The scared four-year-old snuggled deeper, pulling the bed covers over his head; the gentle snores of his two elder brothers who slept alongside in the large four poster bed, doing nothing to allay his fears. It was a tall, outsized bed with curtains which could be drawn around and a three-step ladder at the side for the small boy to climb into bed. That night, the curtains were open with bright moonlight streaming in through the bay windows, creating strange shapes in the dark corners of the room. His fear was real; the sounds frightened him especially the lilting music and the clickaty clack of dancing feet.
We grew up hearing tales of this beautiful estate bungalow, where one heard music and dancing at night; and of other equally lovely houses which had civets on the roof and wisteria climbing up the pillars to the roofs. As you travel through the hills, between the manicured tea gardens, up there is the eagle’s nest; you catch glimpses of red sloping rooftops or the glint of the sunlight hitting the windowpane and you know that hidden among the flowering jacaranda is a home.
There is a romance about the estate bungalow which is quite absent in a town house: lonely, beautiful and with stories to tell. S.Muthiah, who wrote “A Planting Century: The First Hundred Years of the United Planters’ Association of Southern India” says that the early planters did not live in such grand houses. As they cleared the land for planting coffee and tea, these pioneering planters lived in log cabins along with the labour. The big houses or bungalows started being built only after tea and coffee raked in the moolah.
The word `bungalow’ originated from the Hindi word baṅglā for the type of houses earlier found in Bengal, and now quite common all over the world, especially Australia, North America and the UK. The common feature of the bungalow is the veranda and its low rise construction.
These houses for the dorais (managers) and chinna dorais (assistant managers) were often perched on the top of hills, from where there was a clear view of the estate. In most cases there would be no habitation anywhere close by, except the servants’ quarters.
“The design of the estate bungalow is quite simple, actually”, says Cherian P Matthew, a third generation planter who has a keen interest in construction. Almost all the bungalows have a veranda which runs right around; the living room is either in the center of the house or on the right as you enter, followed by a formal dining room with the bedrooms on either side. Though most estate bungalows are large, many of them have just two very large bedrooms, often 24ft x 24ft; the anteroom, dressing room and ensuite bathroom are part of the suite.
Muthiah says many of the early planters in the Nilgiris had already cut their teeth in Ceylon, present day Sri Lanka; so when the plantations started opening up in the Western Ghats, many of them moved here bringing with them their checkered experiences of planting coffee, the blight and the shift to tea, where this cycle was just starting. Along with them came a number of Ceylonese carpenters and masons of Keralite origin, he said.
The Kerala influence of these skilled craftsmen is evident in many of the older houses in the hills; especially the roof, which is distinctive. The steep, tiled roof which is supported by a wooden frame of rafters and then covered with corrugated tin sheets was considered ideal for the heavy rains that the district received.
Many of the houses were built following the ancient science of Thachu Shastra (the science of carpentry). So there is a sense of symmetry and harmony with the surroundings in these houses. In recent times, as Vastu Shastra gained in popularity, many Vastu experts were called in to assess some of the houses which were, strangely enough, found to be Vastu compliant.
“The houses were constructed with lime and mortar and with bricks made locally. The windows of the bungalows were rarely barred or grilled, because security on the estate was never an issue,” Cherian says. If anyone dared to break in those days, he was definitely getting shot, as most planters slept with their rifles propped up next to their beds. It is only after the Indian companies took over that grills were put in, as the owners, mostly city dwellers, were quite aghast that the windows did not have grills.
But there is a flip side to this. During times of labour unrest, windows without grills could be a real challenge. Mrs. Reeba Cherian, talks of her rather grueling experience while living on the estate. This was when her two children were just toddlers and there was labour strife on the estate. Her husband used to travel on work a lot those days. “The Terramia bungalow had no grills on the windows; I spent many a sleepless night sitting on the floor in the corridor (there were rooms on either side) in the center of the house holding my children close. The worst thing was all the servants would disappear by 6pm, adding to my unease.” She says that it felt safer there in corridor than in the bedroom, as she felt she could slip out through any one of the windows and hide among tea bushes till day break, if the need arose. That being said, the Terramia period was one of the best in her life, she says. The house was gracious and welcoming with large picture windows and parquet flooring. To top it all was the luxury of Royal Doulton water closets. Reeba remembers, with fondness, the house with a lovely Australian pepper tree on the front lawn and a sweeping view of the hills and valleys around.
There is no doubt that the planter’s wives played a big role in how the estate bungalows evolved from the humble dwellings of frontiersmen to the gracious homes they are today. They put up curtains, waxed the wooden floors and polished the brass. The gardens came next, planted with exotic flowering trees, shrubs and both perennial and seasonal flowers; resplendent in a myriad colors and fragrances. In short they made it their home.
Estate gardens became so beautiful and planters’ wives competed with each other to see who would grow the better and more exotic one. So much so, the annual Flower Show garden competition in Ooty has an estate garden category.
Mrs. Debjani Bopana, who has lived all her married life on a plantation says, “it is all to do with one’s attitude and how one adapts to the lifestyle on the estate. The most important decision to be taken is about the children’s education. One has to be mentally prepared to send the children away to boarding school”.
Though, the planting community is a tight knit one and the social life revolves around the club, a planter’s wife, she says “must have other interests – reading, needle work, painting, or gardening which keeps her busy. Some women don’t take to this life at all; the loneliness of living on an estate gets to them. Their husbands soon give up and find city jobs”.
Today, many of the old estate bungalows have been converted into home stays as the great Indian middle class has taken to the roads and is thirsting for new experiences. The `dorai’ experience is certainly one they cherish. One planter remarked the hospitality wing of many tea companies was now a very profitable revenue stream which helped not just with the bottom line but in keeping the old bungalows in good repair.