90 years ago, a young girl named Margaret promised to return to the peace and quiet of Bada Ringtong in Darjeeling.

A day adventure brought us to one of the best-loved high elevation estates of Darjeeling, Margaret’s Hope. The garden is known for its delightful spring tea and the journey from the main road down into the adjoining tea estates completely takes the mind off everything else.

Hillside after hillside are dotted with bushes that have been painstakingly handpruned to let the first flush spring to life. And yet, most bushes lie waiting. Winter is nearly gone but there seems little or no sight of the much-needed rain that the tea bushes need to bring the first flush to life.

It was nothing like the springtime that Mr Bagdon and his daughter had shared in 1927. Mr Bagdon was a British tea grower who had identified a patch of land, on the southwest ridge of the river Balsun, and had started growing tea there. His idea took root and soon his gardens spread with China bushes providing an excellent array of teas. The estate was named Bara Ringtong. He invited his family, including his lovely daughter — Margaret, to visit. The little daughter fell in love with the gardens and spent all her time roaming around. Despite proclaiming that she wished to remain in Bara Ringtong, as the garden was called, she had to return to Britain with her mother. Struck with a tropical disease, she died aboard the ship that was to take her home.

Her father was devastated by the news. He renamed the estate in her memory so that her dream of settling here would be fulfilled.

Data provided by Margaret’s Hope

By the time I arrive at the entrance of the Margaret’s Hope Tea Factory, the clouds have rolled in. There is a distinct promise of rain and that makes me smile. Spring rains mean the world for the tea trade and this year has not been too kind to the tea growers. Partho Chatterjee, the manager of the estate, is already in the factory. He greets me with a warm smile and shows me in. “It has been a long prayer for rains,” he says.

“The estate received approximately 300 cms of rain each year until 2014. Since then, the amount of rain has been lower. Every drop of rain counts, specially when it is the first rain after the winter,” he shares. “I have been in Darjeeling’s gardens for 24 years. My first job was in the tea gardens in 1992 and I have never had to look anywhere else. And in all these years, I have always known that understanding and respecting nature is the only guaranteed measure to a good crop.”

Data provided by Margaret’s Hope

The problems that plague Darjeeling tea trade resonate at Margaret’s Hope as well. “The three biggest challenges that our estate faces as of now are: drought-like condition, irrational distribution of the rain as well as absenteeism,” I am informed. “We have a team of 5–6 people managing 1,400 staff of the entire estate. Discipline is the only way to life here at the estate.”

“Bringing about a change in the tea garden is a Herculean task. Tea Gardens are run by ‘dastoor’ (Hindi word for fate). We have guidelines and acts that we have created and enforced along the way but its the ‘dastoor’ of nature that decides the ‘dastoor’ for us all.”

Over the years, great pains have been taken to ensure that the soil of the estate remains in good health. Being at a high elevation, erosion of the topsoil with the rain has been a constant concern. The use of indigenous plants and trees has ensured that the green cover remains healthy.

“Global warming is the result of human vandalism at the roots. And now, the ecological imbalance has had its impact on us as well and tea has become dearer for it,” he points out. “Not very long ago, drought was rare but now it is the opposite. For every single year of decent rains, we have four years of unpredictable showers. Even if it rains, it seems to do so on some faces of the mountainside alone.”

Data provided by Margaret’s Hope

With the change of management at the time of India’s Independence, the British tea growers transferred ownership. Margaret’s Hope has stood through all the tests of time but now, it is nature’s wrath that has turned into the biggest threat.

“Until even 5 years ago, I had not heard of pests in our gardens. Since last year, the red spider, common to the lower and warmer tea gardens, has started to become a problem,” Chatterjee says. “We had a simple but effective system which allowed the very few pests that we received to feed off the indigenous weeds and shrubbery instead. However, in the past few months we have seen Red Spider, Tea Mosquito and Blister Blight — all three are pests that are common to the plains and never seen at such an elevation before.”

It is easy to see that nature’s ‘dastoor’ seems to turning against Margaret’s Hope as it is for the rest of Darjeeling. “We have added new lines of shrubs among the tea plants and thankfully the pests have not damaged the crop. We have never and will not ever use any form of chemical or pesticides. We will ensure that we have more indigenous plants for the pests to feed the sap off.”

Data provided by Margaret’s Hope

Back at the factory, I am taken through the processes that have been added to the factory over time. “You see the difference between making aluminium or steel pipes that must be uniform in size and quality each time and tea, which changes every season,” the manager says. “In the years of decent rain, first and second flush teas are never the problem. Even then, we have a range of measures to ensure that tea that has been picked despite the challenges, remains pure. We have a range of magnets to remove any metallic pieces that could be present in the tea, followed by a filter which removes any hair particles and a final mesh to remove any other foreign particles that might have been left. Apart from this, we have regular sessions with the tea pickers for their education. They are explained regularly the need to avoid nail polish, wearing headgear and gloves.”

Data provided by Margaret’s Hope

With nature turning her favours, the tea estates are not averse to looking at other sources of income. “We have set aside a few locations that we could develop for tea tourism. However, I do not think that the group will ever have to rely on tea tourism for profits. As long as we keep working to maintain the balance with nature, tea will see us through,” he says.

“Yes, we would like to have more tea lovers to come and stay at our gardens and experience the serene beauty of the estates along with develop a better understanding of how the tea is made.”

Data provided by Margaret’s Hope

By the time I leave, a light drizzle has begun. I walk down the unpaved paths etched out in the tea garden. It is easy to see why a little girl would fall in love with the place, the rolling mountainside, the aroma of tea fused with the mist and the echos of bird calls from far away. Some say that Margaret’s ghost still walks these gardens but all I could feel was a deep sense of peace and a child-like delight.

Susmita Mukherjee


Vahdam Teas

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