In this superbly illustrated book, Gillian Wright tells the story of Darjeeling, the beautiful hill station in the Eastern Himalayas. She traces the history of its world-famous tea from its origins in China to the present day. The British appetite for tea convinced the merchants of the Raj that they should bring tea growing to India. The author recounts the adventures of the nineteenth-century botanists who succeeded in bringing the closely guarded secrets of tea manufacture from China to India; of the founders of Darjeeling; and of the pioneers-British, German and Indian-who took up tea plantation on the then remote mountainsides. Wright tracks the changes that accompanied the transition from British to Indian ownership after Independence, and describes the gardens of today through the seasons, places of astounding biodiversity, where leopards still roam and uncounted smaller creatures and unnumbered plant species thrive. Her encounters with planters and workers, especially the women, without whom the industry could not exist, illuminate their lives, hopes and aspirations. This is a fascinating portrait of Darjeeling and its teas, widely acknowledged as the finest in the world.
Gillian Wright is an author, translator and journalist who has lived in India for over twenty years. Her travel books include Introduction to the Hill Stations of India and an illustrated guide to Sri Lanka. She is co-author, with Mark Tully, of India in Slow Motion, a collection of essays on modern India. She has also collaborated with him on three other earlier books: Amritsar: Mrs Gandhi’s Last Battle, No Full Stops in India and Heart of India. With a team of Indian ornithologists, she co-authored one of the first photo-guides to the birds of the subcontinent. A scholar of Urdu and Hindi, she has translated several modern classics of Indian literature into English, notably the satirical novel Raag Darbari by Shrilal Shukla, the epic story of rural India around the period of Independence, A Village Divided by Rahi Masoom Reza, and a selection of short stories by Bhisham Sahni entitled Middle India.
My first visit to Darjeeling convinced me to take on the challenge of reviving Avongrove. I was with my father who thought of the idea of owning a Darjeeling garden-an idea that could not have possibly entered my head at the time. We arrived fairly late in the afternoon on a dreary day in December; it was cold and the heating was conspicuously inadequate in our hotel. Tea was in between seasons and Avongrove’s bushes, I now realize, were barely even green in relation to their colour in the months from March to October. It was still peaceful and certainly very beautiful, in fact in a somewhat mystical way. But looking back I see now how much of a subconscious influence the culture, the people, and the way of life, rather than the natural beauty, had on my decision.
I plunged straight into the commercial aspects once the initial rush wore off though, and I must confess it was from this bent of mind that the project of this book began. The idea was conceived in a meeting with Itu Chaudhuri of his own design firm, whilst brainstorming strategies for marketing. At the time, what with the artistic science of tea tasting, the complexities of manufacturing, and the biochemistry in the plantation at the forefront of my thoughts, my plan was for a book fairly technical, to appeal to the connoisseur. The project was shelved at the time.
In the meantime my visits to Darjeeling became regular and frequent, and I became more embedded in the culture as people began to identify me as someone with a connection to the Darjeeling world. I had started visiting Mr Ravi Kidwai, an established Darjeeling tea expert, taster and broker in Kolkata every morning to learn about tea tasting, and the changes I could make to bring Avongrove’s tea to the highest level. It was in conversations with him about his trips to Darjeeling, the evenings at the club, the momos, the managers, and the workers who had been tea pickers for generation that I was introduced to what I can only describe as a place that must be visited to be understood.
Like many places in India, the town has many reminders of its British history. But what makes it different are the people connected either with the town or with the tea trade who retain a courteous manner hard to find in the present day. In the evenings I often spent in solitude whilst in Darjeeling, I would imagine what it must have been the olden days, drawn progressively deeper into Avongrove by the intriguing characters I came across in the world of Darjeeling tea.
When roaming the garden-watching tea pickers, the children playing football, and the houses decorated with care and an eye for aesthetics, all in the backdrop of beautiful mountains, many of their slopes carpeted green with tea-I realized that the intriguing characters were not just the brokers, managers and traders but also the workers. Their lives, all the way back to when they came from Nepal and were asked to settle in the area, had changed so little. They were quietly making the world’s most famous tea, the greatest population of enthusiasts of which were in Europe and Japan, but were completely disconnected from their clients.
