“Jai Nepal!” our Himalayan trekking guide Passang proudly shouts out, his right arm slicing through the cold mountain air into a crisp salute. The term means something akin to “Long live Nepal,” and the border patrol officer it was directed to gives Passang a sly smile as we hand over our passports for inspection.
At that next border crossing, three miles down the trail and still at an altitude that will literally take your breath away (11,929 feet), Passang equally earnestly yells “Jai India!” as he leads us back across the porous India-Nepal border on our four-day trek in the shadows of Mt. Everest. Here in Singalila National Park, a mountain preserve perched on the Himalayan ridgeline that separates Darjeeling, India to the east and Nepal to the west, Passang is able to effortlessly swing between his Indian and Nepali identities, a living representation of the culture confluence that defines the region.
I met Passang five years ago on my first visit to the legendary Makaibari Estate, a Darjeeling tea garden that has been the center of innovation for Darjeeling tea for decades. Over cups of fresh Darjeeling Second Flush, he explained that his family, like most who work the iconic tea fields of the region, is originally from eastern Nepal. Passang studied to be a trekking guide in Nepal, where he met his now-wife Sanju, and then returned to Makaibari to help the estate launch a new homestay program to provide an extra revenue stream for tea workers. I’ve stayed in their home several times, and in their kitchen, sitting on pink plastic chairs that require a fine sense of balance to stay upright, the story of Darjeeling that I had studied came to life.
The Origins of the Darjeeling Tea Gardens
The story of Darjeeling tea begins with Tibetan Buddhist monks and summer monsoons. Darjeeling is located in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas, on the eastern edge of the Nepali border between the Indian ocean and the Tibetan plateau. To this day, in mid-June rain-laden clouds come racing off the Bay of Bengal and as they collide with the mountains, torrential downpours soak the mountain soils. Legend has it that a group of Buddhist monks who were meditating during the monsoon season looked down from the mountains to the plains below. To unify themselves with the energy of the approaching storm, they began chanting “Dorje,” which translates to “thunderbolt” and “ling,” which means “land of.” Overtime, Dorje-ling became the name Darjeeling that we know today.
The region is aptly named, as it is the terrific rains and dramatic reliefs of the world’s tallest mountains that makes it the ideal spot to grow tea. Millennia of heavy showers on the rocky, mineraled slopes has led to rich soils. And in between torrential downpours, the strong unfiltered sunlight provides plants with all they need to grow without limit.
Darjeeling’s ecosystem blends traits of the temperate, alpine, and subtropical. Monkeys swing between tall bamboo stands that grow between pine trees, while wild tigers roam in jungles of blooming rhododendrons.
Darjeeling Tea’s Early History
Interestingly, the tea plant is a relatively new inhabitant of the region’s soils. In the early 1800s, the British were entirely dependent on China for their rapidly growing and wildly lucrative tea trade. Relations between the two superpowers were tense, prompting the British to look for a closer, easier-to-control supplier of tea. With India under the British flag, the subcontinent was a logical choice for their tea experiments. The British had recently established a base in Darjeeling, leasing the land from the Kingdom of Sikkim for its strategic military location at the intersection of the Kingdoms of Bhutan, Nepal, and Sikkim. It became popular, however, as a tourist destination because it provided British soldiers with relief from the sweltering heats of the Indian plains.
In the 1820s, the British learned of the second indigenous home of the tea plant in Assam, prompting the East India Company to begin a massive project to build an Indian tea industry from scratch. They knew the best teas grew in the mountains, so in 1841 the British superintendent of Darjeeling, a surgeon named Arthur Campbell planted tea bushes, creating the first Darjeeling tea garden.
At that time, Darjeeling was under control of the Kingdom of Sikkim, which leased the land to the British. However, in 1848, Campbell and an explorer/botanist named Joseph Hooker were soon after imprisoned by the Sikkimese king for trespassing outside the leased land. The British sent forces that rescued the two men, leading to a war that ended up being won by the British. As part of the treaty that was signed in 1865, the British annexed Darjeeling from the Kingdom of Sikkim, giving them free reign to expand their tea empire.
