Uva is Sri Lanka’s remotest province. Though not far from Kandy or Nuwara Eliya as the crow flies, access to its provincial capital, Badulla, is only possible over steep, winding mountain roads. To get there from Colombo, one has to drive inland, then skirt nearly the entire southern half of the island’s central massif before turning north and ascending into the hills. Access from Sri Lanka’s other major urban centres, most of which lie on the coast, is equally difficult. In early British times a journey from Colombo to Badulla was a full-fledged expedition, involving beasts of burden, native bearers, nights under canvas and shooting wild animals ‘for the pot’. The whole operation might last several days. The single railway line that connects Colombo with the hill country reached Badulla only in 1924
Still Sri Lanka’s second-least-populous province, Uva today has a modest economy largely dependent on plantation crops: tea in the hills and, on the plains, sugar. Apart from this, most agriculture is of the subsistence variety, and there is little industry. The province is divided into two administrative sectors, Badulla and Moneragala: the latter is southerly, and flat where it is not covered in low, wooded hills; the former lies on the southeastern slopes of the central massif and constitutes the tea-growing region of Uva. In ancient times, these hills were as thinly populated as they are today; however, Badulla was intermittently the capital of fugitive princes and satraps of the king of Kandy during the troubled centuries of Sri Lanka’s mediaeval period.
Despite this obscure history, it was not until the coming of the plantation enterprise in the nineteenth century that the region truly began waking to life. For early Uva planters, Nuwara Eliya could only be reached by a long ride over dangerous roads and bridle-paths; so they foregathered at Badulla instead, accelerating the civic and commercial development of the town in the process.
Even then, it was a quiet, rather sleepy province. Uva was not particularly good for coffee, and due to its remoteness, it was one of the last parts of the country to be brought under the crop. Only with the coming of tea was the district’s full potential realized, for the hills and winds of Uva impart a special, unmistakable character and flavour to the tea that grows there, one that is highly prized by trade and connoisseur alike.
Experts ascribe this unique character largely to the Uva climate. The region is exposed to the winds of both the northeast and southwest monsoon systems, but the weather is relatively dry, particularly during the ‘quality season’. The climatic balance in each slope and valley is governed by its orientation and exposure; the mountains are cleft by deep passes or ‘gaps’, such as Ohiya and Idalgashinna, which funnel the monsoon through them; but at this altitude the winds are usually dry, having shed their moisture on the hills below. In these parts, a change of weather lasting a few days can have a noticeable impact on the crop – easy enough to discern since tea here, like elsewhere in Sri Lanka, is picked all year round. The effect is most marked during the eastern ‘quality season’ from July to September – the period of the southwest monsoon.
Tasters’ Notes for Uva Tea
UVA - “Exotically aromatic”
The remote Uva district is exposed to the winds of both northeast and southwest monsoons, believed to endow the tea produced here with a special, unmistakable character and exotically aromatic flavour. It was with tea grown on his Uva estates that Thomas Lipton, the Victorian magnate, persuaded Americans to drink tea. The mellow, smooth taste of Uva tea, once experienced, is easily distinguished.