Bearing the old Sinhalese name for the south of island, the Ruhuna tea-growing district lies in what is now the Southern Province of Sri Lanka. The tea-growing terrain, coastal plain with low hills towards the interior, lies mostly in the western part of the province, within the ‘wet zone’ watered by the southwest monsoon. Eastward, the land is predominantly scrub jungle, with some areas of grassy plain and coastal salt-marsh, growing wilder and more barren as one travels eastward. This eastern region is home to a number of nature reserves, including Ruhuna National Park, better known to Sri Lankans as Yala, whose upper reaches extend into the adjacent province of Uva. The forests of Ruhuna are home to wild elephants, leopards, bears, wild boar and many kinds of deer. It is a paradise for bird-lovers, with hundreds of native and migrant species, including giant flamingos which spend their breeding season among the salt-pans and marshes of Bundala, another coastal reserve.
Ruhuna is rich in history and legend. The liberating hero of the ancient chronicles, King Dutugemunu, was said to have spent his youth here, and the region has a tradition of resistance against tyrant kings and foreign invaders. Once far more thickly populated than it is now, Ruhuna has yielded relics of ancient Sinhalese civilization ranging in age from five hundred to fifteen hundred years, and the now-unpeopled jungle is dotted with the remains of centuries-old irrigation works.
Early European explorers found the region sparsely inhabited except along the south-western coast, the population of the interior having dwindled through centuries of wars and epidemics. Much of the land had reverted to wilderness. Little changed during the colonial era, and even after independence Ruhuna remained thinly populated and backward, a source of economic migrants to Colombo and the Western Province. In recent years, however, a great deal of attention has been focused on development and economic revival in the region, particularly around the coastal town of Hambantota and the ancient port city of Galle. The latter was of great importance before the construction of a breakwater in 1885 created a sheltered anchorage in Colombo, and was well served by road, rail and telegraph, but grew quiet and sleepy during the twentieth century.
Ruhuna was a latecomer to tea. It was only around 1900 that the first estates were opened up among the foothills of the central mountain massif, at a convenient distance from Galle and Matara with their road and rail connexion to the capital. At a time when most of the plantation enterprise was British-owned and -run, Ruhuna became an early bastion of the Ceylonese planting fraternity – a group that included not only ‘tea men’ but also those planting in rubber and other crops.
During the early 1970s, political and economic changes in the Middle East resulted in a greatly increased market for the strong, full-flavoured black teas that are a Ruhuna speciality. This resulted in a boom, the effects of which have lasted more or less until the present day. Ruhuna is now, along with Sabaragamuwa, one of the key tea-producing districts of Sri Lanka, producing its own characterful varieties. Between them, the two provinces account for around 60% of the total production of the island.
Tasters’ Notes for Ruhuna Tea
RUHUNA - “Distinctively unique”
The teas of the Ruhuna district are defined as “low-grown” as they are cultivated at an altitude not exceeding 600m (2000 Ft) comprising vast sub regions from coastal plains to Southern edge of Sinharaja Rain Forest. The soil, combined with the low elevation of the estates, causes the tea-bush to grow rapidly, producing a long, beautiful leaf. Full-flavoured black tea is a distinctively unique Ruhuna speciality. Ruhuna factories produce a wide variety of leaf styles and sizes, including prized “tips”.