“Wonderful aromas in the cup. A delight!!” reads one of the earliest reviews for a Margaret’s Hope Spring Black tea, written by one of Teabox’s most discerning customers who order their teas by the invoice number of the batch (DJ-12 in this case) and can easily make out a chinary from a clonal. What caught my attention was not the fact this person chose to use two exclamation points in expressing his enjoyment of the cup (who does that after the age of 12?) but the choice of the word ‘delight’.
Of the many things you will read about Darjeeling’s Margaret’s Hope – the tea estate, its gardens, and the teas – it’s unlikely that you will go through a page without coming across the word ‘delight’. This may sound a little too self-assured but the estate boasts a lineage that not too many in Darjeeling can. It’s about 150 years old and produces orthodox-style Darjeeling tea from vintage chinary tea plants, some as old as 100 years, now considered heritage plant varieties and a rarity, even in these parts.
I met with Anup Khondo, the assistant manager of the Margaret’s Hope garden, on my visit to the estate earlier this December. Serendipitously, it was International Tea Day when I arrived, making me feel this visit was prearranged by some cosmic karma. Mr Khondo’s office is on the first floor of a rustic, white-colored, wood-varnished structure whose floor creaked in the eeriest way possible. Like an old book, it smelt musty but comforting. I found Mr Khondo parked amidst a heap of documents that covered the entire length of his table. He was wearing a faded maroon windbreaker with bright, white sleeve patch that read ‘Sheriff Officer, Wilson County’, over dull jeans and sneakers. I’d expected to meet a capacious figure, formidable, with a weatherbeaten face. What I encountered was a young man, who greeted with the warmest smile I have seen on anyone who works in a job as demanding as his. Even after 20 years or so working in tea gardens for Goodricke – the parent company that owns Margaret’s Hope – you couldn’t spot a speck of stress on him.
Having exchanged pleasantries, we made our way down a steep curb to reach the Margaret’s Hope tea factory. I was greeted by a large green Welcome sign. But the one that caught my eye was the sign that informed me that we were 4590 feet above sea level.
Inside the factory, there was hardly any sign of enterprise, but then, autumn had only just ended and the season was over for the year. The handful of those still around were busy cleaning the troughs and oiling the rollers; they had three months until spring flush and the machines could all use a bit of rest and fix-up.
We made our way to a roomy sitting area where we were joined by the factory manager, Sanjay. A cup of the recently produced autumnal tippy clonal black tea was poured into small white cups. I could smell flowers almost instantly. “It’s an FTGFOP1 clonal we produced just a few weeks back. It’s quite delightful,” said Mr Khondo. There it was again. Delightful…the word lingered. I start probing, asking him what does make it so ‘delightful’. “It’s a lot of things actually. The air, the climate, the rainfall and the kind of care extended to the leaves – all of these culminate into a special tasting tea.” I look at Sanjay for more clarity on this, but he speaks just as elusively. “I believe it’s the ecological balance that makes it special. We work with nature, you see.”
As we finish our cups, I hear the words ‘special’ and ‘delightful’ at least 15 times, leaving me with that incomplete feeling. I needed to know why. As I leave the factory, the same sign board that welcomed me in now informed me that I had just seen the “best in Darjeeling”. Pretty pompous, I think, but with a claim so self-assured I was only motivated to delve deeper into this story.
Darjeeling produces teas for two-thirds of the year, reaching between 8 to 9 million kgs in volume. Margaret’s Hope’s contribution to this count is relatively small: about 230, 000 kgs. But volume has never been a desirable goal here. The rigors of elevation do not allow for large volumes (Margaret’s Hope is spread between elevations that range anywhere between 2,500 and 5,000 feet above median sea level). Cold air, tepid sun, lower oxygen levels force plants to grow slowly, but these conditions create dense flavors that produce a vibrant cup. “Quality is the ultimate goal. And that’s the only way it’s always been,” says Mr Khondo.
Margret’s Hope is better known for its chinary teas and the tippy clonals, the most remarkable being the ‘Delight’ range of teas’. There it was again! I was inching closer to the answers. The name ‘Delight’ is given to a class of teas which are treated to “special handling”. And that’s the most I could get out either of the managers. I wondered if they had reservations they weren’t expressing, maybe from the fact that they didn’t want the secret to be out. But as much as they chose not to reveal, there’s was also plenty that they did.
