Photo: Alamy
Photo: Alamy

A fine tea from India’s hidden hills

The story of Kangra tea is one of a great beginning, a long and unfortunate middle, and the possibility of a happily ever after

Kangra’s tea history dates to the 1850s, a few decades after Darjeeling’s. Yet, its teas garner only a mention in the story of Indian tea. A pity because Kangra’s story is one of a great beginning, a long and unfortunate middle, and the possibility of a happily ever after.

No story on this tea is complete without a mention of the Kangra Gazetteer of 1883 and its proclamation that Kangra tea was probably better than those produced in any other part of India—a reminder of its glorious beginnings. Tea was brought there by none other than the superintendent of the Saharanpur Botanical Gardens, William Jameson (Saharanpur was the destination for the first tea saplings from China and William Jameson was its botanist from 1842). Kangra’s first tea garden was planted in 1849. For nearly half a century, it thrived; on a par with Darjeeling and a firm favourite among tea drinkers in Afghanistan, Central Asia, Russia.

Kangra’s resilience lies in the way it made it through a century filled with natural and man-made calamities. On 4 April 1905, an earthquake struck Kangra. There was great loss of lives (20,000 reported dead), livestock and property. British planters sold their estates and left. Then a part of the Punjab province, the region sent several thousand young men to fight in the British army during the world wars. Then came Partition, followed by wars with Pakistan. Business was severely disrupted.

The few large estates still standing, like the Dharmsala Tea Company, Wah Tea Estate and Raipur Tea Estate, kept the industry alive with dogged resolve. Alongside these estates, small farmers began to grow in numbers. By 1966, Kangra was part of Himachal Pradesh. Between the 1960s-80s, the government set up four cooperative tea factories in Bir, Sidhbari, Baijnath and Palampur. Small farmers now had access to a production facility. Unfortunately, the cooperative model did not work and only Palampur remains functional.

Still, it spurred the revival of Kangra’s tea. There’s often the unfortunate comparison of Kangra tea with Darjeeling. Yes, it’s a tea that Darjeeling devotees will find very palatable but the flavours of the Kangra are distinctive. Its black teas, light and delicate, will especially please those who dislike too much astringency. Kangra also makes some Chinese-style green tea, like a pan-roasted green tea or a pinewood-smoked lapsang souchong. White teas, oolongs, are also being made, as are several tea blends, like the fragrant rose and saffron blends from the Dharmsala Tea Company and a masala chai blend to be enjoyed plain (Wah Tea Estate). Harvest seasons are, like Darjeeling, spring, summer and autumn.

Why should you try Kangra tea? It’s consistently of high quality, organic and unfussy. It does not demand an excessively refined palate to enjoy its flavours. Among the things Kangra has got right are sticking to orthodox tea production without succumbing to the CTC behemoth; harmonious coexistence of large estates and small growers; and a collective desire to take Kangra tea to tea lovers of the world.

TEA TAKES

The Dharmsala Tea Company, Wah Tea Estate and Anandini Himalaya Tea.

Tea Nanny is a weekly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry.

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