In the far eastern corner of India is the tiny state of Meghalaya. It’s still a kind of secret place undiscovered by the package tour fraternity, a place that brings to mind adjectives like pristine charm and breathtaking landscapes.
Geographically, Meghalaya occupies an interesting space, bordering Assam, and just one state away from West Bengal, home of Darjeeling. Its capital city, Shillong, once branded the Scotland of the east, is the erstwhile capital of the state of Assam.
And here, in Shillong, probably one of its best-kept secrets is a tea garden called LaKyrsiew (‘awakening’ in the Khasi language). It produces a relatively tiny quantity of tea if you look at national production. But LaKyrsiew’s teas are gaining a loyal following and it’s not hard to see why when you’ve tasted them: high quality and packed with flavor.
We chatted with Geert Linnebank, who, along with his wife Nayantara own and run LaKyrsiew. It’s a story that began sometime in the 90s but really, much earlier, as early as the 18th century, a time when Robert Fortune landed in China to smuggle some tea plants, when local species of tea were discovered in Assam, when a very happy East India Company set out to explore India for the most suitable areas to plant tea.
Prospectors sent by the Company found Darjeeling, the Kangra valley, and eventually the Nilgiris, all of which continue to be tea-growing regions. The untold story is of one expedition that landed in Shillong and found the plateau to be eminently suitable for tea cultivation. They wrote a comprehensive report, extensively detailing rainfall, soil type, climate, and concluded that Shillong should be considered for planting tea.
But Meghalaya did not transform into a colonial tea hotspot. The native Khasis ensured that it didn’t – the Khasi ruler had drawn a treaty with the British that forbade migrant labor from neighboring Bihar or Bengal coming into his domain to work. With labor being a definite impediment, tea did not arrive in Meghalaya.
Meanwhile, a man named Jeebon Roy, a legend in the community, famous now as the first Khasi entrepreneur, credited with the revival of Khasi culture and language, bought a large expanse of land outside Shillong. Jeebon Roy worked for the East India Company and knew of the tea plantations. He himself toyed with the idea, going so far as to plant some Chinery bushes from Darjeeling on his estate in Shillong.
The story moves a century ahead when Jeebon Roy’s descendant, Nayantara and her Dutch husband Geert Linnebank arrived in Shillong. They had met in Brussels and had married and were raising their children in Europe where Geert’s work at the Reuters news agency needed him to be. But Shillong was a fixed part of their annual holiday agenda; Nayantara, a Khasi born and bred in Shillong had inherited a part of Jeebon’s estate, on the edge of the Barapani lake.
Geert writes, “Each time we visited that beautiful land, for a walk or a picnic, we’d notice more old, mature trees had gone missing – chopped down and rolled down the slope and into the lake, and presumably towed away.” There were obvious attempts at shifting the boundary posts. The Linnebanks knew that they had to return and put the land to use or risk losing it.
Serendipitously, Geert chanced upon the report by the prospectors from the East India Company, lying dusty and unread, on a relative’s bookshelf. As he read it, the idea of a tea garden began to form. It found ready takers – relatives and friends were quick to introduce the Linnebanks to tea planters, tasters and traders. The couple traveled to tea estates across the country. They studied how and what teas were planted, how they were harvested and processed, what manufacturing facilities were needed…
But it was in Shillong itself that the idea found its future. At a party, the Linnebanks met a man named Bob Powell-Jones, a man Geert describes as “an experienced and very energetic Welsh tea planter.” Bob had decided to retire in Shillong where his Khasi wife had a home. With Bob on board, the tea garden took off.
Says Geert, “What was clear to us from the outset was that the only way we would be able to compete in a crowded marketplace was by pursuing quality at the expense of everything else – very fine plucking, careful handling of the green leaf, careful withering and rolling, careful drying and sorting, and junking anything that doesn’t meet our standards.”
The garden lay between 1000-1300 meters above sea level. Its northern exposure, the fact that it was virgin, uncultivated land, with slightly acidic soil made it perfect for organic cultivation of ‘highland’ teas, mostly China varieties.
A good two years went in preparing the land, clearing and contouring it, and making a road to access it, while in the nursery tea seedlings grew undisturbed under the stewardship of Bob and a Khasi supervisor named Bah Lenson. In the spring of 2003, Nayan and Geert planted their first field on 10 acres.
Geert, a journalist more used to reporting breaking news, calls the long drawn process of setting up a tea garden from scratch, a “lesson in patience.” By 2007, the garden was producing sufficient green leaf to justify the establishment of a micro-factory, made to Bob’s personal design. A cowshed was vacated and converted into a factory complete with a small rolling table, withering trough and hand-operated, gas-fired tray drier. “Manufacturing our first teas was a proud moment,” says Geert, “even if the product was, if truth be told, fairly indifferent in quality.”
Again, friends from the tea industry helped refine the production and the LaKyrsiew teas began to display more of their distinctive profile: very mellow, with toffee and cocoa notes combined with stone fruit.
Says Geert, “In 2012, we decided to uproot and replant our first field, which produced a great abundance of leaf but whose quality didn’t satisfy us.”
Although labour laws have relaxed to allow migrants, much of LaKyrsiew focuses on the community where it’s present, and many of its staff are from the Khasi and Garo tribes from around here; some, even rowing across the lake to get to work every day.
Today, LaKyrsiew has about 25 acres under tea cultivation. About 90 acres have been left forested, providing shelter for the wildlife and acting as a buffer with properties around it. The garden obtained its organic certification in 2010.
Its pride remains the quality of its teas, and of course, the very special silver needle white tea manufactured in very small quantities, at the start and at the end of the season, and only if the weather is sunny enough to allow the tips to dry in the open, under the sun.
Photograph by Gopal Upadhayay