The town of Gampola in Sri Lanka’s Kandy district houses a 100-year-old structure comprising five “line rooms”—each windowless square, just ten by 12 feet in size, was once home to an entire family of estate workers. Though elsewhere people still live in such cramped accommodations, this particular row of rooms has been turned into a museum that boasts a peculiar collection of objects: including images of Subhash Chandra Bose and Mohandas Gandhi, an incense-stick holder with Jawaharlal Nehru’s face on it, drums once used to announce news of funerals and marriages, and an ooduku, or small drum, that is used to chase away the devil. Not long ago, these objects could be found in the homes of Sri Lanka’s Tamil plantation workers—also known as Malaiyaha, which means “mountain,” or up-country Tamils. The community is considered distinct from “Sri Lankan Tamils,” who have been settled on the island for much longer than the former group.
Over a course of ten years, the activist P Muthulingam convinced many Malaiyaha Tamils to donate their possessions to the Tea Plantation Workers’ Museum and Archive, which he founded in 2007. The museum’s small budget is evident: a map that traces the path the migrating workers took from south India to Sri Lanka’s hill country is hand-drawn and coloured; both the poetry that is pinned to one side of a long board, and the legal documents that occupy the other, are basic printouts. But the community is proud of Muthulingam’s efforts, nevertheless.
“There are other museums in Kandy,” K Yogeshwari, one of only a handful of women to lead a trade union here, told me in December. “However, they look at only the production aspects of how tea is made. This is the only museum dedicated to the workers. No one knows how much our community has contributed to this country.”