Drinks with the gods: A trip to the spiritual home of tea
While many of us think a cuppa is simply the ideal dunking companion to a rich tea biscuit, in Sri Lanka it’s a vital ingredient of social, economic and religious life. Photos by
For Sunday Star-Times photographer, Kavinda Herath, having a cup of tea is almost spiritual – and it’s even better if it’s while he’s watching the cricket.
He’s Sri Lankan.
‘‘If you buy really good tea, you don’t have to do anything special. Just boil it and drink it. When you drink it, you can feel it,’’ Herath says.
Sri Lanka has been one of the world’s teaexporting powerhouses for a century.
Under British rule, Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon, became a dominant global figure as a coffee producer in the 1800s. However, towards the end of the century, a fungus arrived from Ethiopia bringing with it the coffee leaf rust disease, which decimated crops.
Sri Lankans proved their adaptability and, knowing coffee needed to be replaced to keep the economy thriving, switched their drink of choice.
Now more than a million Sri Lankans are employed in the tea industry, including Herath’s family, who own a small tea plantation.
Herath, who now lives in Southland, went home during the holidays to visit his family – and to stock up his supply of tea. Herath bought back three kilograms. Drinking that amount on his own would take him a few years, but he has been sharing it.
‘‘I wanted others to know what really good tea tastes like, what it feels like.’’
Herath is from the town of Passara, nestled in central Sri Lanka’s hill country. It has a temperate climate, which ranges between 15 degrees Celcius and 25C, and its rich-soil plantations – once the very areas where coffee plants were grown – are now renowned for producing a high quality tea.
That tea now plays a practical and spiritual role in Sri Lankan society as it attracts tourist dollars, is a major export crop, and is used in traditional Hindu temple ceremonies where worshippers have tea with the gods.
Herath says there’s a good reason why most Sri Lankan plantations use people to pick the leaves.
‘‘Human hands are much better. When machines pick the leaves they don’t know what is good and what isn’t. People always choose the best leaves.’’
For Herath, taking photos of those working on the plantations and in the tea ceremonies allowed him to bask in his memories.
He remembers running through the plantations as a boy going to school, and then drinking tea to survive working in the news industry in the nation’s capital Colombo.
‘‘There’s nothing better than Sri Lankan tea.’’
Human hands are much better at picking leaves. When machines pick the leaves they don’t know what is good and what isn’t.
Tea ladies have been handharvesting leaves in Sir Lanka’s central hill district plantations of Passara since the late 1880s.
Retired tea ladies Shivapakyam Palaniyandi, Karpan Theywani, Muthiah Amarawathi, and retired kankani (supervisor) Periyasami Subramanyam during a traditional ceremony in a Hindu temple, where they have tea with the gods.
Retired tea kankani (supervisor) Periyasami Subramanyam, above, now conducts traditional ceremonies.
The often harsh work of picking tea by hand means those that work in the plantations show the wear and tear of toiling among the plants – but the result is that only the best leaves are chosen to turn into the beverage.
Retired tea ladies Muthiah Amarawath, right, and Karpan Theywani, left.