres for any purpose. The tea industry went into the doldrums — in part, some old-timers insist, because there were simply too many people trying to manage it. In 1992, having suffered heavy losses because of an experiment in nationalized management, the government decided to return its plantations to private management with the sale of 23 state-owned plantations. Privatization of these estates is now attracting foreign investment as well as raising the level of harvest quality and quantity. Sri Lankan tea has almost always been a high-quality variety, and nearly all of it has been exported.