In the 24 years between Campbell planting the first bushes and the British annexing Darjeeling, Campbell had worked to attract immigrant labor from nearby Nepal to help cultivate the slopes and grow opportunities for trade. His plan worked, and Darjeeling teas began to take off. Soon the British brought the tea estate model to Darjeeling, a business model adapted from the lower elevations of Assam, India, where the British had been honing this problematic model for decades. They planted large swaths of the mountains with seedlings from a single species—Camellia sinensis (the plant from which all tea is made)—bringing all the problems of monoculture with it: from rapid depletion of soil nutrients to crop vulnerability to a disease. At the same time, all housing, food, education, medical care, and a very modest wage was provided by the British “in exchange” for the Nepali immigrants’ labor, working the Darjeeling tea gardens. The Nepali communities soon became dependent on the estate owners for most of their basic necessities, creating a cycle of dependence that plagues many of these families generations today.
Why is Darjeeling Tea Famous?
Darjeeling is in the state of West Bengal, India which is also home to Kolkata. Kolkata (formerly know as Calcutta), the capital port that was the seat of power for most of the British rule. If you look at a map of West Bengal today, it’s clear to see how important Darjeeling was to the Kolkata-based politicians and business owners. The strangely shaped borders were designed to ensure the lucrative Darjeeling tea gardens were under the control of those who lived in Kolkata. These resources allowed those in power to develop strong supply lines to get the tea out of the rugged mountains and onto boats docked at port cities.
Darjeeling tea’s quality is exceptional for many reasons. Its terroir and ideal growing conditions, rapid advances in agricultural techniques early on, and unparalleled marketing support, catapulted the region to the top of the global tea industry. With ever-growing demand for tea in Europe, Indian tea sales exploded. Assam produced an impressive volume of tea, while Darjeeling teas were of the highest quality.
However, the Nepali communities who lived in Darjeeling have long felt unrepresented in the policy and actions of the Kolkata politicians and business owners. So, as the name Darjeeling rose in global stature, internal pressures mounted.
Flash forward to today, and the unionized tea farmers’ strikes have led to product shut-downs on a fairly regular basis. And in Darjeeling town there’s a strong current of rebellion, which most concretely takes the form of a social movement calling for secession, for the northern part of the state of Bengal to be split off into a new state called Gorkhaland.
Modern Pioneers of Darjeeling Tea
I first began to appreciate the intricate dynamics between owners and farmers at the Makaibari Estate. Located just below the town of Kurseong, on the same slopes as the Castleton and Longview Estates, Makaibari is said to be the only Darjeeling estate to be owned exclusively by Indians; the British never had control. The story goes that a British soldier gifted the land to an Indian named G.C. Banerjee who saved his life, and in 1857, Banerjee set up the very first tea factory in India. The garden was handed down through the Banerjee family for generations, and the last Banerjee at the helm was Swaraj Kumar Banerjee, affectionately nicknamed “Rajah.”
During my regular visits to Makaibari, I was fortunate to befriend Rajah. In short, Rajah is one of the most enigmatic figures I’ve ever encountered, full stop. Rajah was born into a position of power, and he had a revelation early in career that pushed him into biodynamics, which seeks to bridge agricultural science with spirituality. Under his leadership, Makaibari evolved from a famed tea estate into a center for agricultural innovation, pioneering organic and biodynamic practices well before they were popular concepts. In 1988, Makaibari was the first tea estate in the world to be certified organic, and in 1993, it also took the title of the world’s first tea estate to be certified biodynamic.
Makaibari has set records for the most expensive tea several times. Its buyers stretch the world over, from Japan to Germany to the US, and we’re very excited to offer three teas from Makaibari in our collection: Organic Darjeeling First Flush, Organic Darjeeling Second Flush, and Organic Darjeeling Green.
