Darjeeling Tea History

Dr. Campbell, a civil surgeon of the Indian Medical Service, was transferred from Kathmandu to Darjeeling in 1839 as Superintendent of this new territory and of the Sanitarium. His first problem was to attract settlers. In 1841, Dr. Campbell brought China Tea Seeds from Kumeon and planted near his residence in his garden at Beechwood, Darjeeling, 2000 m above sea level. He must have been successful in raising the plant because the government, in 1847, elected to put out tea nurseries in this area.

The experiment was followed by several others, for example Dr. Withcombe, Mr. James Grant, of the Civil Service, and Captain Samler. The plants, by their healthy and vigorous growth, gave much promise of the experiment succeeding. Dr. Hooker planted tea in 1848 at Lebong, a thousand feet below Darjeeling where also the tea plants succeeded admirably.

By 1852 several plantations in various stages of advancement, both of Assam and China plants were found including the ones at Kurseong and Pankhabari established by Mr. Martin.

Commercial Tea Gardens
The first commercial tea gardens were Tukvar, Steinthal and Aloobari tea estates. This was in 1852 and all these plantations used seeds that were raised in the government nurseries. By 1856 the experimental stage had been passed and development was rapid. According to Darjeeling Gazetteer, Alubari Tea Garden was opened by the Kurseong and Darjeeling Tea Company and another on the Lebong spur by the Darjeeling Land Mortgage Bank. Several hundred ha of forest land was cleared, from 750 m elevation above the sea to 1800 m. By 1857 25 or 30 ha was planted , besides six nurseries, in which a ton of seed has been sown during 1857.

In 1859 the Dhutaria garden was started by Dr. Brougham and between 1860 and 1864 four gardens at Ging, Ambutia, Takdah and Phubsering were established by the Darjeeling Tea Company and the gardens at Tukver and Badamtam by the Lebong Tea Company. Other gardens which were started at this early period were those now known as Maksibari, Pandam & Steinthal Tea Estates.

Tea Among the Natives
The Government distributed 725 kg of tea seed to the natives of the hills round about the Sanitarium. At this time the native tribes in the Himalayas drank tea that was imported from Thibet (Tibet), which was transported thousands of km. It was a coarse, harsh, black tea, which arrives in blocks or bricks of 2,7 kg, or 3,1 kg weight, and 20 cm in length and 10 cm deep, and was sewn up in raw kidskins, where the tea appeared through the stitches at the sides. It costed two shillings a pound.

This tea was made in a large iron cooking-pot full of boiling water, perhaps holding three gallons. A quantity of black tea was chopped from the end of a 'Thibet brick' and thrown, together with a little salt, butter, and parched barley meal. This tea, after having been well stirred, was served up in a metal teapot. Each partaker of the tea produced his or her own wooden teacup from the bosom folds of their capacious clothes, and when the cup had been frequently filled, and as rapidly emptied, it was licked clean by the owner and replaced whence it was taken. Everyone was supposed to carry a teacup about the person and ten or twelve cups full was considered no extraordinary drink for a tea-loving Bhotia.

Tea Labourers
Dr. Campbell’s first problem was to attract settlers to this unpopulated area. At this time a nobleman from Nepal, named Sri Dakman Rai had come to Darjeeling with a caravan of twenty pack ponies loaded with foodstuffs and other essentials. Dr. Campbell requested Sri Dakman Rai to help him by immigrating laborers from Nepal and by the end of the year Sri Dakman Rai came back to Darjeeling with thousands of immigrants. In recognition of the helpful work done, Sri Dakman Rai was given the grants of freehold lands presently known as Saurene, Phuguri and Samripani.

This first lot of laborers was not enough and Mr. Christison, one of the Directors of D.C.T. requested Sri Dakman Rai to supply more laborers from Nepal and promised him supply of tea seeds to establish his own plantations in the lands already received by him as a gift from the East India Company through Dr. Campbell. This is how Sri Dakman Rai was able to start his own plantations at Saurene in 1878, Phuguri in 1880 and Samripanee in 1883. By this time each garden had a team of labor recruiters who used to go to Nepal and Sikkim for labor recruitment every year in winter but there were still a labor problem in Darjeeling. Ill sanitation, improper water supply and inadequate medical arrangements could wipe out whole villages in of some of the gardens.

The first pioneers suffered a lot while cleaning vast jungles, making roads, terracing hillocks and erecting factories. They lived in bamboo and thatched houses without proper medical and other facilities. By 1870, almost all the plantations began constructing factories with local materials like bamboo, planks, stones and thatch at the lowest levels of the plantations. Some of this factories where driven giant water wheels made either of steel or wood.

Whatever machinery were available then had to be transported by bullock carts and wheeled trolleys pulled and pushed by men and on many occasions there were casualties. The first factory to be mechanized was Tukvar in 1870. Three generations later life was much easier. The planters had a well organized Sports Association and had teams of cricket, tennis, hockey and football.

Production of Darjeeling Tea
Withering used to be done on bamboo racks and rolling was done manually by feet and hands till rollers came to the gardens. Drying was done in a very crude way in big cauldrons which gradually changed to chullis and sorting was done by hand in winnowing fans. Packing was done in boxes of local planks.

In the early days there was no supply of artificial manures. Cattle dung was the only manuring. The diseases known then were only two: "Sinduray" (Red Spider) and "Phokay" (Blister Blight). These were treated by sulfur and wood ask.

Transportation When Sri Dakman Rai came back to Darjeeling he got the contract first to construct Pankhabari Road to Kurseong and then the Old Military road to Jorebunglow and Darjeeling. None of the plantations had motorable roads and the main means of transport for managers and assistants was ponies. With the improvements of roads during the years the transports changed to motor cycles and then to jeeps and later cars and now even trucks go to the gardens. A railroad with three sections was constructed in 1881 which solved many of the transport difficulties of the tea gardens. The Gailla Khola line ran along the bank of the River Teesta and was a great work of engineering. This line the tea gardens lying around Geille Khola, Kalimpong Sub-division and Sikkim. The line was damaged beyond repair during the disaster of 1950 and is no longer in existence.

Source: www.darjeelingnews.net


Anonymous said...

This post makes clear what an epic story lies behind the current Darjeeling tea industry. Thanks for the interesting information.

Nate Levin

Rye, New York, USA