Images and text copyright Chris Wormald and may only be used with written permission.
Makaibari Tea Estate, Kurseong, Bengal Hills
Quite by chance, unplanned serendipity found me in an earthly paradise yesterday.
I fancied a trip out in one of the Suzuki mini taxis towards a tea estate that I had read about in the Lonely Planet Guide. It sounds promising in the guide, but it turned out to be an interesting, delightful day.
The hills around Kurseong and Darjeeling are home to many Tea Estates, some more famous than others, some part of huge companies run by remote management from other capitals, if not other countries.
We drive by several estates, at least one advertising tours and past a large tea research station. The Tea Trail! At last we arrive at the Makaibari Tea Estate and I disembark to see the process and take photographs although the skies are cloudy and the valleys are misty. The factory is empty but for a guide, a young man who speaks excellent English. Two young men are also touring the factory, viewing the silent machines that in March will begin to dry, roll and sort the tea into the stack of empty tea-chests, made by the carpenter in the adjoining workshop. During the off season the 600 or so employees are engaged in dismantling and servicing the machinery and painting the factory interior with aluminium based paint. They are also involved in tidying the estate and pruning the 1000s of tea bushes, some lightly and some quite drastically, almost to the ground. The tea bush is one of those plants that when pruned hard, will come again with renewed vigour and wonderful fresh young leaves; treat them properly and the plants may well outlast you.
As the factory tour nears its end we adjourn upstairs for a tasting. A group of French tourists are already in the tasting room, being ministered to by a well spoken Bengali man in his fifties. I eavesdrop, something that I have been practising for half a century. The two young graduates, an American and an English man of Indian descent and myself, muscle in to the French group, and I begin taking photos. The French group seem not to mind, encouraged by a photographically inclined man who can’t stop looking at my Leica; to the extent that there is a danger of being sucked into a photographic discussion instead of one about tea. Before long, the French have tasted with much slurping and the talk turns to a walk around the estate. Enough said! Overhearing the words organic, fair-trade and biodynamic, I go into ‘aged hippy – tell me more, for I am now very interested mode’.
The walk begins and it transpires that the well spoken Bengali, who seems to know quite a lot of languages is Rajah Banerjee the fourth generation of the family who have owed the estate since its inception. Indeed Makaibari is the oldest single-family owned tea estate in the world. Rajah, (Raj for short), not only knows all that there is to know about tea, but he is an expert on the flora and fauna of his estate. That he is also an enlightened, spiritual and forward thinking man became obvious during the first part of the walk, before the French group depart in a 4WD, to do I know not what. Raj talks about the certified organic status of the estate and then asks “Who here knows what permaculture is?” I mutter a few words about a holistic approach to agriculture using zoning and layered companion planting etc. “Mulching”, said Raj and proceeds to get us to examine the soil around the tea bushes. We plunge our fingers in as far as we can and feel the moisture lying under the surface. As we sniff the sweet soil, Raj tells us about going organic in 1986 and how the estate funded the villagers to farm cows and other animals, not only for the milk and meat and the extra income, but for the good biodynamic compost that they can sell back to the estate.
The villagers also have small, estate funded biogas plants for cooking fuel in their flower draped backyards, thus saving the women the labour of lopping and lugging wood from the forests on their backs for smoky, unhealthy, cooking fires in the kitchen. The estate has also funded modern sanitary arrangements next to the cheerful, colourful eco-friendly, little houses.
Going one better than the traditional permacultural idea of layered planting, Raj explains the seven layer planting scheme at Makaibari using forest trees, fruit trees, leguminous plants to fix nitrogen as well as the nitrogen that results from the biodynamic compost and mulch.
Two thirds of the Makaibari estate is under virgin forest cover visible from the areas of tea planting. Managed by a team of rangers, the forest harbours snakes, spiders, monkeys, rabbits, leopards, Himalayan goats and pheasants, and even panthers all exist in a complete eco-system of fauna and flora, predators and prey, dependant and interdependent in a magical world where no-one would dream of introducing chemicals or other heavy handed tactics to disturb Gaia’s balance.
Raj is a fund of stories, like the day he accidentally disturbed a 14ft long adult poisonous snake stalking his prey. It sauntered off, as snakes do when disturbed and climbed a vertiginous rock-face next to the path. Thinking his way was clear, Raj went on down the path, only to discover that snakes can also make mistakes. The creature slipped from its tenuous hold and fell from the cliff on to Raj’s head. Raj leaped 30ft in one bound, as his boot prints in the wet ground later demonstrated. That day was twenty years ago and as fresh in Raj’s memory as on the morning it happened.
There is a lot of money in tea. That is what the English were after in the days of the Raj. Now, Makaibari holds the world record price for its Silver Tips, and much of its white tea never reaches the retail market, but is sought after and bought for niche markets in Europe, America and Japan and the less expensive but still sought after Green and Black teas are widely stocked in exclusive stores. However it is not just money that motivates Rajah Banerjee. He has forward thinking plans to involve everyone in an extended Makaibari ‘family community’. There is a council called the Joint Body, that meets every Wednesday to make decisions on a variety of topics. Women are well to the fore at all levels in the decision making process both in the council and at work, sometimes taking a supervisory role over the men. That gives credence to Raj’s phrase “Makaibari is a way of life – not just a tea Garden”. He is pushing the fences down in a traditional male dominated society.
