The legend of how Jungpana tea estate in Kurseong, Darjeeling came to be so named verges on the mythological.
According to folklore, one of the “Ranas” – a branch of the erstwhile Nepal aristocracy that owned the plantation – was fatally wounded by a leopard when on his rounds one day. The last words that the dying Jung – for that was the nobleman’s name – uttered before he breathed his last was paani, meaning “water” in the Nepali language.
“That’s how Jungpana got its name… from a dying man’s plea for water,” says current owner Shantanu Kejriwal, even as – quite ironically I thought – the TV screen before us ran a CNN news ticker: “300 dead in heat wave in India”.
Kejriwal and I were in the parlour of the visitor’s bungalow at Goomtee tea estate in Kurseong, I as a bona fide guest, he as a host of sorts, being a member of the extended family that owns both Jungpana and the neighbouring Goomtee tea estate.
I was in the hills gathering material to write on tea gardens, and had happily accepted Goomtee owner Ashok Kumar’s invitation to spend some time at the guesthouse at his estate. Kejriwal, Kumar’s nephew living in Delhi, was on a month-long visit to supervise operations at his own estate as the second flush was on. During such trips, he spends nights at Goomtee, he says.
That got me wondering: Doesn’t Jungpana, with a stash of awards under its belt, have a cottage for the man who owns it? A pretty cottage with a lawn, perhaps a garden swing too… and CNN? As I saw for myself the next morning on a visit to the estate, Jungpana had none of these.
“It’s not feasible,” Kejriwal flicks off the query about a guesthouse when I buttonhole him on the subject. “Everything there has to be carried [as] head load. Too costly…”
This is why: the Jungpana factory, the nerve centre of the plantation, has no access road and all commodities have to be hauled some 600 steps up the hillside – rations up, manufactured tea down. Manually hauling bricks, cement, steel and sundry other material that go into making a building would have been prohibitively expensive. “The charge is Rs 100 for every 50 kg up those steps,” Kejriwal tells me.
The more convenient option is putting up at the spacious Goomtee lodge. Even foreign buyers visiting Jungpana do that, as I found out the next morning when I met a Korean businesswoman at the guesthouse. Unknown to me then, she had spent the night in one of the three well-appointed guestrooms there. I have written about her earlier in Still Steeping;you may have read that account.
Da-Hyoung Chung, the buyer from Seoul, later braved the 1,300-foot climb and later emailed me: “I loved it… I wanna do it again.” I had climbed too, but I don’t think I wanna do it again.
Kejriwal calls his plantation “an island in the mountains”; he is literally cut off from the rest of the world in the conventional sense, and has had to erect a tower to receive cell phone signals.
Back on terra firma, it is no better: the motorable road from Goomtee ends at the bottom of a valley, where a log bridge across a waterfall marks the start of a long climb up the next hill to where the Jungpana factory is nestled.
Kejriwal’s family acquired the garden from its previous owners in 1956, and at one point, he says, even the four-km stretch that is now the road link with Goomtee had to be traversed on foot. This meant that the manufactured tea had to be carried manually up another hill, after being brought down 1,300 feet from the factory.
Moreover, till about a few years ago, the road was unmetalled. One either walked, or took a bumpy ride over the rocky road. “There is a physical aspect to our business,” Kejriwal explains. “[Modern] industry has not touched us… We are making tea the more traditional way.”
I was faintly sceptical, and assumed he was making a virtue of his limitations. But then, despite what I may have thought, the fact remains that Kejriwal produces some of the best teas in the world. I have won the North American Tea Championships in my category, he tells me the next day at his stark office in the factory, referring to an independent competition in the US and Canada.
He then fishes out a 2013 issue of Kolkata’s The Telegraph newspaper to show that at home too he is somebody. The front page lead story is on his garden, and is headlined A New Champion Rises in Darjeeling. The report talks of how in the battle of the brew, Jungpana had pulled past Castleton, another top line tea estate in the region.
Jungpana is blessed by its location; the terroir is ideal for growing fine-quality tea. It is laid out over south-facing slopes at an altitude of 2,400 to 6,100 feet, which ensures extra hours of sunlight. Apparently, gardens at higher elevations usually produce good second-flush teas which Jungpana is known for. The soil too, I am told, is just right. In fact, managers of other plantations too have conceded the geographical advantages that this garden enjoys and hailed its quality.
And the produce “is 100 percent organic”, Kejriwal reminds me lest I missed the lettering O-R-G-A-N-I-C painted boldly on the factory facade. “My thing is very simple,” he continues, “the kind of clients I am catering to, I have to give them the best everywhere.”
As I begin climbing down the hill to reach the bridge where my driver and car are waiting, I look back to take a last look at the factory: it is already lost behind the foliage. I try to locate the car down by the waterfall. I cant see it… I feel all alone.
Yes, I think to myself, a place so remote and inaccessible and mystique in its solitude deserves to have folklore spun around it. It is only fitting.Photographs by Uday Bhattacharya. The featured image shows Shantanu Kejriwal, owner of Jungpana Tea Estate near its famous 633 steps.