Tea Journey into the Dogra Heartland

Col Satish Singh Lalotra
Life is like a cup of tea to be filled to the brim and enjoyed with friends——anonymous.
Nothing sums up the essence of tea as quoted above. Life’s journey full of twists and turns and rough and tumble can only turn heady if supplied with copious amounts of elixir .What better elixir to kick start your day than a steaming hot cup of tea with its aroma wafting into your nostrils awakening your very being to take on the highs and lows of the day with gusto .Tea has been one of the strongest potions ever discovered by mankind weaving its magic irrespective of caste and creed .The journey of tea in the Indian subcontinent has been laced with numerous anecdotes starting from its mainstay i.e the North east of india . India incidentally contends with China for the world’s largest producer of tea .There are more than one lakh tea estates employing millions of tea workers .Tea is so much ingrained in the fabric of india’s culture that 70% of the tons of tea produced is consumed by its own people .The three main regions where tea has held its sway without any challenge in India are mainly found in Assam ,Darjeeling and the Nilgiri hills of the south each defined by its unique geographical and climatic conditions .The largest tea plant variety ‘Camellia Sinensis Assamica ‘was discovered by an English explorer and botanist in 1815 known as Robert Bruce and by 1870,the British had started to establish machinery to help speed up tea production process with less labour.
Separated by a wide distance of about 2000 kms west of Darjeeling on the opposite side of the subcontinent lays a scenic valley of Indian state of Himachal Pradesh called as Kangra valley. Steeped in Hindu mythology Kangra valley is nestled in the DhaulaDhar mountain range of western Himalayas of the ancient land of Trigata where Rajput kings of Katoch dynasty ruled from the great fort of Kangra .Geographically cut off from the plains of Punjab by mighty rivers ,hilly terrain and fierce armies of local kings ,Kangra became part of British India in 1849 at the end of 2nd Anglo-Sikh war of Sobraon .Though I had heard faintly of Kangra tea way back ,my interest was rekindled when I happen to go to Yol Camp in 2004 as a Lt/Col on one of my official assignments when posted on the outskirts of Jammu .Passing by large swathes of tea gardens visible from the highway as one approaches Kangra set me thinking the large sweep tea had on the psyche of Indians as such .One curiosity led to another and I happen to become an aficionado of Kangra tea in times to come and visited the world famous DTC (Dharamshala tea company) specializing in Kangra tea later on my next sojourn with Yol camp .In the same year as Kangra’s accession ,British botanists conducted a survey of Kangra valley to see what could possibly be grown there commercially .Tea was a hot item during those days with ongoing trial plantings in full swing in places like Darjeeling ,Dehradun ,Almora and the south .China tea trees (Sinensis-Sinensis) were brought in from nurseries in the United provinces and planted at four locations in Kangra valley .These tea plants thrived mainly at Palampur and Dharamshala a part of Kangra Valley.
The commercial tea plantation in Kangra valley was done in 1852 in east of Palampur at Holta,and by the opening years of 20th century, it had reached its Zenith. Kangra/Palampur tea was recognized for its excellence in London ,Barcelona Geneva and Amerstdam and found its pride of place on best of restaurant tables of Europe .But ‘Force Majeure” struck Kangra on 04 th April 1905,when one of the biggest earthquakes in Asia hit it with a force level of 7.8 on the Richter scale ,the fourth largest to occur in the Himalayas in the last 200 years. In seconds more than 20,000 lives were lost ,farm animals perished ,buildings flattened and irrigation systems uprooted. British owned tea factories with their big imported machineries were wiped out ,with English people running for their lives .Virtually all the Britishers abandoned Kangra Valley overnight selling their properties to the locals .The new Indian Chaiwalah didn’t have that many resources to establish these factories again and hence most of them reverted to making the traditional hand made tea which required simple skill sets and only basic techonology. With the partition of India in 1947,Kangra valley tea was further removed from its markets in the east.
