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Early History of Munnar

Once upon a time, a land in the Western Ghats served as a refuge for those seeking to escape difficult times. Over the years, this land has welcomed numerous people and communities, providing them a haven amidst its natural splendour.

Munnar is hailed as a romantic getaway in tourism brochures, luring honeymooners to its idyllic environs. With its captivating beauty, Munnar offers the perfect refuge for couples looking to spend romantic days together.

Centuries ago, Munnar was heavily forested, teeming with exotic trees and wildlife. The majestic hills of the Western Ghats were home to early human settlements, and the remnants of their dwellings still stand tall today. These mysterious dolmens, known as “muniyaras,” can be found scattered throughout Munnar, providing compelling evidence of its ancient history.

In recent years, archaeological excavations have unearthed some genuinely remarkable findings. Some of these “muniyaras” are more than 2000 years old, providing a fascinating glimpse into the lives of our ancestors. Today, Munnar continues to enchant travellers worldwide, offering a captivating mix of natural beauty and ancient history.

The Pandya Kings ruled the present-day Munnar area during the early medieval period. When the mighty Chola Kings attacked Madurai, the ruler fled to the present-day Kerala side of the Western Ghats through the forests and eventually settled down in Poonjar (read about the Principality of Poonjar). The “Adivasis” of Munnar, meaning “early settlers,” were subjects under the rule of the Pandya Kings who fled their homes with whatever belongings they could carry on their backs to escape the Chola invasion. They used forest trails to cross the dense forests of the Western Ghats and settled near present-day Munnar. The early owners of Munnar, known as “Muthuvans,” were known for their strength.

How did Munnar get its name?

Munnar, meaning “three rivers” in Malayalam, is fittingly named as it is the confluence of three rivers – Kuttiyar, Kanniyar, and Nallathanniyar. At an average altitude of 5500 feet, Munnar boasts a temperate climate and sudden mists add to its romantic aura. When the British arrived in the 18th century to establish plantations, Munnar was a small settlement of 2400 people. The forests of Munnar were rich enough to sustain this small community’s needs. The British brought tea plants, which forever altered the landscape of Munnar.


Some interesting facts about tea and Munnar

  • 1. Of around 35000 hectares of tea gardens in Kerala, almost 85% of them are in the Idukki district.
  • 2. No other crop in the world can give you a yield every ten days for the next 100 years.
  • 3. The James Finally Company had their own currency for use inside the plantation.
  • 4. Munnar is a part of the Nilgiris mountain range, which means “blue mountains.”
  • 5. Strobilanthes kunthiana, also called Neelakurinji in Malayalam and Tamil, is a shrub that grows in the Shola forests of the Western Ghats in   Kerala. Its purple-blue flower blooms only once every 12 years and is what gave the Nilgiri Mountains their name.
  • 6. At the beginning of the 19th century, Munnar had its own railway system, a ropeway, and its own telephone exchange.
Photo of Neelakkurinji blossom in Munnar
Neelakkurunji blossom in Munnar (PC Kerala Tourism)

The arrival of the British in Munnar

The Munnar area was once heavily forested, and it was discovered by Col. Arthur Wellesley (Duke of Wellington) in 1790. His mission was to prevent Tipu Sultan, the King of Mysuru, from returning home via the Kumuly Gap, a natural mountain pass connecting Kerala to the land on the eastern side of the Western Ghats after raiding the Kingdom of Travancore. Although he failed to block Tipu’s movements, he was enamoured with the Western Ghats’ forests. 

The East India Company attempted to survey and develop the forest in the ensuing years. Still, nothing major happened until J.D. Munro, a Scottish tea planter and barrister, arrived on the scene in 1877. Munro acted as an intermediary in the dispute over forest ownership between Madras and the King of Travancore in the Munnar area. He was also captivated by the beauty of the Munnar hills and became a landowner, paying a down payment of Rs 5000 and promising a perpetual income of Rs 3000 per year. In 1877, he secured a lease for 588 sq km of land from the Kings of Poonjar, a subordinate principality of Travancore’s monarch. He divided the land into small estates and sold them to investors and planters in England and Scotland.

Although J.D. Munro is considered the founding father of the plantation business in Munnar, a Scottish planter named Baron Von Rosenberg set up the first plantation in Munnar in 1879. It is also believed that A. H. Sharp, another European planter, began tea planting in Munnar in 1880 by planting tea in a 50-acre plot of land in Parvathi, which is now part of the sevenmallay Estate.

During the course of the 19th century, many estates were established, merged, and sold in and around Munnar before the Tata group acquired a large portion of the tea estates in the 1960s. Many locals are grateful to this Indian business conglomerate for their efforts in preserving the environment and for the numerous social upliftment initiatives they have implemented over the last 50 years for the benefit of Munnar, its people, and the tea industry.


Who would enjoy visiting Munnar?

Munnar is a destination for everyone. The following are the main factors that attract visitors:

1. Tourists who are looking for a cooler climate
Munnar’s average temperature is around 21 degrees Celsius. When the temperature rises in the midlands during summer, Munnar is the nearest escape available to find a cool place for the people of central Kerala.

2. Honeymooners can enjoy a view of tea gardens and romantic mists.
Tourists will enjoy seeing the sprawling tea gardens surrounded by meadows and barren hills. Couples on their honeymoon come from all over India to undertake long walks through the desolate tea estate trails and to experience the mist that covers them without any prior warning, and enjoy the cool weather.

3. Tea and English plantation heritage for visitors.
Munnar fondly remembers the English and Scottish plantation owners, engineers, and other specialists who worked here during the colonial era. Many English and Scottish-style villas and churches can still be found in and around Munnar. If you’re interested in history and heritage, Munnar should be on your Kerala itinerary.

4. In Munnar, endangered birds and animals attract birdwatchers and wildlife photographers.

Photo of Nigiri Thar grazing in Munnar hills
Nilgiri Thar ( Pc: Kerala Tourism)

The Western Ghats are home to approximately 30 endemic bird species, the vast majority of which can be found in the Munnar ranges. Some examples include Nilgiri Wood Pigeons, Black & Orange Flycatchers, Nilgiri Parakeets, and others. The Eravikulam National Park in Munnar is the best place to see the Nilgiri Thar (Nilgiritragus hylocrius), a type of ibex found only in the western ghat.