Later that morning, seated behind a four-wheel drive, we headed out to scout the gardens. The 586.18 hectares estate is divided into three main gardens: Margaret’s Hope (between elevations of 915 meters and 1830 meters) to the west, Dilaram (between elevations of 762 meters to 1,951 meters) towards the base along a river stream, and Edenvale/Maharani (between elevations of 1,066 meters to 1,358 meters) east of Dilaram, bordering National Highway 55. About 90% of the estate is covered in chinary bushes, some very old and some just under 20 years while the rest of the estate has high-quality clonals – AV2, Takdah 7-8 (produces maximum tips) and N-436 hybrid.
In the land of the Maharani
A green board said ‘Devisthan’ (land of the goddess) as we entered the first section of Margaret’s’ Hope.
Down the dusty path that inclined and dipped right into the valley, across which you could see the glistening Maharani garden, the drive felt every bit exhilarating. I couldn’t pin if it was the manicured beauty of the estate, the valley view, or the fact that every bit of the garden was now covered in lavender and yellow wildflowers but it was a sight fit for the goddess. We drove downwards to Dilaram, met with its shy Nepali manager, Ram Kumar Rai, and crossed over the khola to journey up towards Maharani.
The Maharani garden is a beloved of the estate. The story goes that the estate was once owned by the Maharani of Cooch Behar – a princely state in pre-independence India – and hence the name. But no real proof exists supporting this claim. But what’s true though is the estate’s links to strong and proud women. Among the many women who have been in charge of the garden is an Irish lady, single and infamous for her late night soirees. Whether it’s in the women who were at its reins or those who tend to the garden, there is palpable tenderness across all nine sections of the Maharani garden.
The leaves have a sheen, appear dark and full, and untouched by harshness of any sorts. “Perhaps it’s because this part of the estate never really gets a lot of sunshine. That’s why the plants grow without haste and beautifully,” remarks Arun Gurung, the assistant manager of the garden. We met with him at the garden and he agreed to come along with us to the Tea Center – a small retail outlet on the highway that sells teas from the estate.
Wearing a sleeveless olive bomber, a dark US Polo cap, and bulky sneakers, Mr Gurung could easily pass off as a forest ranger. He has an excitable quality about him and spoke with a clear baritone. But he still carries vestiges of another era, speaking in his baritone voice, with the bearings of someone not of this time period. He had worked at Castleton and Thurbo, other Goodricke estates but Maharani was where he had found his home, where he rules, as Mr Khondo calls him, “the Maharaja”.
Much of Maharani is dominated by the high flavor cultivar called AV2. The leaves are short, have a stunted growth and appear bright light green on the tips. It is one of the most commercially viable tea clones and known for producing a very fragrant tea, marked by a heady floral bouquet and a bright, fruity mouth feel. A tippy clonal processed from this part of the estate offers an indisputable testimony to the garden’s ‘exquisite quality’ claim. “You have to process these teas with great care and patience,” I am told.
As we drive higher up to the Tea Center, I looked down at the vale. It was quite exquisite. The entire 7km of the valley looked like a secret hideaway, accessible only to those who know about it. From where I stood, it looked like an unending passageway, flanked by unbroken ridges and river streams, full of tea plants and wildflowers, stretching far into a land I could only imagine was paradise. I was falling in love with this place.
Five hairpin turns later, we stopped outside a mist-covered tea center in the middle of the afternoon and poured ourselves a chinary autumnal. It was mellow, smooth and tasted like a flower valley. It’s not common for chinary teas to be fragrant, but as Mr Gurung exclaimed, “With a good chinary you never know what to expect. It surprises you.”
Like all things in nature, tea plants draw from their surroundings. From the soil to the intent of the planter, tea is the most influenced crop there can be. And within a rich setting, it is possible to make tea that’s transcendental. “We know from the smell when we have made a good tea. Even with a muscatel, we know which plants to pluck, because that part of the estate will emit a particular kind of fragrance that’s unmistakable to a seasoned nose.”
Margaret’s Hope is a biodiversity hotspot. It is home to the endangered Himalayan Salamander and boasts a dense and fertile forest cover. Rows and rows of red poinsettias line the pathways, along with wild sunflowers and lavenders. Everything produced here is consumed locally. In order to retain their Rainforest Alliance and Ethical Trade Partnership certifications, the management has had to invest proactively in forest audits to ensure a sustainable value chain across the gardens. This has paid off immensely, and how! Today, Margaret’s Hope has the only primary healthcare center that caters to the people living in the estate as well as those living between Kurseong and Darjeeling town. A school caters to the children of over 1,200 employees here and a Women’s Self-Help center – the only one of its kind within a 10km radius – trains women in basic home economic skills. Even with the tea plants, the attention to care is impressive. Every section of every garden has a buffer zone, marked by a yellow sign board, around which no chemical treatments are allowed. “It can be toxic for humans and animals. So, till at least 30 feet from a pathway or a lane, you cannot use chemicals,” says Mr Khondo. In order to reduce reliance on chemicals, the estate experiments with fermented plant extract prepared in-house using specific forest foliage. During winter, the entire estate land is spiffed up: old plants pruned, some removed and new planted. “We conduct lab tests annually to assess which plants are ready for pruning. We basically test for starch content in the shoots. If the plant has an optimal amount of it, it can survive hard pruning. Otherwise, you lose a good plant.”
