One of Darjeeling’s best-known tea gardens does not have numbers, like other estates, to mark its sections but interesting names based on history and lore.

It’s a romantic notion, finding someone singing at their work. And yet, as I headed to the celebrated tea region of India, Darjeeling, I did envision tea pickers singing away as they plucked the choicest teabuds of the season. After four days in the tea region, I found myself still longing for the romantic setting.

On the day I had reserved for my visit to the famous Castleton Tea Estate near Kurseong, the sun was shining brightly in the sky and there was a promise of magic. As we swayed to the curves of the road, it was the sound of singing that made me stop. There it was…

“I am a huge fan of Hindi movies. There was a time when all the famous actors would come to Darjeeling to shoot for their films. My friends and I would get a chance to see them in the gardens when they came here,” the singer tells me before breaking into an old Hindi song. Biniya Tamang is a 52-year-old tea picker at the estate who travels nearly 8 kms from her village every day to get to work.

“I have been working in tea gardens for six months every year for the past 30 years. I remember the time we all were so angry when men were allowed to pick tea leaves along with us. That was so many years ago. Now, no one wants to pick tea leaves.”

The whispers resonating in Darjeeling’s picturesque valley seem to get louder every season. With no workforce interested in picking tea from the estates, the future of the world’s beloved cup of tea is in hot water.

Information provided by Castleton Tea Estate

Senior Manager of the estate, Vikas Gajmer, throws more light on the other issues that have made Darjeeling a lot less delightful as far as the future of tea goes. “A lot of estate owners have been complaining about the reduction in rainfall. I feel that the rains have, in fact, become more scattered and regions that once received most rainfall — like the east facing slopes of the region — now receive much less. The other regions which received lesser rains now get more rains. Every estate in Darjeeling is struggling to cope with this sudden and unpredictable shift in the rain patterns.”

“For years, the variation in climate has been within manageable limits. There have been major storms, excessive rains and even delayed rains — every few years but the past five years have been the most destructive,” he shares. “From a drought-like situation in certain pockets and sporadic and unpredictable rains in others, the tea bushes of Castleton, like those across most estates in Darjeeling, are under a lot of stress.”

And that cannot mean well for the Darjeeling tea lovers around the world.

Information provided by Castleton Tea Estate

Apart from catering to the day-to-day matters of the estate, Gajmer has the responsibility of catering to the frequent tea lovers and tea buyers who arrive directly at the estate. “We have the occasional tea lover walking into the estate. For two consecutive years we had a Russian tea buyer coming straight to the factory,” he says. “We keep a strong front, engaging tea lovers to understand the making of Darjeeling tea while also not shying away from sharing the challenges of every step.”

The approach has made the estate quite the popular destination for people who take their tea quite seriously.

“We have identified and set aside some space for tea tourism in the future but there is nothing on the cards at the estate any time soon. Our present concerns revolve around ensuring that the tea remains of the grade that we have been delivering.”

Information provided by Goodricke Group

A lot of effort has gone into preserving the original quality of tea produced even after over a century of production. “Since 1998 we have been undergoing a series of upgrades in the estate by removing the old tea plants and replacing certain section with higher-yielding clonal varieties like AV2,” shares Gajmer.

“We knew right from the start that the health of the tea plant is most important. Over the years, we have ensured that the greatest care is taken to help the tea plant to receive all the nourishment it needs.”

Overdoing the concern does not bode very well either, he warns. Tea bushes need a balanced amount of water and nourishment and overdoing on either count can lead to decaying of the roots or even in the drying out of the plant which results in a poor crop in the following season.

Information provided by Castleton Tea Estate

Sometimes one needs to take a closer look to understand an obvious challenge in the garden. Since the estate is more than a century old, when the tea bushes suddenly started producing a low yield a few years ago, it presented quite the predicament for the management. Would it make sense to lose the priceless tea bushes and compromise on the flavour that the estate produces? After an initial test on a few tea bushes, they were able to identify a few faults that has taken effect over time. Apart from poor pruning that had affected the bushes’ health there was also a strange tumor-like growth on the roots under the soil which withheld the flow of food to the bush from the roots.

A simple technique applied to all the bushes to cut away the affected roots without taking away too much from the plant, allowed the garden to retain its signature bushes and flavour, and improved the health of the garden.

Thanks to the ingenious solution provided by Castleton estate, several other estates across the region were able to identify and resolve an otherwise unseen threat to Darjeeling tea.

Information provided by Castleton Tea Estate

As I walk out of the Castleton Tea Factory, I spot the singer in the garden reporting with her haul of tea for the day. She calls out to me and her colleagues break into giggles. They invited me for a cup of tea at the factory while they wait for their bags to be weighed.

Over a steaming cup of tea I am introduced to a handful of younger women who had joined the band of otherwise elderly tea pickers of both genders. “They will be starting out at Dhobitar and Baseri before they move towards Jim Basha,” I am told. Unlike other estates, Castleton Tea Gardens are not arranged by numbers. They all have names on the basis on their history.

“All of this place was once a jungle and there was one cave where a bear lived. That place is still called Bhalu Khop,” the tea pickers tell me. It was heart-warming, being surrounded by a joyful bundle of grandmothers with their stories. “If you explore Jim Basha, you will find the ruins of the former manager’s house,” another picker tells me between sips.

Another day draws to a close at Castleton Tea Estate as the teacups are downed. Everyone is done with the stories and all eyes are now tracing the way back to the estate’s vehicles that have lined up to ferry the tea pickers home. Many of the tea pickers have a two hour journey back to their homes from the estate and the sooner they set out the better as it does get really cold really quickly after sundown.

But tomorrow’s another day. And another story to be told, another song to be sung and more Darjeeling premium tea leaves to be picked from the garden.

Susmita Mukherjee


Vahdam Teas

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