It’s not like you’d need a reason to visit Arya Tea Estate in Darjeeling. Considered one of the best tea estates in the region, they have charmed tea lovers around the world and retained an international fascination with an exclusive range of teas. In all the shimmering acclaim it receives, there is a story of the estate that often remains untold. The story of a monk who discovered serenity on a hill and decided to plant his tea on the hill.
The journey to Arya Tea Estate is no less of an off-road challenge. A specially trained driver, Chandra Tamang, is the only one the estate trusts to ferry its guests from the city to its fold. Along the journey, I found enough evidence to endorse that opinion. The roads are in pretty bad shape and although a new road is coming up to promote better connectivity between the villages of the region, work on it is far from over. Tamang is a man of very few words and truly trust worthy behind the wheel. Not only has his skill earned him his job, he also has the respect of the people through all the villages on the way as he never loses his cool, doesn’t honk and always smiles and gives other vehicles the first pass.
After crossing the last village, we find ourselves almost hurtling down the steep side of a mountain. The narrow, unpaved road cuts through the tea garden growing on the slopes like veins on the palm of the hand. Tamang’s steady hand and his silence adds to the atmosphere. Suddenly, he stops. He points to the top, Darjeeling is in full view against the bright blue, sunny skyline. He then points below, to the valley where I can now see the shape of the tea factory and several tea pickers carrying their baskets towards it.
We do not linger, there is much else to see. Our next stop is at the Arya Primary School. The only school for primary education for 8 villages in the region, it has been one of the key reasons for tea pickers to settle around Arya Tea Estate and call it home.
Subhashish Roy, Manager of the Arya Tea Estate, welcomes us into the now silent factory. “We have already finished tea production for the day,” he shares. But it is just 10 in the morning? He laughs in response. “First Flush is a delicate tea. We ensure that its is very lightly processed, handrolled and packed before sunrise. This is done to minimise oxidation in the tea leaves and seal the flavour of the leaves for the long journey ahead. We start around 3 am and complete our work by 7.”
We take a seat at his desk, right in the heart of factory. It is evident that Mr Roy is someone who remains at the heart of every aspect and personally monitors the entire process. “I do not understand how people treat tea like a commodity. It is a handcrafted work of art,” he says pouring me a cup of the famous Arya Pearl White Tea, picked the day before. I relish my first sip and he smiles as I do.
“The Arya Tea Estate is the only one that was not founded by the British,” Mr Roy continues. “It was, in fact, brought to life by an enlightened monk. A group of monks arrived at this location in Darjeeling in 1763 looking for a place to set up a new monastery. They loved this place and set up a monastery here, which still stands at the Observatory Hill.”
The monastery was completed by 1765 and was named Dorjeeling by the locals and the monks. “The monk who planted the first tea plant in Sidrabong, as Arya Tea Estate was earlier known as, was a learned man who always grew his own tea plants to drink tea from,” Mr Roy explains.
“He is the one who set the legacy of a truly handmade tea experience, which we now relish as Darjeeling tea. The tea is planted, grown, leaves picked and dried and rolled, all by hand. At Arya Tea Estate, it is this ‘human touch’ which makes the tea such a valuable one.”
The monk who planted tea was well-versed with agricultural sciences, it is said. Not only did he identify the best regions to plant the tea, he also took the soil quality and expected rain and wind factors into account and identified the mountain sides of Sidrabong as his base for the finest tea garden. The monks collectively experimented with tea plants until they discovered ‘perfection’. Since then, the garden has catered to a select number of people and not gone against nature’s laws. It has retained the natural goodness in its produce.
In the time since, the monk has been proven correct and the region still has a distinct flavour in its tea which sets it apart from the other clonal variants introduced by the British East India Company much later. Even during the Nepalese Army acquisition of the land, when the monks and the locals had to move, the tea stayed and soon after the Army left, its inhabitants returned to their magical tea country.
The Arya Tea Estate was established in 1885 and spreads across 125 hectares. It produces 70 tonnes of tea each year and is best known for its five jewel range of teas — Ruby (Black tea), Emerald (Green Tea), Pearl (White Tea), Diamond (Chunky tips) and Topaz (Oolong tea).
While the efforts to retain the purity in tea have been showing great results, climate change has impacted much of Darjeeling. “When people treat tea like a commodity, instead of a labour of love, they cut corners to earn bigger profits. It hurts me to see that there are so many estates who are not working towards protecting the rapidly depleting topsoil which is crucial for tea. A few shallow rooted green crop can help solve this serious problem,” he says.
“Like any other agricultural product, tea depends on nature for sustenance. Global warming has affected the weather pattern drastically and each year, the rains are delayed, spring sets in late and for too short a period. All this affects the quality as well as the quantity of the tea being produced.”
While the world celebrates cup after cup of Darjeeling, very few actually want to acknowledge the challenges that the trade faces. “Despite all the facilities and perks made available to the tea pickers, absenteeism has turned out to be our biggest challenge,” explains Mr Roy. “In the past few years, the desire of the tea pickers for white-collared jobs, despite the perks that they enjoy here, has become a real problem. Every season sees around 40% absenteeism which has been affecting tea produce from Darjeeling.”
As the demand for Darjeeling teas grow, a few estates are getting reckless in their production. “It is very important for estates to put some thought behind new plantations as well as caring for existing plants. Every garden should take 2% under new plantation each year. Several estates avoid doing this as it will affect tea production but this will actually help the estate in the long run,” Mr Roy suggests.
We move towards the silent but intimidating machinery around the floor. The state-of-the-art machinery helps in keeping the tea fresh, reducing oxidation levels as well as too much of drying of the leaves by the time-efficient processes.
“In the 25 years that I have spent working in Darjeeling tea estates, I have never paid much attention to the quantity,” remarks Mr Roy as we approach one of the two large rolling machines. “Today, the industry and its members are continuing to produce teas as if nothing is wrong. I will not be surprised if Darjeeling will not be able to produce any more teas in the next few decades. The sad part is that with a little perseverance, we can amend the situation today and avoid that crisis altogether. For that, we will need a collective call to action,” he says.
We leave the factory behind as we head to his residence, in the heart of the estate. There are plans of a tea tourism project nearby. “We want to be absolutely certain that it must not interfere with the health of the estate. We hope that it will help promote an alternative earning source for the families in the villages around us and counter the absenteeism as more members can be involved in the various functions.” But that’s still some time away.
For now, there are words of wisdom coming from Arya Tea Estate and would us well to heed to them.
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