Even at this pioneering garden—which is also one of the first tea gardens to be Fair Trade Certified and to allow visitors to stay in the homes of tea farmers—the hierarchy was apparent. As I spent time staying at other estates including Singtom, Rishihaat, Puttabong, and Tumsong, it was clear that Makaibari was ahead of the curve, but still growing from a feudal base.
I invited Rajah to tour the west coast of the US, and in 2016 and 2017, we made two roadtrips from Seattle to San Francisco. Driving up and down the coast together, his razor-sharp intellect would flit between deeply philosophical meanderings on existence and laughing with glee at how quickly American cars could merge onto freeways. While others might write him off as self-promoting and brash, I got to know a more quiet and soulful side of him.
When he was set to retire from leading Makaibari, one of Rajah’s final moves was to give a share of his ownership in Makaibari to the local community. I asked why he didn’t gift all of the estate, or at least a majority stake? He said he had hoped to, and had supported a farmer committee at Makaibari, but that the committee wasn’t far enough along to take the reins. In his mind, to entirely hand over Makaibari’s complicated international business would be reckless. I thought this was a bit of a cop-out, until I discussed it with Passang (“Jai Nepal!”) who agreed with Rajah.
Many of the community members spoke of Rajah as a saint-like figure. Even as I got to know some Makaibari residents better (translation: as we drank more of their homemade hooch, together), this sentiment only deepened.
One such community member is Maya Devi, Darjeeling’s first female supervisor of tea pluckers. I’ve also spent several nights in her home, and from her kitchen table, she proudly tells the story of her shattering through the glass ceiling. Well into her sixties, she continues to work the tea gardens, waking up early to cook for her husband and grandson before heading into the gardens to lead her team.
I’ve joined her several times in the field, and I’m always struck by how stylish the women are while doing such challenging, manual labor. Their red lipstick and golden earrings shine while they force their way through unforgiving tea bushes at incredibly steep slopes, in a dress or kurta, no less. These women are beyond strong. Struggling to keep up with Maya Devi in the field, I’m inspired by the progress she represents. Later that day, sitting down to dinner with her husband and being served by her, because she refuses to eat until the men have eaten, I’m also reminded there is still a long, long way to go. Change is slow, even when it’s fast.
Darjeeling Tea’s Future
Ask any Darjeeling estate manager about the future, and they’ll tell you it’s a hard, uncertain one. Labor challenges are approaching a breaking point as farmers leave tea for easier, more lucrative work in the cities. Climate change is forcing the region’s extreme weather to become even more volatile. Gardens are regularly closing, and those that remain are being consolidated to stay afloat.
From my admittedly limited vantage point, Darjeeling in its current form is on the road to collapse. I shared these views with Rajah once, and in response gave me a withering looking and said “Oh stop being so dramatic. Darjeeling won’t go away, it will simply evolve. It must.”
I’d like to believe he’s right. The days of large-scale Darjeeling gardens owned by foreign corporations will hopefully be over soon, and a wave of small-scale farmers making high-quality teas will take its place. We’ve begun to work with some new farmer-led tea growing operations, who are working to maintain the quality that makes Darjeeling legendary while also promoting new social and ecological practices. In 2021, we’ll be excited to add their teas to our collection. It’s been interesting to learn that many of the practices these new farmers are adopting, both in tea growing and at the community level, have been first introduced at Makaibari. So it will feel a fitting choice for our collection to carry the classic, trusted Makaibari teas alongside the new, innovative teas from small farmers.
However, trends on the production side alone won’t be enough to drive the necessary change. For the incredible romance of Darjeeling tea to be sustained, consumers of the world’s most sought-after tea will have to demand it.
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Raj Vable, Founder
He has been confounded by the leaf since his first transcendental encounter with white tea in 2010. Three years later, he started Young Mountain Tea to bridge his budding tea obsession with his interest in traveling in the mountains and previous experience creating job opportunities in rural India. He revels in working across cultures and can be regularly found trying to get the rest of the team on board with another outlandish tea project. His favorite teas remain white, and he’s always searching for the next cup of magic.