As our walk continues we agree, whilst Raj attends to a villager, that there is something very special about this particular tea garden. The thought of panthers, cobras, and other creatures we have seen only in captivity, roaming through the virgin forest as nature intended, just the other side of the valley gives a certain thrill. “You know, if the White Rabbit and the Mad Hatter suddenly appear and invite us to a tea party, I would go without thinking it at all out of the ordinary”, quips the American science graduate.
Raj returns and talks about the 400 or so bird species that inhabit Makaibari. We see, at least Raj sees and points out, many rare species, including green magpies and several types of drongo including one that seems to tow part of its tail on two short bits of string. But for Raj, it is the hornbill who he loves most. “Just as the tiger is the king of the animals, here the hornbill is the king of birds”. That would indeed be a site.
Raj points across the valley towards a competitor’s tea estate. Landslides have caused great raw brown gashes in the hill, trees, tea bushes and precious topsoil have cascaded into the valley, caused by deforestation and over cleaning of the growth layer at floor level, leading to topsoil runoff in the wet season. “Keep mulching and adding compost, encourage growth on the floor layer to absorb and cushion the power of the rain as it falls, that way the water that drains from your land will be clear, not brown as your precious topsoil washes away forever.”
As our walk continues ever downwards and afterwards in the 4WD during an extremely steep ascent, Raj pauses by groups of villagers. They all respectfully touch their forelocks, as the English country folk did when greeting the Lord of the Manor. I suppose that is what Raj is, except that he really does exude genuine warmth to the villagers and gets enthusiastic smiles back in return. Beautiful, happy, laughing children queue for their treat of a sugar-free peppermint, made locally using herbs from the estate (Another Story!). In exchange, they collect dropped plastic litter and are rewarded by a rather special, alternative ‘mint with a hole’. I try one – it’s delicious, amazing; all natural ingredients and no sugar!
Makaibari has a guest house and accepts interested eco-tourists from all over the world, all year. They drink natural Himalayan spring water from the estate, and the best tea in the world, eat biodynamic food grown within shouting distance, and more precious still, will have, as will I, many memories of the bit of heaven on earth that is Makaibari.
A short walk from the gates and retail shop of the Makaibari estate is a unique gem of a boutique hotel.
Cochrane Place, Kurseong
I walk back towards Makaibari the next day under a clear sunny sky, discovering that it really is not that far from Kurseong and a taxi is an unnecessary expense.
I had noticed Cochrane Place the day before, so being incorrigibly nosey as well as an eavesdropper, I sailed in as if I could afford to stay there.
The manager was courteous in answer to my question of being allowed to take a photo of the stunning hallway. He fetched the owner who happened to be visiting from her home in Kolkata. She gave me a guided tour and the story behind one of the quirkiest, charming hotels I have yet seen.
Mrs Rita Arora is, you have guessed it already, blessed with a sunny disposition. She is also every inch, a sophisticated Kolkatan in her understated claret coloured outfit. Just how resourceful (and artistic) she is comes over loud and clear when she tells the tale of her place in the country.
Initially Cochrane was to be a family bolt hole to escape the rigours, chaos and stress of Kolkata (Calcutta). It was an old Raj style bungalow, until a heavy-handed builder, yes they exist in India as well, did it terminal damage. So like a phoenix, it has re-grown and re-grown again into a hotel where the visitor’s book reads like a eulogy to the owner’s every decision. From the excellent decor to the Raj style food and the tea! – to the friendliness of the staff and of the other guests, for this is a place where people rediscover the art of conversation in the intriguing communal spaces; where Indians, Americans, English, Japanese et al. put the world to rights over generous pots of Darjeeling’s best, before going into the cafe or the dining-room.
The bedrooms come in an assortment of sizes and layouts, from themed suites, family rooms, where the children can be put to bed in their own secure spaces, to more moderate en-suite doubles. The rooms are all decorated differently, many with a theme of railways, (the famous Toy Train is within walking distance), some have wonderful, heavy, Raj style antique furniture as well as balconies with stunning views over villages and tea plantations to the Himalayas on a clear day.
Cochrane boasts a conference facility, a beautiful garden, a games room for adults and one for children shaped like a train carriage. They will also enjoy the pet rabbits – and so will the children.
Walking around Cochrane is a slow process because every few paces, the eyes are drawn to another work of art. A frieze, a mural, a cartoon, a painting, an historic photograph, not to mention cases full of interesting whatnots all engage the senses, including the sense of humour! I can categorically say that this is the only hotel where I have ever seen a Volkswagen Beetle sitting up in a tree, chimneys shaped like teapot spouts, lights made from baskets full of chai glasses, (as encountered on Indian railways) these are just a few of the eccentric delights of Cochrane. Much of the artwork is specially commissioned by Rita using local talent.
Like Rajah Banerjee, Rita Arora is an enlightened and forward thinking employer with the welfare of local people at heart. Her staff are local villagers, who are new to the hotel trade and who have been trained by Rita for a new life away from hard, gruelling, unfulfilling jobs or from unemployment. She confided to me that the pretty young housekeeper had never seen a vacuum cleaner or ever been in a hotel, before starting work at Cochrane. Rita is also providing inspiration and ideas for local women to use the skills that they already have, to make craft items for sale in the hotel’s shop.
I have photographed many hotels in over forty years of touting a camera, from the very posh to the downright shabby, but never before have I come across a hotel that made me laugh, look and think, or one that intrigued and entertained quite like Cochrane Place.
Go back to my main page on the Bengal Hills – https://chriswormald.wordpress.com/india-trip-0809-part-two-the-bengal-hills/
The Makaibari website is – http://www.makaibari.com
The Cochrane Place website is – http://www.imperialchai.com