As you wind up the Pankhabari road towards Makaibari Estate in Darjeeling, you are mesmerized by the immense beauty stretching all around you. Steep hills lined with green tea bushes, women plucking leaves, winding trails through tea plantations and bamboo trees everywhere. The romance of the area fills the air. You can imagine living out your days here surrounded by the serenity. As you enter Makaibari territory, you notice everyone greeting you with smiles as you drive by. This is a couple of years ago and I am with Rajah Banerjee, 4th generation owner and his wife, Srirupa, my sister. We are family and so are all of Makaibari's workers. Some have been there all their lives.
Durgi (pictured above) is no exception. She is an expert tea plucker which requires skill and dexterity. All the bushes look flush with leaf yet only some are ready for plucking - the top two leaves and a bud. Strapping the basket on your head requires calm balance while pushing through sturdy bushes. Each plucker plucks several sets of leaf at a time, holds them, continues plucking and only when the fists can no longer hold another leaf, tosses them over their heads into the baskets. An impossible task! Workers are paid a bonus for collecting more than the base amount. Each bush is plucked only about once a week. It takes four pounds of fresh leaf to make just one pound of tea. This is specific to Darjeeling where the terrain is steep, the yield is low and the leaf is premium. In Assam where the ground is flat and the climate hot and the estates vast in area, bushes are plucked several times a week.
Makaibari is the oldest garden in the district of Darjeeling and the first to be certified biodynamic in the world and the first to introduce Fair Trade to the world of Tea. This Heritage tea estate receives over 10,000 visitors each year and is renowned for its many grades of Tea - 1st flush, Muscatel 2nd flush and, of course, Silver Tips. All its teas are Certified Organic, Biodynamic and Fair Trade.