Darjeeling: Mountains, colonial history and fine tea

Darjeeling: Mountains, colonial history and fine tea

While Darjeeling may seem to have it all – the mountains, great weather, a bit of history… it’s the tea that has put the town on the map. Renowned as the ‘Champagne’ of teas, commanding a loyal following worldwide, and established now as a nearly two century old industry, the Darjeeling tea comes with quite the story.  

The beginnings of the Darjeeling tea industry

Darjeeling was discovered in the 19th century by the British East India Company (BEIC) who thought it perfect for a summer escape from the tropical plains. In 1815, the Raja of Nepal ceded Darjeeling to the BEIC under the Treaty of Segoulee. Two years later, the Company returned it under the Treaty of Titalia before it became, once more, under the BEIC in 1835. Darjeeling’s soil and climate conditions were found to be eminently suitable for tea cultivation. A few experimental plantations started their operations in the 1840s. Seeds of Camellia sinensis imported (some would say ‘stolen’) from China were used for this pilot project.

Now, the tea from China took surprisingly well to the climate and soil of Darjeeling. The resulting tea was nothing like its Chinese parents, nor did it resemble the strong Assam tea variant that grew in India. It seemed to have embraced the topography and developed a personality entirely it’s own, unique and distinctive, and above all, refined.  

Full-fledged commercial development of the plantations started by the 1850s and within a decade, an official Darjeeling tea industry took form.

Creating a new industry, and a new community

Tea seeds brought from China was were raised in nurseries set up by the Company. It was Dr Campbell, the first Superintendent of Darjeeling, who decided to plant some of these seeds in his garden. The year was 1841, and Dr Campbell was able to prove that Darjeeling could be more than just a summer resort for the British.

At this time, there were about 25 families living here. The land began to be cleared for tea. For each lot given, the stipulation was that 40% would be cleared for planting tea, while the rest remained untouched as forest. The first tea planter in these parts was Captain Samler of Alubari gardens, planted in 1856, under the management of the Kurseong and Darjeeling Tea Company. Next came Dr Brougham who planted the Harsing and Dooteriah gardens in 1859.

The arrival of the Gorkhas and Nepalese

For the industry to take off, the gardens needed people to work in them. And Dr Campbell addressed this problem by enlisting the help of a Nepali nobleman, Dakman Rai, who brought thousands of Gorkhas and other Nepalese from Nepal.

Dakman Rai was given some land for his services. When he brought more people to work here, for Christison, one of the Directors of the Darjeeling Tea Company, Dakman Rai recieved, as payment, seeds to plant his own garden. He set up Soureni in 1878, Phuguri in 1880 and Sampripani in 1883.

Between 1860 and 1864, Darjeeling really flourished with gardens like Ambootia, Takdah, Phoobsering coming up, owned by the Darjeeling Tea Company. Tukvar and Badamtam were planted by the Lebong Tea Company. Other gardens that came up were Pandam, Stenthal, Makaibari, Singell. By 1866, Darjeeling had about 39 gardens producing 21,000 kgs of tea and in the next four years, this number grew to 56 gardens producing 71,000 kgs.

Making this possible were some pioneering men, Stolke (Steinthal, 1847), Captain Masson (Tukvar, 1856), Martin (Hopetown Tea Estate), the Barnes brothers (Mineral Springs, Bannockburn, Soom), David Wilson (Happy Valley), Dr Grant (Windsor Tea Estates), James White, George Christison, Bhagatbir Rai.

The rise of Darjeeling’s tea industry

The 1870s were a profitable period for Darjeeling’s tea industry, with 113 gardens across 6,000 hectares, and employing 19,000 people. More development took place when W. O’Brien Ansell introduced machinery! Power driven tea rollers and tea sorting machines came to Darjeeling. It was also Ansell who is credited with laying electric cables here. Tea production increased bringing more employment, and consequently people and entire communities.

Roads connecting the hills to the plains were made – the Pankhabari road laid by Lieutenant Napier can still be seen. It’s steep and narrow and was soon replaced by the new cart road in 1861. This not just connected with the plains, but with the arterial road that cut across the state of Bengal, leading to Calcutta, it’s capital.

The 20th century

By the turn of the century, there were 148 gardens, covering some 18,475 hectares. In 1947, following Indian independence from colonial rule, the British owners of these gardens sold them to Indian entrepreneurs, before returning home. Some, though, like CW Emmett and TJ Hardingham, stayed back for the love of tea or India, or both. Darjeeling was producing 14 million kgs of tea every year. In the post independence years, some of the gardens suffered from mismanagement and were closed down.

Today, there are 87 tea gardens in Darjeeling, protected by the GI tag, and producing close to 10 million kgs of tea per year.

Still bearing colonial vestiges, Darjeeling plays host to avid travellers and nature enthusiasts. One of the major attractions here is the a ride in the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, more popularly known as the ‘Darjeeling Toy Train’. Built between 1879 and 1881, this 600mm narrow gauge railway was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1999.

How many kinds of Darjeeling teas are there?

Broadly, Darjeeling teas come as black, white, green and oolong. These refer to the extent of processing, ranging from the minimally processed green to the heavily processed black. The elevation has a definite impact on the tea and different estates lie at varying elevations, with individual estates themselves having a range.

A further distinction comes in the season of production. In Indian tea parlance, ‘flush’ refers to the harvest period. There are six flushes in a year, four major and two intermediate. And the harvest from each season alters the flavor profile. And they change depending on several climatic and production factors.

Yet another distinction is in the types of tea bushes – Chinary or of the original Chinese species and Clonal, referring to tea bushes resulting from hybrids of Chinary plants (Camellia sinensis var. sinensis) with the Assamese plants (Camellia sinensis var. assamica).

There are also sub types, as in the summer harvest which includes a small but significant yield of the ‘muscatel’ tea with a very characteristic taste.

What to expect from the Darjeeling tea?

Darjeeling produces premium quality black, green, white and oolong tea. The processing techniques have remained orthodox for the large part as a lot of emphasis is put on maintaining the delicate character that is typically associated with Darjeeling tea. Characterized as having bright color, thin body and an evident astringency, the aromatic profile of Darjeeling tea is highly revered for its ethereal quality, a reason why these teas fetch record prices in tea auctions.

For stories on Darjeeling, its tea estates, some history and more, click here.

A walk through Darjeeling’s tea gardens
The legend of Jungpana tea estate
Meet the man who created the Darjeeling oolong
The revival of Avongrove tea estate

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