The Lost Tea Garden of Pedong

This story is published in complete in the March/April issue of TEA magazine.

Many believe they were the British who introduced tea from India.

In reality, India had been consuming tea made in China from the 7th century onwards, more than a thousand years before the British began their first tea gardens in Assam.

Before the time that loose tea was how cake-like cakes and tea bricks were made, it originated from Southern Yunnan and Sichuan Provinces in China was transported via caravans to Tibet and onwards to distant areas. You can see this type of tea used in Tibet’s monasteries and nomadic tents

Tea was a costly indulgence for some but a necessity for others. The expense of bringing tea all across the ocean from China in both the form of money and effort was usually beyond the level of earning a profit. The losses in the cargo, animal, and human resources, and the burdensome tax and tolls, among others, must be covered through the sale price. This was a daunting set of challenges for tea traders to manage a profitable business.

Their journey came to an end in Kalimpong. It is not well-known to those not from North Eastern India, let even the other world. The town has been used for centuries as a point of intersection and a conduit for trade across China, Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, Burma, and India. It was the almost impossible destination for the courageous caravans carrying tea and other commodities from far Southern China along the ancient Tea Horse Road. The long and challenging journey took a few months, and I traveled through miles of treacherous and dangerous terrain. Many a handler and pack mule were destined to die during the trek.

Most tea consignments from China were to the capital city of Tibet, Lhasa. However, it was a greater distance to Yunnan’s tea-producing district, which included Xi Shuang Ban Na (shee showing ban no) and Dali (dah lee), compared to Lhasa up to that Indian border. In the end, some savvy Chinese discovered that if tea was produced in Kalimpong and then shipped to Lhasa, then sent to Lhasa, months of time and expense could be avoided. So tea production and planting began in India many centuries before the British East India Company started to plantations.

The Chinese started tea factories in the low regions of the Himalayas and took advantage of the ideal climate and conditions for tea cultivation. It was part of Bhutan at the time; gardens were constructed within Algarah, Pedong, and Lava on the Jalep La – the road to Lhasa. Most of the details of the time and method by which the teas were made were lost in cloudy mists hanging over the hills. A handful of “old timers” carry the oral traditions and history of the region.

In the first half of the 1800s, in the era of greater openness throughout India, Tibet, and China, the influence of foreigners, although not a rout and largely unwelcome, was accepted. Amid a bustling port on land, Kalimpong experienced a thin flow of foreigners who came to trade, travel, or preach their beliefs. The roads were improved. Infrastructure was improved. The infrastructure was improved. Scottish Presbyterian Church has been constructed that is still standing. The first time missionaries came to spread Christianity, A group of Swiss Priests, who also realized the importance of tea, set up a tea plantation named Damsang in Pedong, in the suburbs of Kalimpong.

After emigrating from their home location in Hele, Nepal, these “Swiss Fathers,” as they remain known spread their faith and converted many of the people living there to Christianity. They also increased the number of believers by marrying local women and remaining in the region for the remainder of their lives.

In the years following, after that, the Swiss (and later the British) increased and mechanized the tea-growing centers. Estates were built and produced “tea that was formed in compressed ball shapes,” says a local elder, Chottu Fulla. The compact shape made it easier to transport the goods to Lhasa. It was later reorganized as the Damsang tea plantation was later transformed to The Doars Tea Company, which owned the Kumai tea estate and was along trading routes. There was the route that stretched 677 miles around the Kumai estate, connecting Chittagong’s port Chittagong within Bangladesh to Lhasa, Tibet.

There were frequent clashes on the border after the turmoil within Tibet culminated in the Indian-Chinese war of 1962 that killed 3500 people and more than 2,500 wounded. The crossings through Tibet were sealed off. Civil unrest during the 1980s further threatened trade, and the tea gardens were gradually retreated, its trees left untended or chopped down.

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