What this book captures is not just the complexity in the product itself but the intriguing draw of Darjeeling, its people and its history. Gillian wrote the book because Darjeeling has a personality that must be written about. Michel and our other photographers were excited, just as Gillian and I were, for the very same reason. What led to this place and where is it headed now? Though her words and our pictures come close to capturing Darjeeling’s character, they leave you with a desire to visit and complete the picture.
When the British planted tea estates on the steep slopes of the Himalayan foothills of Darjeeling in north-eastern India, they gave them names like Avongrove, Eden Vale and Dilaram, meaning ‘peace of heart’. All of these plantations, known as tea gardens, were, as they remain today, places of extraordinary beauty and quietude. They face the snow of Mount Kanchenjunga, the third-highest mountain in the world, and in between the low carpet of tea bushes growing up and down the hillsides stand areas of diverse Himalayan forest that are hot spots of biodiversity, from flamboyantly coloured insects and birds to larger mammals like barking deer and their natural predator, the leopard.
The tea bushes grow along the contours beneath the Himalayan ridges, around spurs and in valleys. Spring water drips through ferns into small streams, waterfalls crash downwards over dark rocks and fast flowing rivers-the Balasun, the Mahananda, the Great and the Little Rangit-run at the gardens’ feet. Each garden, therefore, has a different physical shape moulded by the Himalayas. The tea bushes may face the mountains, or the rising or setting sun. some tea gardens bear the force of the onset of the monsoon, others are in rain shadow; some are at a high elevation, others, lower, and many have divisions stretching from 1500 feet above sea level to above 6000 feet. This physical diversity is reflected in the tea that is produced.
Darjeeling teas have been universally accepted as among the finest in the world for well over a hundred years. The individual flavor and character of each tea is dependent on innumerable variables: the type and condition of the bush, the soil, the elevation, the season, the time of plucking, the humidity and, of course, the way it is manufactured. As I will show in this book, tea-making is a mysterious business, one that requires years upon years of experience even to begin to master. Tea garden managers learn the art of tea from their seniors in an apprenticeship that is reminiscent of the guru-shishya tradition of ancient India.
The best of the tea growers and tea-makers are proud individuals whose life’s work and achievement is the tea they make and the garden they tend. A key component of that garden are the people who work there and have lived there for generations. For any visitor, the joy of the surrounding natural beauty is easily matched by the joy of meeting and interacting with tea garden communities. The success of any garden rests on them and particularly, the women who pluck the tea and are now ascending the garden hierarchy. In this book, I hope to be able to reflect something of the great human potential of these garden communities.
The overwhelming majority of tea gardens are owned by companies in distant cities, and not by proprietors living on the estates. Trust between the owners and the managers is, therefore, essential. Well-run gardens also require a high degree of commitment from their owners. Tea is an agricultural product and making it is not, as many managers will tell you, like selling soap powder. The gardens need to be able to set aside enough of their profits in good years as a reserve to sustain them in the inevitable lean years that come to agricultural crops. The years 2009, when I visited Darjeeling, was a case in point. An unprecedented drought early in the year had adversely affected the year’s first and second flushes-the most sought-after and expensive of the year’s teas. A local political movement for Darjeeling to be made a separate Indian state had called for strikes that had halted the movement of fresh leaf and plucking itself. Then, in September, a cyclone from the Bay of Bengal hit the mountains, bringing devastation that destroyed over 17,00,000 tea bushes and some 2000 tea garden homes.
The tea plant, especially the China variety that produces the choicest high-elevation Darjeeling tea, is fortunately a very hardy one. If cared for properly, it can recover from drought and excessive rain. In gardens I visited, local people were rebuilding roofless or flattened homes, and preparations were being made to replant lost areas of tea. The determination and stoicism of the communities impressed me greatly, but not all tea estate stories in the past have ended happily.
