We flew to the Bagdogra airport and quailed beneath the tyranny of a long drive into the Himalayas. The car kept climbing the gravity defying bends as we kept moving towards the Makaibari village in Kurseong district near Darjeeling. Uneasiness flew down my spine due to the chilly mountainous breeze and the long drive made me wonder if the place was worth the effort. When we reached Makaibari, it was quite dark. While getting out of the car, as I looked skywards, to my astonishment I found the heaven was brilliant with stars. Accustomed to live in a noisy city, we found the silence at Makaibari, a bit unnatural. Knowing that the tea estate is also home to Leopards, we wanted to quietly sneak into our room. We walked into one of the houses in the village and into the heart of one ever smiling Mr. Gurang. The villagers at Makaibari offer home stay at a very nominal rate. The visitors not only can live and share meals with their hosts but also can join workers in plucking tea leaves, tour the factory and learn the "biodynamic" way of farming. At the end of a hard day, we relaxed with a scrumptious home-cooked meal made with locally grown organic produce, which was served by Gurangji’s family as they watched us devour the food gluttonously. Post dinner, we wanted to sit outside Gurangji’s house in the open but Hero’s (Gurangji’s dog) continuous barking made us apprehensive. Gurangji smilingly told us that he might have seen a Leopard which made our change our minds.
We were up early next morning as the sun peeped through the far away mountains and the sky erupted in an explosion of crimson light. It was truly a wonderful sight which made the travelling difficulties we faced the previous day fade into insignificance.
Meeting the Rajah
A little later, we were patiently waiting outside the office of Mr. Swaraj Banerjee, also known as Rajah Banerjee, the fourth generational owner of the Makaibari tea gardens. Photographer Suzane Lee once described Rajah as more British than the British themselves and we too, felt the same. He however, is a legend in this part of the world and has done more for Darjeeling tea than anyone else in the region. His tea estate today is the only one in the world which is entirely biodynamic. “What champagne is to wine, Darjeeling is to tea” quipped Rajah, in one of our conversations just before the tea tasting session.
To me, Tea was just Tea prior to this visit. A Tea tasting session with Rajah changed my views. To Rajah the proud owner, growing tea is a spiritual experience and the Makaibari spirit is a way of life. It was an amazing experience just lending him ears while he, with an unpretentious contentment described different types of tea that grow in his estate while we kept tasting them. Expecting the tea to taste just as usual as it did, different brews like the First Flush, the second flush, the Darjoolong and the Silver Tips imperial tasted wonderfully different from each other. Each of us present in his office were pleasantly surprised when Mr. Banerjee proudly spoke about his most expensive brew in Darjeeling known as “Muscatel” which fetched him Rs. 50,000/- per kg in one of the auctions in Beijing. The Silver Tips holds the record of being the costliest tea in the world.
Post lunch, we spent the afternoon roaming around. For a few moments, we stood there silently, staring at the vast stillness of the valley. Finally it was time to leave, but we couldn’t have left Makaibari without sampling some of the best varieties of tea it had to offer. We bought lot of flavors of tea that came up in discussion with Rajah, but I was very impressed by one such flavor - Paan flavored tea. The shopping mania continued for some more time till we finally decided to leave. There are many places in India where commercialization has taken its toll, but there are still some more which are offbeat and less trodden and Makaibari is one of them. We drove to the Kurseong railway station and took the train to Darjeeling. This railway station is a UNESCO heritage site built in 1880 and the buildings reminded me of our country’s colonial past. The train still has a steam engine and it puffs and pants its way through the lanes of Kurseong. While in the train, I smirked at myself for the thoughts I had on reaching Makaibari and was glad to have a different point of view now. Soon the pleasant experience we had at Makaibari faded into oblivion for a short while as we started thinking about the challenges that lie ahead on our maiden high altitude trek to ever to Sandakphu.