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Displaced from home, conflict survivors took refuge in tea

Two tea estates in India offered livelihood to exiled Tibetians and Tamil repatriates

Photo: Alamy
Photo: Alamy

Not all tea plantations in India can be attributed to the British East India Company. Here’s the story of two tea gardens, one in Sikkim and the other in the Nilgiris, which came up sometime in the late 1960s-early 1970s. Although unrelated, they were both tea gardens set up to rehabilitate displaced people, Tibetans and Sri Lankan Tamils, respectively.

In 1959, following the Chinese occupation of Tibet, the Dalai Lama escaped to India. Thousands of Tibetans followed. Sikkim had always shared close ties with Tibet and it was only natural that the king, or chogyal, Palden Thondup Namgyal, would extend support. He decided to create a tea garden as a source of livelihood.

It must have seemed like a good idea, given that Sikkim is so close to Darjeeling and shares a similar terroir. In fact, till the 19th century, the kingdom of Sikkim had included Darjeeling, with the Nuxalbari area forming its southern border. In negotiations between Sikkim, Nepal and the East India Company, Darjeeling went to the Company, and became home to the world’s greatest tea. Sikkim did not adopt tea cultivation.

But in 1969, saplings were brought from Darjeeling and a tea garden was established in Ravangla in Sikkim.

It did not work out as planned. The nomadic Tibetans were not familiar with tea plantation and some of the saplings did not take to the soil. And as settlements for Tibetans came up across the country, the chogyal decided to pursue tea cultivation in its current location, Temi. He invited veteran planter Teddy Young from Darjeeling. Young arrived in Temi with his mother in 1973 and they spent the next eight years cultivating and manufacturing tea on this 440-acre estate.

There isn’t much of a record of what happened thereafter, until a few years ago. The garden produced small volumes that were used as “gift tea" by ministers, especially chief ministers. Over the last three years, however, Temi has become a recognized brand among tea connoisseurs worldwide as a single-estate, certified organic, orthodox tea. About 85-90 tonnes is produced annually.

In the south, the story panned out differently. In 1964, India and Sri Lanka signed a pact and the two decades that followed saw a few hundred thousand Sri Lankan Tamils repatriated to India. In 1968, the Tamil Nadu government cleared thousands of hectares in the Nilgiris to create tea plantations for over 2,000 people, many of whom had worked on tea plantations in Nuwara Eliya and Kandy in Sri Lanka.

Today, these estates, collectively called TANTEA, span 4,500 hectares in the Nilgiri hills, producing about 12 million kilogram of mostly CTC tea every year. Even today, most of the workers here are either those who came to India in the 1960s-70s or their descendants.


Keep an eye out for Temi’s summer teas, especially their muscatel black tea. TANTEA makes orthodox teas from its uniquely clonal bushes, also worth a try.

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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