During the British period, most gardens were individual companies under the control of managing agencies, companies of professional managers with diverse business interests. However, by and large they treated the tea estates as individual entities with their own special requirements. After Independence in 1947, rules about foreign ownership changed; managing agencies declined, and new Indian owners moved into the mysterious and specialist realm of tea. Some of these were more successful than others.
In those days a gem of a garden above the Balasun River, Avongrove was brought to the brink of financial disaster, and the proprietors simply abandoned the garden and deserted their workers. For twenty-eight years the night watchman occupied the planter’s bungalow, and the local communities plucked the tea as they had done before. They couldn’t run the tea factory, which fell into ruin, and instead sold the fresh leaf to other estates. The advantage was that the estate, for those twenty-eight years, returned to a natural organic state. Animal life flourished; forest trees were rejuvenated. But in the absence of systematic care, the bushes deteriorated. When they died, they were not replaced. The pluckers found there was less leaf to pluck and the prices the leaf fetched fell. Finally, the Avongrove communities petitioned the government to find them a new owner, a new manager and a new factory. Several companies tried, and then sold to others, leaving the workers feeling abandoned again. Then a young man from an established business house, full of idealism, decided that it would be his mission to restore Avongrove to its rightful position as one of the best producers of Darjeeling tea.
At this stage, I came across Anand Kanoria, the young man in question. I have never met anyone with more infectious enthusiasm for his chosen field. To balance his own youth, he had retained a man of over thirty-five years’ experience in the tea industry, Amber Subba, as Avongrove’s manager, an equally experienced visiting adviser and a time-tested team in Kokkata to market the tea. His team was counseling him to have patience, a necessary virtue in the tea industry, while Anand was trying to learn as much as possible in the shortest possible time. One of the things that surprised him was that there was no book devoted entirely to Darjeeling tea, despite its status and international recognition. It was then that he approached me and my colleague on this venture, the German photographer Michel von Boch, and suggested that we help fill this literary lacuna. Penguin India joined the project as publishers and together we have set out to try to express in print something of the Darjeeling tea industry, from its origins in China to the present day.
During my visits to Darjeeling in the course of this project, I have learned to appreciate not only the quality but the immense variety of the fine tea produced, a variety that you can compare to single malt whisky, each to be valued and each to be savoured. I also became convinced that this patchwork of some ninety individual historic gardens is a unique part of the living heritage of India and should be recognized as such. Tens of thousands of bushes are over a hundred years old, and I found dedicated managers aiming to add to this heritage, and leave a contribution to the land they worked on that would endure beyond their own lifetime. Although the industry has its roots in the colonial era, the men and women who planted and cared for the gardens and who made the tea in the factory were always Indian and it is quintessentially an Indian industry that deserves to be celebrated.
Living heritage naturally incorporates change, and much change has also come to the gardens since they were first planted. From their original organic state, they were subjected to the ‘modern’ inventions of pesticides and herbicides, and now they largely come full circle and have returned to the organic fold. The village communities of the gardens have been transformed by the spread of education, over sixty years of parliamentary democracy, and the inescapable tentacles of globalization. One result of the organic social evolution that has taken place is that many managers are ‘sons of the soil’. It is not unusual to find managers, like Mr Subba, whose grandmothers plucked tea for a living and never had the benefit of education.
A good tea garden manager has always planned for the future, and they still do. Some now believe that the future of the industry lies in stakeholder partnerships with the garden communities or workers-the sons and daughters of the soil-rather than an employer-employee relationship, and experiments have started in that direction.
While in Kolkata, I visited the headquarters of a leading tea-producer whose office was perfumed with a scented candle. The candle cost sixty dollars and the scent was that of a tea factory. There is no price that can be put on the scent of real tea leaves in a real Darjeeling tea factory. It has freshness and a delicacy that defies description. I would counsel everyone who reads this book to come to Darjeeling if they can and experience it with their won senses. When you realize how unique it is, and under what extraordinarily challenging conditions tea is produced, you will know that a fragrant cup of Darjeeling tea is cheap at any price.
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