As a child, I had read plenty about the proverbial sea of green. But this particular March day, I find myself floating in one, among rows of tea shrubs, curious to see what lies on the other side of the leafy waves.
I can make out no ships—only masts without sails, upon which the bulbuls and thrushes make mirthful chatter. The salubrious breeze and the heady aroma of tea are in the middle of daytime congress, and I am worried that they might discover the snooping bystander in their midst.
Plan tea is working like a dream. After capricious mountain showers dashed my hopes of going up to Bhagsu Nag early morning and checking out the hippy village of Dharamkot, I decided to head out at noon to discover another joy of Kangra—its tea plantations.
A 40-minute drive offering views of azure mountains and rolling tea estates on the way, and we are at Palampur’s Wah tea estate. One of the several privately owned properties of its kind, the 500-acre estate was established in 1857 by the Nawab of Wah, now in Pakistan, and has changed some hands since then.
We have arrived at a clearing that is fenced off like in children’s picture books. Completing the pastoral scene is a grazing pony with a plentiful tail and rich brown coat. As I attempt to return his shy glance from under a stone bench, I hear my name. My guide, Rajesh, has reached a small tree with a bulbous crown and is inviting me to have a taste of the leaves. Chewing on them and having discerned the flavour, I declare: “Cinnamon!” Rajesh approves, with an addendum—it is camphor, cinnamon’s relative.
He walks on and plucks a few cherubic leaves that aren’t yet old enough to see what the spring has been doing with the rose bush. Kangra tea has earned its own standard for the plucking—‘two leaves and a bud’, since harvesting them at that stage ensures freshness. Rajesh proceeds to smell the thing before chewing it, and I follow suit with the air of the protégé who’s growing in stature with every sampling. The whiff floods my nostrils with the genetic memory of the whole of tea-drinking mankind. I chomp and nod involuntarily in response, and Rajesh smiles knowingly.
The hit is unmistakably of camellia sinensis—the edgy scientific name of what is quite a simple drink. “Usually, the plucking begins in April (the season of the spring flush). the softest leaves are used to make the tea.” he shares. “Kangra tea is not CTC (crush, tear, curl)—your usual milk leaf tea, but black tea, although we do make green tea as well.”
The difference lies in how oxidised the variety is—white is not oxidised; green, a little; yellow, more; oolong, a little more; and I needn’t say where black lies on the spectrum. Oxidation starts the moment tea has been picked, and heating is the way to stop it.
The ancestors of these rows of tea were brought here in the 1850s by William Jameson, superintendent of the botanical gardens at Saharanpur. The newly arrived migrants thrived in Palampur’s conducive loamy soil, and over the course of the second half of the 19th century, the area of their habitation quadrupled.
In 1883, it even earned the commendation of the Kangra Gazetteer, which called it probably the best tea in all of india. About a decade and a half ago, the district received the prestigious ‘geographic indicator’ tag for tea.
These plantations are known for their aromatic, exclusive black tea variety that doesn’t require years of tea-tasting experience to appreciate.
Meanwhile, the site of the tea-tasting session has everyone smiling with the anticipation of a boxing match, what with all the build-up and little table clock beside the samples. I am set to sip—I’ve to do it noisily, with a slurp—eight pegs of green and black tea and try to distinguish their flavours and aromas. Thanks to the tasting terms chart, I conclude that the tulsi black variety is brisk; and the lemongrass green, aromatic.
At this point, I am confident of my heightened sensitivity to fine studio pottery, the other offspring of Kangra’s fecund soil. Lest these newfound powers of mine wear off, I kiss the reetha bean I found in the fields one last goodbye, and vamoose to the nearby Andretta, to see what posterity has made of the little village’s illustrious past. The car snakes for a few minutes and pulls over by a nondescript niche into the street.
If the tea estates of Palampur are all about green, the cool blue light brought on by the canvas roofing of the shed at the entrance sets the tone for the Andretta Pottery centre. The ornate cups and saucers displayed inside the curious little showroom and laid out in the open display area, shine from far away in shades of cobalt, peacock and Prussian blue, partnered by the occasional deep red. A collage of small art pieces decks the light navy door of the showroom.
I step inside the gazebo where a wiry man is spinning the throw wheel with vigour. Kishori Lal, as he is later identified, has been a potter for at least forty summers of his life. His sinewy, fast-moving hands have acquired enough practice at first inviting, and then eluding, the visitor’s gaze. And having been snubbed, it wanders off to a septet of clay cups resting on the parapet behind. The light bounces off their slick pot bellies as if they never left the potter’s wheel. they, just like the rest of their ilk, are now drying before embarking on a long journey of baptism by fire.
In the background, out of my camera’s focus, a young man with a lightened patch of facial hair works on a clay cup, shaping it assiduously. He senses our presence and walks over for the pleasantries, his potter’s meditative poise shifts through the air with him. This is Shubham Sankhyan, the de facto in-charge here in the absence of Mansimran Singh, the celebrated artist who started pottery back in the eighties.
At the behest of Sankhyan and under the spell of the charm of the mural on the showroom’s wall, I saunter in to see the exhibits inside. The couple perched on the windowsill wrest my thoughts from the grasp of the tea plantation, and spritz them all over their happy matrimony—if at all it is that.
The man seems to be from a Tolstoy novel, even though he is without a beard, and his companion seems right out of a painting by Sardar Sobha Singh (the celebrated painter has his home, part of which is a musty old museum, a short walk from here).
At their side are small clay cups and miniature planters, and a rudimentary wind chime. the traditional motifs of these parts, the bold hues elevated by the diaphanous glazing, and the play of textures offsetting that aesthetic of symmetry— oh, one could spend hours marvelling at these pieces that are veritable specimens of utilitarian studio pottery.
Stepping out, the host points to a little cottage hidden away behind the pavilioned workshop. like a furtive old keeper of secrets that have long turned senile, the terracotta museum houses some incredible specimens of rare terracotta work—tribal masks, sculptures, clay monkeys, toads and the like—from around the world.
As I tiptoe towards the little dwelling, I am told it is not open for visiting.
The next time I’m here, hopefully for a course in pottery, I wish to be sitting on these steps, sipping good Kangra tea in one of these pot-bellied clay cups. For now, let’s head to the monasteries.