Darjeeling is the “Queen of the Hills.” It was one of the most famous of the British hill stations, places developed as respites from the hot climates. At 6700 feet, Darjeeling is still overshadowed by Mt Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest peak at 28,169 feet, which is a few miles north of Darjeeling. Like most Indian towns and cities other than New Delhi, Darjeeling is an unplanned, chaotic town that follows the contour of a high ridge. During the days that I’m in Darjeeling, the daytime weather can be in the 80’s, the night time as low as the 40’s. Regardless of night or day, a wind constantly blows and lifts the many Tibetan prayer flags.
Probably every tourist in Darjeeling takes a ride on the “Toy Train.” As the expression suggests, the “Toy Train” is powered by a miniature locomotive compared to full-scale locomotives. Behind the steam engine, I ride in one of two coaches. The other riders and I are on seats that make airplane seats seem spacious. Since we are only ten feet away from the steam engine, we get our share of steam and coal embers flying our way. The high pitch train whistle is also deafening. Despite the steam and the ear-shattering whistle, I love the rocking and swaying of the old coach. I love being able to reach out and grab chai from a stall only three feet away from my window. I love the changing close-up scenery.
The “Toy Train” is an achievement of British engineers and Indian workers. Built from 1879-1881, the train was originally designed to transport rice and other goods from the plains to Darjeeling. Because the engineers didn’t want to build tunnels and bridges, they designed the tracks so that only a smaller engine could make the turns. One point on the line has a turning radius of 44 feet; probably modern semis can’t turn in that distance.
Riding the “Toy Train” brings back memories. Chuck, my brother, built a raised platform for a Lionel train set in our basement. Probably 10 by 10, the platform contained trees, mountains, houses, and all sorts of other features. Maybe I got my enjoyment from trains from those basement trains. Our family has enjoyed taking a train trip from Atlanta to Philadelphia to Chicago to Glacier Mountain National Park, to Seattle, and ending the trip in San Francisco. Maybe it is the rocking motion or maybe it is the train whistle, but the “Toy Train” brings back good memories.
Darjeeling is also famous for its teas grown on the tea plantations. Jeff Koehler in his book Darjeeling writes: “Today tea is grown in 45 countries around the world and is the second most commonly drunk beverage after water. It’s a $90 billion global market. Until just a few years ago, India was the world’s largest producer of tea.” (Koehler, p.4) He continues: “India is a tea-drinking country. But it hasn’t always been that way, or even for very long. At Independence in 1947, all but 51 million kilograms, or 20 percent of its total production of 252 million kilograms (555 million pounds), was for national consumption. The drink had imperial associations and was considered unhealthy by some (Koehler,4).” He also writes: “The leaves contain tannin which is harmful to the body,” Mahatma Gandhi wrote in his 1948 book Key to Health.” India now consumes more tea than anywhere else in the world, and the drink has become equally a symbol for Indians as for the British. Today about 800 million kilograms- 80% of its total production- is for the local [Indian] market (Koehler, 6).” In 60 years, Indians have changed from consuming only 20% of their domestic tea in 1947 to consuming 80% of their domestic tea in 2010
Since it is March and the plantations are idle, my contact with Darjeeling tea is in a tea-tasting session. Three employees from the “Karma Kettle” are demonstrating their tea products hoping that the Cedar Inn will display and sell their teas. Being a coffee drinker who knows little about teas, I learn much about Darjeeling teas. To be called a Darjeeling tea, the teas are grown in a small geographic area. The elevation ranges from 3500 to 7000 feet. There are approximately 80 plantations and 40 factories. Since not all the plantations want to put money into the facilities needed to process the leaves into tea, some of the plantations use other local factories to process the tea.
Teas are obviously different. Initially whether one is making black, white, or green tea, one uses the same basic tea leaves. The different types of tea depend upon when the fermentation of the tea leaves is halted. Green teas are halted more quickly than the other types of tea leaves. The Karma Kettle staff insists that Darjeeling black tea should be drunk “pure.” As one says, “Adding milk or sugar ruins the tea!” Green teas can have all-sorts of other plants added, from rose and hibiscus flowers, to orange, apple, mango fruits. Women workers hand-pick the tea leaves four different times during the year.
Just as British engineers designed the “Toy Train,” British policy created a “tea-drinking” India. Chartered by Queen Elizabeth on December 31, 1600, the British East India Company received all the trading rights for South and East Asia. The Company imported tea from China; however, the Company had to pay for that tea using silver, specifically Spanish silver reals minted in Mexico (Koehler, 29-30). The British hoped to obtain tea plants from China. However, their efforts were initially stymied because the Chinese jealously guarded their tea shrubs. Anybody caught smuggling tea shrubs out would be punished by death. The solution was to create a Chinese demand for opium so that the British could pay in opium rather than in silver. Although the Chinese had used opium for centuries, their historic use did not include the lethal form of smoking that the British pushed. Koehler writes “For the East India Company, the opium trade was crucial for its solvency.” (Koehler, 33)
The British eventually succeeded in both procuring tea plants and in making many Chinese addicted to opium. They took the shrubs to Darjeeling which became the center for tea production. At first when the British made Darjeeling one of their 80 hill stations, Darjeeling had no village and only 20-30 houses of the Lepcha people. Darjeeling was perfect for growing tea. Koehler writes: “the steep terraced terrain around Darjeeling is a perfect blend of climate, altitude, and the right soil. The weather combines sunshine, no more than 5-6 hours a day, and only for about 180 days a year- and humid mountain mists and clouds that protect the shoots and leaves from too much direct sunlight…” (Koehler, 73)
Darjeeling is a fascinating town. It is not a mountain resort like resorts in the Rockies or Alps. It still is in India so you have the chaos and the litter that is found in every Indian town or city. Yet Darjeeling is different because here one especially feels the British legacy. The “Toy Train,” the tea plantations, the Windamere and Elgin Hotels, the Darjeeling Planters’ Club are all vestiges of British India. The British presence is less diluted here than in Kolkata, Delhi, or Mumbai.
Still, today even Darjeeling changes. It has become a melting pot. Besides the British legacy in Darjeeling, one meets Lepchas, Nepalese, Tibetans, Bengalis, and even people from Bangladesh, who call Darjeeling home. Those travelers who nostalgically want to return to the British Raj will be frustrated and disappointed in Darjeeling. While one can find the past in Darjeeling, one also must accept the changes that make Darjeeling’s present and future quite different.