A Lost Corner of the Raj: Post VIII - Travels Amongst the Saint Thomas Christians of India


The High Range Estate

After the first day of the Feast of Nineveh the Metropolitan and I decided that it would probably be a good time for me to get away for a couple of days as he will be busy all day for the next two days fasting and chanting the Psalms (I am am contrite that I cannot chant nonstop for eight or nine hours without food or water for three days in a row when a 73 year old like His Beatitude can). For those of you who were concerned that the fast necessitated not eating of drinking for three days I should clarify that they can have a small meal and drink in the evenings. Still it is an ordeal (one man, the same age as His Beatitude, had to be taken to ICU after he could not be roused after the third day of chanting in the church came to an end).

High Range Club Main Door

So I have traveled 150 km into the Western Ghats to a hill station called Munnar. Munnar was a series of British tea estates high in the mountains called the High Range. I have booked in for two evenings at the old British planter’s club called, not surprisingly, The High Range Club. By so doing I have accidently stumbled on a faded remnant of the Raj.

High Range Club II The club has seen better days, to put it mildly, but the infrastructure remains the same even thought the last British planter is long gone. There are card rooms for bridge, two billiard rooms, a squash court, and a library. There is also a smoking bar complete with a wall of pith helmets of the tea estate managers who served the estates for more than thirty years with the dates of their time in office written on the brims as well as plagues with the arms or crests of various British schools, universities (including my almae matres), and military regiments.

The Gentlemen's Smoking Bar at the High Range Club

That the customs seem to have stayed the same becomes clear almost immediately. You are not expected to carry anything, even a tea tray, from one side of the room to the other as a liveried waiter will do it for you. Ties and jackets are to be worn after 7pm, no sandals, only western trousers,  women are not allowed in the gentleman’s bar etc, etc.

As far as I can tell, hardly anyone uses the club regularly anymore and the main trade seems to comes from allowing guests to stay, weekend golf games and the occasional club function. The library looks completely unused, the billiard tables are covered and seems to have been so for some time, and I doubt there are very many left to make up a foursome for bridge. Basically I think it died when the Raj came to an end but it has just kept ticking away all these years like the club that time forgot.  It is like finding a functioning fully staffed railway station complete with tea room on a line that was discontinued over sixty years ago.

Billard Room at the High Range Club

I went into the gentleman’s bar this evening to read (well actually to look at all the dead animal heads on the walls) before dinner and found it not only well lighted, freshly aired out, the bar newly wiped down but also with its own member of staff to stand and look after guests. This would be reasonable if the bar were functioning. However they do not have liquor licence and cannot serve alcohol. They also do not serve tea or coffee there (tea and coffee are served two rooms over in the lounge) or anything else although I think you can get a glass of water if you do not want to get it in either the longue or the dining room. I am also one of only eight guests this evening, three of whom are women and cannot even enter the bar and another three are their husbands (and presumably would not leave them alone in the lounge so they could sit alone in the bar). The Gentlemen’s Bar waiter’s job this evening, as far as I can tell, was to stand for three hours in an empty bar (I was only there for twenty minutes) in case one of two men decided they wanted a glass of water from that room instead of one of the other two adjoining rooms.  Curiouser and curiouser as Alice said.

As for the guests, almost all of them are British (three are academics with doctorates). One woman who stayed yesterday with her husband was born here during the Raj and says the club has not changed one bit since she remembered it as a young woman.

High Range Club Main Room

The grounds contain an English garden which is well laid out and has several gardeners looking after it. Tables are set up for afternoon tea so you can look out over the tea plantations of the Western Ghats at 4pm. Interestingly enough the tea served is CTC (cut, tear and curl method) instead of leaf! The huge tea estate of Kannan Devan Hills which now owns most of the tea estates (and the High Range Club) is the Tetley Tea of India. So although I am surrounded by tea bushes what I am drinking is the same as what is sold in every grocery store throughout India (only I suppose the tea in my pot might be fresher). 

High Range Club III

There are also clay tennis courts and a small golf course which one of the staff informed me was occupied yesterday morning by a wild elephant and her calf. He showed me the damage done to the green and the banana trees they destroyed before they wandered off.

Munnar Wild Elephants

Covering the walls inside are faded portraits of long ago sporting events at the club including this strange photo of the ‘Masons verses Non-Masons Cricked Match.

Masons vs Non-Masons Cricket Match

English Ruggers

I thought the club would be a hard act to beat for Raj nostalgia. Little did I know about the parish church. When one of the managers asked what I did and found out I was an Anglican cleric he began to wax eloquently about the old Anglican parish church, now part of the Church of South India, and his membership there. He called the vicar who informed him he was leaving in ten minutes to go off somewhere. So the manager hurried me outside jumped on a small motorcycle and told me to climb on. The off we went whipping through the tea plantation as though there was a fire to get to, raced across the pedestrian bridge over the river (beeping at poor plantation workers with bundles of tea on their heads who had to jump out of our way) and up the side of a neighbouring mountain to Christ Church. Thus I made it just in time to shake hands with the Vicar, and say how nice it was to meet him before he had to cycle off.  The manager proudly showed off what was a truly atmospheric relic of the Raj – a neo-gothic English parish church set right in the middle of the Western Ghats!

Christ Church, Church of South India

The church is filled with plaques dedicated to British tea planters

British Plaque I

High Range Planter Plaque

as well as the British clergy who served them.

High Range Priest

There was one aspect of the Church that I was not used to – a group of four or five women in saris crouched on the Epistle side of the aisle on the floor or leaning onto chairs praying loudly and rhythmically in what I believe was Tamil.

Old Photograph of the Anglican Parish - Note the Writing on the Water Filter

I was quite impressed by the addition of a clever full immersion tank onto the east side of the narthex to accommodate full immersion adult Baptism for those members of other denominations that formed the Church of South India. 

Ingenious Outdoor Full Immersion Font Attached to the Outside narthex Wall

The club and the church were still only prequels. I had yet to see the cemetery.  

View from Cemetery

On the side of a steep mountain was a maze of paths that turned out to be the British cemetery. I was led up the labyrinthine paths to the very top where the English woman who gave the land for the church was buried.

Donar's Tomb

Along the way we passed some of the most romantically placed graves I have ever seen against an absolutely magnificent background of mountains and lush ferns and forests. Although everything was dilapidated and many of the graves of the non-Europeans seemed to be sinking beneath a sea of ferns, I cannot imagine a more beautiful place to be laid to rest. 

Cemetery I

Cemetery II

Cemetery III

Cemetery IV

Thanks to my friend with the motorbike, I was back in time for afternoon tea where I was sheepishly approached by a members of staff (no doubt lured in by my O so British looking silk pocket handkerchief peeking out over the edge of my linen jacket pocket). Once he got going though there was no stopping him. He talked of the old days when the estate was run by the British and how well everything had been run then. He spoke of the ‘glory days’ of the club and then a chap was sent to fetch old photographs showing his father and uncles when they worked as managers on the estate. He seemed to still be angry about the last Englishman returning to England in 1976.

High Range Club Employee

Tea Estate Managers at the end of the Raj

My waiter was more interested in Anglicanism and different forms of Christianity.

High Range Club Waiting Staff

At the end of the day I was unsure what to make of it all. I was touched by the loyalty to the past by those who still honoured it but felt awkward that what they were lamenting was actually the end of colonialism.

I guess as far as the tea estates here go, the region was built up and the populace given an ongoing industry because the British brought tea plants and planted estates. Without them none of this would have existed. Perhaps I can tell myself that this is what they honour and pretend that colonialism and the lost Empire of the Raj have nothing to do with it.

British Raj