The local coolies used to take huge woven bamboo baskets of ‘Made tea’ and freshly plucked tea leaves to Palampur market from where it was taken by transport to Pathankot ,Amritsar ,and thence to Afghanistan ,Iran ,Iraq and the middle east. The Soviet union’s war in Afghanistan (1979-1989) created another barrier to trade with central Asia. Then in 1991/92 the USSR one of India’s largest trading partner was dissolved and their market evaporated .Until 1966 Kangra was a part of Punjab state ,the bread basket of India and its flight for a bright future took off when it became part of the newly formed Himachal Pradesh with largely a rural population .Since Kangra was a densely populated and resource rich place along with the distinction of having contributed maximum number of soldiers to the Indian/British army before and after independence in the subcontinent ,the Himachal Pradesh Govt paid lot of attention to it and decided to put an end to its chronic economic problems once for all.In 1994 the TBI(Tea cap board of India)set up an auction house at Amritsar devoted to the sale of Kangra tea. The state also established a tea research and development station at Palampur ,along with setting up of 4/four Cooperative tea factories between 1964 to1983 to process tea leaves and offered lot of subsidies and training to small tea growers for the same .Despite all these profound measures to uplift the sagging tea industry in the state, by late 20 th century the tea business was tottering on its last legs .Plagued by the upward pressure on its land values ,the tea planters were encouraged to abandon underperforming tea gardens and move to more profitable ventures like tourism ,hospitality and housing .In fact more than 95% of Kangra tea growers are small time holders with out any factories. Most lack formal training and use agents to collect tea leaves and sell it to ‘Brought leaf” factories .This results in low prices to planters and inconsistency in quality. The Amritsar tea auction house was closed in 2005 and various Govt schemes to boost up the tea industry in Kangra valley failed. Out of 4 /four Cooperative tea factories only one is functioning at full capacity. By the turn of 21 st century financial experts ,business houses and technical talent began to show interest in the troubled gardens of Kangra and things started looking up. As a result of sustained efforts of the state and center Kangra tea got its GIS (Geographic indication status) in the the year 2005. As per Kangra dist Gazette notification of 1882, Kangra tea received the golden and silver medals at international tea convention in 1886 and 1895 at London and Amerstdam. Although Kangra tea was cultivated in its both forms i.e black and green tea , the black tea consisted 90% of its production.
As of May 2015, there were 5900 tea gardens in the area covering appx 2312 hectares of land between Kangra, Dharamshala, Palampur ,Baijnath and Jogindernagar with an annual output of 8.99 lakhs of kgs of tea. Though a visible decline of Kangra tea was noticed over a period of time ,but then in 2012,the then union commerce minister Anand Sharma laid the foundation stone for the Palampur regional office of TBI(Tea board of india)thus making a reintegration of Kangra tea with the mainstream of indian tea industry .Meanwhile in the year 2006 ,as a LtCol I happen to go again to Yol on an official assignment from Jammu and visited the famous DTC/Dharamshala tea company located near the Kotwali bazar in lower Dharamshala. This estate was founded by the Mann family and is now owned by a third generation Gurmeet singh Mann, a Delhi industrialist .This company has about 70 hectares of land under tea gardens with Hoodle tea garden located at 4000 feet, the Mann tea estate at 4500 feet and the Towa tea estate at 6000 feet, the remotest of all .By sheer providence this time I was able to meet the top management of DTC/Dharamshala tea company who explained me everything about the Kangra tea and its relation with the Darjeeling tea. Both tea in fact have their common ancestor as 100% China JAT. I happen to visit the spotless tea cupping center next to the company compound. If Darjeeling tea is the Champagne then Kangra tea is the “Asti Spumante ” ( a kind of white sparkling wine from Italy).
Located about 35 kms south east of Dharamshala is the Raipur tea estate planted in the year 1850 at Palampur near NH 20. Owned and operated by Sood family since 1894, this tea estate is presently controlled by its 4 th generation scion Rajiv Sood and his wife Richa Sood and it produces the rich Himalayan Brew , a brand of loose tea leaves and tea bags with a modern look. Outside Palampur town is one of the best tea gardens you can ever set your eyes about. The WAH tea estate. The present manager Surya Prakash’s Great grand father launched this tea garden in 1953 after he purchased the same from GOI. Infact before partition a prominent family of Pakistan had purchased this garden ,but after partition left it to the locals ,from whom it passed on to GOI and was further purchased by Surya Prakash’s great grand father. Wah tea estate is the largest tea garden in the Kangra valley with a coverage of 526 acres .It produces 1.5 Lakh Kgs of tea annually. Kangra tea in fact has proved as a boon for countering the present pandemic Corona virus as it can boost the immunity of human body and is better than anti-HIV drugs as claimed by the IHBT/Institute of Himalayan bio resource technology in Palampur. As per Dr Sanjay kumar , Director, IHBT using computer based modules ,scientists screened 65 bio-active chemicals called as polyphenols which could bind to a specific viral protein more efficiently than commercially available drugs in the market. The IHBT a constituent laboratory of CSIR/Council for scientific and industrial research has also produced and supplied the alcohol based sanitizer containing Kangra tea extract through its technology partners.
All in all Kangra tea which retails at 40% to 50% higher than even Darjeeling tea has been on a decline as per the TBI/Tea board of India due to lack of capturing the Niche markets in India and abroad .Need of the hour is to give a boost to its revival so that the locals of Kangra valley thrive once again and the Kangra tea again regains its rightful place in the comity of tea world.
(The writer of the article is a retired colonel of the Army)