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An Archive Of Hardship: The Tea Plantation Workers Museum

Nearly 200 ago, thousands of Indian Tamils embarked on an arduous journey from their homeland.  Many were fleeing the oppressive caste system in search of a better life. They walked mile after weary mile from their villages to ports, where waiting boats and catamarans carried them across the Mannar Gulf to their new home in Ceylon. From Ceylon’s North, they journeyed once more – on foot, battling  exhaustion, disease and death, to its hill country, where they began their new lives on coffee plantations.  They stayed on there in squalid conditions as indentured labourers, little knowing that decades later, their children and grandchildren would still be toiling in the same hills, dealing with unchanged conditions.

More than 150 years have passed since the inception of Sri Lanka’s tea industry. Right throughout, the estate workers have contributed significantly towards the country’s economy, but have received very little recognition.  They still face numerous hardships in terms of wages, healthcare, access to government services, linguistic barriers and living conditions. Photo credit: Noor Jameel

Nestled deep in the verdant hills of the New Peacock Estate in Gampola, one institution is attempting to preserve and tell the stories of the plantation workers who have been largely forgotten in our national consciousness. The Tea Plantation Workers’ Museum and Archive was started in the year 2007 as an ISD (Institute of Social Development) project with the help of the University of Colombo’s Department of Archaeology. Conceptualised in 1997 by activist P. Muthulingam, who is also the museum’s director, its purpose is simply to safeguard the struggles, traditions and cultural heritage of the estate community. It took a decade for the initial idea to solidify into the simple but compelling trove of artefacts and information it is today.

“There is very little documentation available on this community,” says S Sathiyanaden, the programme officer in charge of the museum. “How did [the estate Tamils] come here? What are their struggles? What is their place in Sri Lanka’s history?”

What is special about the museum is the fact that it has been created within actual line rooms, the barrack-like structures which serve as the living spaces for estate workers.  Here, within these cracked and windowless walls, families from the plantation community once lived and slept after hours of toiling in the hills. The museum consists of five such line rooms; each measures about ten by twelve feet. “These rooms are more than a hundred years old,” Sathiyanaden tells us. “You can see how small the living area is. Sometimes, there are three generations of [one] family living in the same small space.”

Frozen in time:  With parts of the line room left almost exactly as it once was, the museum allows us a rare glimpse—untainted by the glamour of tea tourism—into the bleak lives of the upcountry Tamils. Photo credit: Radhia Rameez

The first section of the museum is mostly preserved as it was from when estate workers lived there, a sort of snapshot from the past. By the dim light of the lantern hanging from the rafters, we see clothes strung up across the low ceiling; a makeshift bed of sorts, and a suspended blanket which once served as a cradle for a baby. Gandhi, Nehru and Subhash Chandra Bose look benevolently down at us from pictures that were brought all the way from India. “These were personalities that the estate community once considered heroes,” Sathiyanaden explains.

We also see various cooking utensils, household goods and tools. Some of them are easily identifiable, such as a grinding stone, a few copper water jugs, intricate brass lamps, milk pots and ladles.  But there are also objects that carry particular cultural resonance for the community, such as a thukku peni (lunch basket), a sambar vaali (a copper curry bucket) and a poosai thattu (a tray used to carry flowers and grain during prayers).

Each exhibit carries the heft of nostalgia.  One of the kudams (or water pots), for instance, belonged to a tea plucker called Meenatchi, and was given to her by her parents as dowry. The standing lamp (siru kutthu vilakku) came from a family in the Gomara estate, and was used to light up their places of worship.

Many estate families have no access to electricity, and use lamps like these to illuminate their tiny living spaces. Photo credit: Noor Jameel
A jewellery box. Many of these items are heirlooms of sorts, artefacts that were passed down from one generation to another. These were all brought from India. Photo credit: Noor Jameel
Traditional musical instruments including an udukku, a small drum which was used by ‘charmers’ for exorcism rituals. The instrument on display was obtained from an estate worker in the Kandapola estate, and had apparently belonged to his grandfather. Rituals like these have not quite died out yet and still exist within the plantation community. A smaller version of the udukku was also used by fortune tellers who travelled from estate to estate and cried out  their forecasts—both good and bad—outside houses.  Photo credit: Radhia Rameez

Another section of the museum contains cultural and ritualistic items like traditional musical instruments and symbolic ornaments, including a conch shell which was sounded during festivals and funerals, and a small udukku drum which was used by fortune tellers. Further inside is a gallery-like room that documents the history of Sri Lanka’s tea and coffee industry with photographs, records, several old books (including a copy of Ferguson’s Ceylon Directory, a comprehensive directory of the country, and its coffee and tea plantations, in the 19th and 20th Centuries), and even an old poem written by Ceylonese trade unionist C. V. Vellapullai called In Ceylon’s Tea Garden, which details the struggles of the estate worker.

Sathiyanaden also shows us around the archives, which contain everything from ola leaf manuscripts dating back more than a hundred years to old ledgers that plantation managers maintained to keep records of finances, yield and other plantation-related matters.

An Indian passport dating from the year 1856, during Ceylon’s coffee period. According to Sathiyanaden, many people from the estates left Ceylon’s highlands for their homes in India after a few years. When they did, they needed a passport like this one. Photo credit: Noor Jameel
A photograph of an estate worker returning home by train in the 1940s. Sathiyanaden points out that the man boarding the train is taking practically nothing with him but the clothes on his back. Photo credit: Noor Jameel
From the 1820s onwards, Ceylon’s hills were covered with flourishing coffee plantations, until the coffee leaf rust disease conclusively wiped out the crops in the late 1800s. The gallery of the Tea Plantation Workers’ Museum displays photographs from the coffee period as well as a few photographs from cocoa plantations that preceded coffee. Photo credit: Noor Jameel
Plantation ledgers dating back to the late 1800s. Photo credit: Noor Jameel

As we leave,  the words of the poet Vellapullai—  simply printed on white paper and laminated, as a result of the museum’s sparse budget—remind us of the sombre and mostly forgotten struggles of the community.

My men!

They lie dust under dust

Beneath the tea,

No wild weed flowers

or memories token

Tributes raise,

Over the fathers’ biers!

O shame! What man

Ever gave them a grave!

Only God in his grace

covered them with His grass.

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