When British occupiers first visited the remote Nilgiri Hills of southern India in the 1820s, they declared the region a wasteland. There was nothing here but mountains and forests, plus a healthy tiger population. But it was cooler up at 1,800 metres than down on the plain, and the steep hillsides (Nilgiri means “blue hills” thanks to a flower that blossoms here every 12 years) were a perfect place to plant tea. The Brits were desperate for a cheaper, more cooperative source than China so they took over the hills, chopped down the forests and planted tea where the trees had stood.
Almost two centuries later, the Nilgiris’ economy still thrives on tea, and despite the 19th-century deforestation, the region feels underdeveloped and unspoiled. “This is the best of India,” says Indi Khanna, a 45-year veteran of the tea industry and the driving force behind Tea Studio, a boutique tea factory near the village of T.Manihatty. “When I’m here,” he says, looking out over the lush valley where the factory is situated, “I feel like I’ve died and gone to heaven.” Khanna, who drives a vintage-styled Royal Enfield motorcycle and has a knack for storytelling, says he is realizing his life’s goal: to craft teas that stand out as unique in India.