The effect of all this is unexpectedly welcoming and impressive. After all this, you cannot help but see the estate as an ecosystem – a micro universe, in fact – rather than a sum total of tea gardens. You sense purpose, a thick yet penetrable sense of purpose in everything here, and I could feel, suddenly, so much more connected to the tea.
A night in the Raj
I spent the night in the magnificent bungalow of the estate manager. This is where it all got so much more exciting and memorable. The bungalow is as old as the estate and has been the home to the finest planters Darjeeling has seen. It has a white-colored, wooden edifice, built in classic Victorian style, and with a wide porch lined with flowers of every kind. Ginger, the resident pomeranian who greeted us, was dressed fashionably in a plaid. The bungalow is adorned with memorabilia collected over many years by many of the garden managers, sitting amongst the dark polished furniture that was clearly from the days of Raj. I don’t remember the last time I was living out a room with a vintage vanity table and personal wood fireplace (no complaints, really).
Later that evening, we gathered for tea and conversations, and time just flew by. I was joined by all three garden managers and Sanjay, and we spoke of life – in tea gardens and outside of it. I realized this place wasn’t without its challenges. Labor unions, for one, are the biggest reason for concern. “This place is the birthplace of labor unions, you see. These gardens were owned and run by the British at one point, and the treatment extended to laborers was abysmal. Following the uprising in the early 1900s, labor forces demanded relinquishment of the Raj rules. Even after the Plantations Labor Act, which assures wages and stipulates proper living conditions for all laborers, the union remains an agitator for some reason,” said Mr Gurung. Surprisingly, laborers aren’t at crosses with the management. Margaret’s Hope is possibly one of the few gardens that have a permanent labor force, all of 1,250 people strong, who live around the estate property with access to healthcare, food rations and schools. The older folks refuse to leave. Mr Khondo tells me of a 90-year old plucker, Purney Subba, who still lives here and has served over 60 years at the estate. When the estate completed 150 years in 2015, the management commemorated his service by naming a batch of their spring FTGFOP1 after him and offering him part of the proceeds from its sale. “He was ecstatic. This has never been done before.”
Spirit of Margaret’s Hope
That evening, I finally asked about the white elephant in the room, the “little girl ghost.” Legend has it that the estate is “blessed” by the presence of the ghost of Margaret, a young 8-something year old daughter of manager J.G.D Cruickshank, who served at the estate between 1896 and 1927. Up until then, the estate was called ‘Bada Rington’. When Margaret came to visit her father from England, she fell in love with the estate. And before leaving for England, she promised to return. Unfortunately, she died of a lethal tropical disease on board the ship. And so her dream to return to the gardens remained unfulfilled. In the memory of his daughter, Cruickshank re-christened the estate.
“I have never had an encounter with her spirit but I believe she’s here.” Along with Mr Khondo, everybody nodded in agreement. “And hers isn’t the only one around here. I guess my bungalow has had the most paranormal incidents and all of us who have stayed there at one point or the other will agree,” exclaimed Mr Gurung, teasingly, though. Well into the night, we conversed on this topic, after which I was left feeling anxious, and truthfully uneasy. Never in my life have I wanted to spend the night alone more than I did that night. I kept the lights on, read my book and was soon in slumber land.
I woke early next morning to the smell of garden flowers outside my window. Margaret had not visited me. And I was secretly happy about it. But, as I sipped on my cup of the tippy clonal that morning by the window sill, I figured the truth behind it all. There is a spirit here, alright. A powerful one too. And it’s the spirit of the place itself. There is a strong holistic relationship between nature and people here, and they thrive for each other’s sake. The collective energy of the place is palpably positive and cheerful, and that’s the one that stays with you. Connection to this energy is the real beauty of this place and only those who really look for it, will ever get to experience it. I get why Margaret did not want to leave. And I don’t blame her for wanting to come back. Even as I write this post, sipping on my autumnal, a delightful cup of tea I concede, I feel connected to the spirit of Margaret’s Hope.