Mention Kangra at a cocktail party and if you get any reaction comments will come from every direction. The history buff: Ah, yes, the famous 13th Century Shiva temple at Baijnath, and the Kangra fort of the Rajput Katoch dynasty. Alexander the Great mentions the great fort in his chronicles. The culture vulture will recall the Pahari/Kangra School of miniature painting which blossomed in the 18th Century under the Rajputs. The geographer ticks off names of venerable Kangra hill stations of Dalhousie, Dharamsala, Palampur, Mandi and Kulu, to which the British retreated to escape the summer heat of New Delhi.

Kangra valley is a mystical land encircled by mystical places: Punjab, Jammu Kashmir, Lahul and Spiti, Chamba, Tibet and Ladahk. It is populated to this day by ancient clans, castes and races, the Rajputs of Rajasthan; the Gorkhas of Nepal; the Chambis, Kashmiris, Punjabis and the nomadic Gaddis, lanoline-infused goat herders who move seasonally with their flocks from mountain to valley in search of fresh pastureland.  Such is the richness and variety of Kangra, a charming – and charmed – place!    

But what “Kangra” means to me, a tea guy who’s spent 30 years in the field, is its special tea gardens. I had the good fortune to have lived in Palampur, in the Kangra Valley, in the 1960’s; my memories of the place are colored green by the gorgeous local tea gardens set against a backdrop of the sheer snow-covered Dhauladhar range of the Himalayas. My first accommodation was a rental house near the Holta Tea Estate, one of region’s original gardens; I later moved to a cottage on the Bundla TE, a big, beautiful tea property which extended from just north of the old Palampur bus stand to the edge of Neugal Khad, a deep, broad canyon full of boulders older than the Himalayas.  

The Kangra tea gardens were established by the British in 1852, twelve years after the first plantings in Darjeeling. Most of the seedlings were pure China jat, Camellia.sinensis.sinensis.  For about 50 years, the tea industry developed at a brisk pace, becoming one of the leading tea-growing regions in British India. Most of the handmade, orthodox green tea was exported to Afghanistan and the Middle East, but the tea was also known and favored in Europe.  The tea was mainly exported through the market town of Pathankot and Amritsar (Punjab).    

But if Mother Nature kissed the valley with generous sunlight, water, and cooling breezes, it was also a harsh mistress, for at 6:00 am, 4 April 1905, she released a massive (7.6 – 8.0) earthquake, one of the “Great Himalayan earthquakes,” leveling villages, destroying temples, forts, and tea factories and killing 20,000 persons – India’s worst earthquake ever. It devastated the economy to where many British tea planters sold their holdings to native buyers and left! This event 110 years ago dealt an almost mortal blow to the tea industry of Kangra, a shock from which it has not yet fully recovered. After the Kangra earthquake capital to rebuild the industry to its former level and the labor to reopen tea factories were in short supply.   

Repair of the valley’s  tea factories was slow-going.  Garden productivity plummeted. Production languished. Other Indian tea-growing regions, notably the black tea regions of Darjeeling, Assam and Nilgiri, surpassed Kangra.  The Kolkata tea auction was 2,000 km from Kangra; it was therefore isolated from the export market.    

The growth in popularity of CTC and teabag teas, black tea generally, not traditional fortes of Kangra, led to migration of customers away from the valley’s China-style green tea specialties and to a loss of foreign markets.

The story of Kangra tea takes a pleasant turn in the second half of the 20th Century.  The first notable development had only an indirect effect on Kangra tea, but a profound effect on the economics and global recognition of the district. The Dalai Lama of Tibet and his entourage moved from Mussorie, in what is now Uttarakhand, to Dharamsala in 1960 and established a “little Tibet” in the hills of Kangra district. The Kangra valley sprang suddenly into prominence as a refuge of the Tibetans people, its culture and religion. I naturally make the connection between Darjeeling, which was formally a part of the Tibetan kingdom of Sikkim, and Dharamsala, which has been since ancient times a Hindu and Buddhist sanctuary and place of pilgrimage.  

In 1964, the Amritsar (Punjab) tea auction center was opened for the small growers of northwest India, represented by the Kangra Tea Planters Supply & Marketing Co-operative. Later in the decade, Kangra District, a so-called “backward” part of Punjab, was transferred to Himachal Pradesh (HP) a “hill state” which had much in common with the issues facing the people in the upland valley.    

By the late 1960s, the HP government initiated programs to uplift the Kangra Valley tea industry, including the establishment of cooperative tea factories, the provision of loans to old gardens, agriculture extension, tea research, tea bush replacement schemes and laws to prevent the conversion of old tea estates to non-agricultural uses. These programs, it has to be said, were not as successful as they might have been.            Kangra tea continued to languish.      

Although the Kangra tea industry is still quite fragile at this point, the tea is very special, as much for its flavor, aroma and the satisfaction it brings as for its story, which I’ve tried to share as best I could in the space provided.   As I’ve said, Kangra tea is made from old China bushes, unlike most India tea, which is Assam jat. Even Darjeeling cannot guarantee all its tea is old-style China, as much else has been introduced recently in that place.  Kangra tea is made the old fashioned way; a lot of the skilled labor is done by hand and by feel, the way it was one hundred plus years ago.  

The result is a cup of tea which is subtle, light in body, but pronouncedly floral, like a
Darjeeling.  But, as they say in Thailand, where I live, it is “same-same, yet different.”  It is a rare tea, accounting for only a tiny percentage (0.01 – 0.03) of India’s annual tea sales, but a tea worth having – to enjoy, of course, but also to support a very special enterprise in a tiny corner of the tea world.

Developments in Kangra Valley during the last 15 years have moved Kangra tea ahead exponentially. Kangra tea has received a coveted GI (geographic indication) certification, similar to that given to Darjeeling. This will help it gain recognition in the global marketplace. Scientific agricultural research centres sponsored by the Government of India and the H.P. Department of Agriculture have recently begun focusing resources on the local tea industry and other food-growing projects in the district.

Recently, we have seen a move toward privatization (leasing) of old government coop factories to private parties and the emergence of a new generation of tea garden owners with decades of experience in other regions of the country, including Darjeeling.  

By 2010, we have an indication that the renaissance of Kangra tea is finally underway in tea price statistics: That year, the average auction price of Kangra valley tea was more than INR 109.00/kg ($1.71) compared to the all-India average of INR 104.00 and a north India average of INR 119.00 . This is surely a sign that Kangra tea is gaining recognition for quality and value.  

This fresh burst of fresh entrepreneurial energy is what it takes for Kangra to finally break out of the doldrums that began with the shake-up of Friday morning, 14 April 1905.  

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