Darjeeling Tea

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There is nothing better than a nice cup of tea. In fact C.S. Lewis said 'You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me'. One of the most famous, expensive and exotically flavoured teas drunk in the world is Darjeeling but how did this region in West Bengal, India come to produce what many connoisseurs consider to the be the Champagne of the tea world.

From Gurka Station to Tea Paradise

The area of West Bengal that is now home to a profitable tea industry was once a forest region; home to a handful of Lepcha woodsmen. In1828 a young Captain Lloyd was heading for Sikkim through the region as part of his job with the British East India Company. He was travelling through uncharted territory to negotiate a land deal when he came across the old Gurka station of Dorjeling. Dorje is the ecclesiastical sceptre representing the thunderbolt of Sakra the Buddist god of rain and thunder; ling quite simply is the suffix for place. An old Buddist temple once stood on the site.

The location was on a ridge near the borders with Nepal1, Tibet2 and Bhutan3. Captain Lloyd realised the military significance of the of the site and on his return from Sikkim in February the following the year pitched camp there for six days to check out its potential.

The large village had been empty for twelve years following the Gurka’s retreat. The forests surrounding the spot were dense with chestnut, maple, oak and magnolia. The air was cool, fresh and clean, its location was high on a ridge overlooking the steep sides of the Tista River. With the Himalayas in the background he saw the potential to establish a hill station sanatorium for people to escape the heat and malaria of the plains. In 1835 the Raja of Sikkim handed over control of Darjeeling to the British and in 1840 Dr. Campbell became superintendent of the new district of Darjeeling.

Why Darjeeling?

Dr. Campbell, a civil surgeon, planted some tea plants in his garden at Beechwood, Darjeeling in the 1835. He was someone who experimented with crops and was keen to help the Governor General see is tea could be introduced as a crop in India. He planted some China tea (Camellia sinensis var. sinensis), imported from the Bohea Hills of China. Also some Assam tea (Camellia sinensis var. assamica), developed by C.A. Bruce. It was a bit of an experiment as his garden was at an altitude of 2,130 metres4 was higher than any previously planting by the British settlers. Also the steep slopes and short growing season were considered to be disadvatages.

However, as history tells he must have been successful as in 1847 the British Government started tea nurseries in the area and the estates of Tukvar, Steinthal and Allobari followed in 1852, the seed coming from government nurseries.

Tea cultivation is labour intensive and the small hamlet of Darjeeling was about to see a population explosion of people to come to plant, tend, pluck and manufacture the tea. Many of these labourers came from just across the border in Nepal. The following table shows the rapid expansion of the industry in the area.

YearNo. of GardensKG of tea produced p.a.Hectares under cultivation
18663921,000Unknown
18705671,0004400
18741136000
Today8611,000,00019000

What is Darjeeling?

Well like many products with territorial names there is a firm definition of what constitutes Darjeeling Tea. Here is the legal definition as laid down by the Tea Board of India. Sorry if this may bore you skip to the next section if you want.

Darjeeling Tea is tea which has been cultivated, grown, produced, manufactured and processed in tea gardens in the hilly areas of Sadar Sub-Division; only hill areas of Kalimpong Sub-Division (comprisong Samabeong, Ambiol, Mission Hill and Kumai Tea Estates); and Kureseong Sub-Division excluding some areas comprising Subtiguri Sub-Division of New Chumta Tea Estate, Simulbari and Marionbari Tea Estate.

It is also tea which has been processed and manufactured in a factory located in the above areas which, when brewed has a distinctive, naturally occurring aroma and taste with light tea liqueur and the infused leaf of which has a distinctive fragrance.

Here endeth the boring civil service definition, so what does that mean in real language? Obviously Darjeeling now comes from a area far larger than Dr. Campbell’s garden

The plants used to make Darjeeling are also Chinese or China-hybrid varieties and are more condusive to the colder conditions that Darjeeling offers than the native Indian types.

1Just over the Singalila mountain range.2Just to the North just beyond Sikkim.3To the east just over the hill.47000 feet.

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