Clamouring for makeover – Tea & Tourism

The Statesman:

Tea tourism in North Bengal can hit a purple patch if the government comes up with effective strategies. Some tea gardens like Makaibari and Goomti are an inspiration for estates that have become obsolete due to utter negligence and unfortunate complications, writes santanu basu

ALTHOUGH there are more than 200 lush green tea gardens spread across Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri, tea tourism is still an unexplored arena in the Dooars and terrain zone of North Bengal.
Tea gardens are generally referred to as tea yielding centres only. Over the years, this sector has been through a rough patch. Famine like situations, death of labourers and lack of food, ration, power and electricity have wreaked havoc. Hundreds of tea gardens have closed down, affecting thousands of labourers. But their beauty still remains intact. Terrain gardens in Sahabad, Matidhar, Sannyashi, Azamabad, Bengdubi, Marapur and Manjha have always mesmerised tourists with their verdure.
The Dooars and terrain gardens are ideal spots for nature lovers. The number of tourists in tea gardens would increase if the government or private agencies take tea tourism seriously. Over the years, a massive influx of Nepalese migrants and other ethnic groups have left the glory of hill towns in doldrums.
The beauty of Panighata tea garden near the Indo-Nepal border and Azamabad tea estate shall definitely charm tourists.
The makeover of Lohagarh tea estate, adjacent to Naxalbari, was recently deliberated upon. Some charming bungalows designed by European architects in most tea gardens would be fit for human habitation. Some 100-150 years back, the British had built huge bungalows to prevent attacks from wild animals that inhabited the Dooars. These buildings that have weathered nature’s vagaries and were built from costly materials brought in through highly inaccessible paths full of bushes, jungles and venomous reptiles by tea garden managers. The builders were highly inspired by internationally acclaimed botanists Dalton Hooker and Ernest Lloyd.
Lloyd botanical garden still mesmerises tourists with its variety of flora and fauna. Some 100 years ago, Hooker discovered a wide array of flora and fauna in the Himalayas and Dooars. Most gardens still flaunt the old, faded nameplates of the British inhabitants — Duncan Brothers, Gillinders and Arbuthnots, McNeill Magor, Macleod Russell and Goodricke. Once upon a time, those sprawling bungalows with decorated lounges, verandahs and dressing rooms stood tall amid flower studded lawns and green meadows. Mateilli hills, that still attract European tourists, had a weekly amusement club located on the banks of River Murthi. The club had a rich collection of books with a bar counter, restaurant, a ladies and billiard room. It was made of Burmese teak and Mehagani wood. Surprisingly, the wooden club still retains its durability.
Many tea gardens in the Dooars are pleasant and beautiful, surrounded by dense forests. The Engdong River flows around some gardens and the Garumara National park, which is home to one-horned rhinos.
Most gardens have provision for tourist lodging and can definitely draw attention from around the world if the government is ready to upgrade them.
A Bengali film, Abar Aranaye, was shot at one of the bungalows in Maitelli. Any nature lover would be thrilled on reading Jim Glendinning’s Tale of a Tea Planter, which is an account of his stay at one such garden bungalows. Before being appointed assistant garden manager of Juranti tea garden, Glendinning had traveled extensively in places like Betguri and Denguajhar.
The Pubang and Turibari tea garden would remind one of a fairytale. River Rumjhum, Leti, Chel and Gheish meander across the Pathorjora tea garden, making it a heavenly abode. Here, the greenery becomes more prominent during the rainy season. Noam tea garden is at a stone’s throw away from Patharjora and Gorubathan. And those who are interested in observing the confluence of hills and plains must visit Mission hill, Ambiok and Burikhola.
Pathorjora has immense potential for tea tourism, which might erase the curse of unemployment. Two years back, the Tata group of tea chose Damdim, Batabari and Rangamati to embark on a journey of tea tourism.
Help Tourism has done a commendable job by inviting a slew of tourists. Quality tea isn’t the only attraction of Damdim, which is also known for tribal folk dance and cultural programmes. For Damdim’s convenient location, many tea gardens along the National Highway 34 have become easily accessible. Jiti – located at the Indo Bhutan border — is at a very nascent stage of tea tourism.
In Southern India, Munnar, Kunnur and Ponmuri tea gardens are well known for tourism. The Kerala and Tamil Nadu government have been able to attract many tourists through websites, pamphlets, travel magazines and newspapers. In fact, many people across the world visit Munnar every year; thousands enquire about it. Forget coming up with an idea to promote tea tourism, North Bengal doesn’t even set up enquiry counters in Siliguri or Dooars. The Goomti tea estate, located at a high altitude in the Himalayas, offers expensive luxurious suits. The Makaibari tea estate’s example can also be taken into consideration.
Goomti drew the attention of many European purchasers. Many tea gardens are trying to draw visitors in their own way. But those resting on steep Himalayan slopes aren’t easily accessible.
The state’s tourism department hardly makes any effort towards promoting them as tourist destinations. They cannot go beyond publishing clichéd newspaper advertisements that carry defunct telephone numbers.
Very recently, a Bengali magazine, Chayer Katha, in a survey, listed names of those gardens that have agreed to promote tea tourism. They are: Selim Hill, Darjeeling, Makaibari, Kurseong, Kamala, Fashkhowa and Damdim at Jalpaiguri.
The land and revenue department has planned to terminate all lease agreements pertaining to tea gardens, which means their owners might have to renew their rights. A no objection certificate from the government might help quicken the process.
The idea of tea tourism is making garden owners apprehensive of uncertain deaths, closure of gardens, migration of labourers and smuggling. For the last few years, tea gardens in the Dooars are also in dire straits. The government is equally worried about such possibilities and hesitant to give tea tourism a green signal.
However, the Makaibari tea garden can serve as an inspiration. It houses many cottages and labour quarters and workers help tourists explore the variety of flora and fauna and tea gardens. Visitors are equally thrilled on coming across elephants and cheetahs in and around the premises.
Other gardens apart from Makaibari — Tumsung, Glenburn, Rangli Rangliot, Lopchu and Selima hill — have also developed infrastructure for tea tourism.
Lopchu tea is moderately priced and marketed all over India, unlike tea produced in Glenburn that costs around Rs 5,000 – 8,000 per kg.
The Makaibari and Ambootia tea gardens have come up with a novel way to increase tea production
while maintaining the same product flavour and fragrance. Garden managers have given many cows to labourers to ensure continuous supply of milk and organic manure. Makaibari tea is sold at London`s Harrod store at a price that our people shall fail to afford.

The writer is associate professor, political science, Chanchal College, Malda

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