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

Sunday Star-Times - - Focus - Kavinda Herath.

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from New Zealand

© PressReader. All rights reserved.