Alexander Laurenzo

  Darjeeling's Teagardens  

4700 years ago the Chinese Emperor Shen Nung is boiling water in order to drink it later. Unnoticed, from the branch of a nearby bush, some leaves happen to fall into the waterpot. Soon the Emperor notices, that the water has a very fine, unknown taste. The leaves are from a wild teaplant.

Much later, around 900 AC, tea finds its way to Japan, and 700 more years have to pass by before, in 1610, it reaches Europe – precisely: Amsterdam. From here it does not take long to conquer France, Russia and finally England.

In the 19th century the English bring tea back eastward again, this time to the Indian Colonies, where in 1834, C.A.Bruce founds the first experimental teagarden, giving birth to the commercial cultivation of tea.

In 1839, the East Indian Company, for the first time, exports 8 boxes of black Assam-Tea from the harbour of Calcutta to London.

On April 24, 1994, I am driving up the narrow and winding road to Darjeeling. The trainrails are on the side of the street, sometimes on the left, sometimes on the right, sometimes going across the street itself. The mountains around Darjeeling have been transformed into tea-plantations from the end of the 19th century on. In this mild climate some of the best teas of India are growing until now. Our destination are the plantations, that have been turned into organic teagardens during recent years. The beginning of ecological awareness has considerably changed the agriculture of this region. Also the social structures have undergone a peaceful revolution, and the traditional hierarchy in the distribution of tasks between man and woman has been softened.

The center of infrastructure is usually the tea-factory, where black and green teas are processed. In the surrounding area we find the huts and houses of the plantation workers and their families. There are social institutions like kindergardens, schools, grocery shops, medical centers and temples. The manager of the plantation usually lives in the old mansion built by the former english landowner. Like the workers and employees he gets payed by the government, which practises a moderate form of communism. Basic products like rice, salt or flour can be bought for a very low price by all members of the village. Women receive the same wage as men. There is medical and social security, and paid maternity leave.

In one teagarden there might be between 300 and 1800 people working. This means that there are about 800 to 6000 people living on one plantation. The large number of workers is due to the fact, that the teaplant grows very fast, is evergreen, and, apart from a three months brake in winter, must be harvested every 5 to 8 days by hand. This is done by picking the sprout and the two youngest leaves from every branch. Processing needs to start as soon as possible after the harvest.

For first step the leaves are withered artificially, that means they are spread on a grid upon which a stream of warm air is conducted. This makes them soft, which is necessary for the subsequent „rolling“. Rolling the leaves brakes up their cellular structure an allows the aromatic essence to fuse with the oxygen in the air. During the following process of fermentation, the ethereal oil, so important for the taste of the tea, is released. Finally the tea is dried and takes the form we know.

On this journey I live in various mansions of the teagardens and I spend my days in the factories, photographing. The intensity of the tea aroma, saturating the air wherever you go, is something I will never forget.

Two weeks later we leave the green mountains of Darjeeling, following the path of the tea to Calcutta, where it is packed and then shipped to Europe. Diving into the chaos of this city, we are surrounded by a concert of continuously honking cars. It seems that here the horn is the pivital device of a car. Once it broke, the car would probably be taken out of circulation. But besides the traffic noise, there is another soundscape not easy to define. After a while we understand, that it is the croaking of thousands of crows.

Fauna in Calcutta might be denser than in any jungle. Immense heaps of garbage are covered with a moving grey-black layer of rats and crows. Mobs of screaming apes swing their way from crown to crown in the trees. Strange liaisons can be seen on their way through the streets: a dog and a goat together, a cow and a bird sitting on her bony back. The animals roam by themselves, unaccompanied by humans. Around the skyscrapers mighty scavengers fly in circles as though round the peaks of high mountains.

With these vivid impressions we come to the end of our journey, and we are almost embarassed that, unlike the 16 million people populating this city, we can just step into an air conditioned plane that brings us home, far away from Calcutta – named after its temple in honour to Kali – godess of death and destruction as well as of birth and renewal.