India got its first working tea museum, that too in the highest tea estate in the world, located at 6,800 ft in Darjeeling. The museum promises to be a completely new gourmet experience for tea-lovers, as tea will be the main ingredient of everything served, including rice, curries, cakes and sweet dishes.
The museum was inaugurated at the Happy Valley Tea Estate in the fringes of Darjeeling town on Wednesday. “Such concept exists in different parts of the world. Sri Lanka has a tea museum for the past 25 years. People pay hundreds of dollars to visit vineyards and witness wine-making. We finally have a tea museum in India where all this can be done,” said Sanjay Bansal, chairman of the Ambootia Tea Group, the owners of the garden.
The museum will be fully operational within the next three months and is expected to attract all the connoisseurs of the Darjeeling tea. It all began with the estate changing hands from the Banerjees to the present owners in March 2007. Happy Valley, a 400-acre garden, was bought by Amiyonath Banerjee from David Wilson in 1903. Of the 400 acres, 296 acres is covered by tea shrubs. The garden, which dates back to 1854, has been declared an organic garden.
“Though we dismantled the original factory, we rebuilt it keeping the external structure the same to preserve the old feel. All machineries more than 100 years old have been preserved in working condition and will also be displayed to the visitors. Besides, the modern machines will help people understand the transformation in tea processing and all this will happen under one roof,” said Bansal.
The management has decided on two different tours of the museum-cum-factory. There is a two-hour tour and a full-day ‘Happy Valley Tea Experience’. The tour would begin from the fourth floor of the tea factory-cum-museum in the reception area.
After putting on protective clothing, the visitors would be taken to the auditorium to see a short film on tea and the history of Happy Valley. It would be followed by an interactive question-answer session on tea and a tour of the hall showcasing old photographs, family history of previous owners and artifacts. Then the visitors would be taken to a hall to witness the withering process of tea.
They would also be shown all the intricate processes involved in producing the premium Darjeeling tea. After a tour of areas outside the factory where some of the old machinery are on display, the visitors would finally be taken to the tea tasting room, where they would be able to taste and buy the variety of their choice along with other souvenirs. “We would also be having the tea-tasting winners award of the day to be given to the person who exhibits the best qualities of a taster,” said Bansal. Each day visitors will come in 4 groups. Each group will have 25 visitors.
The tour, targeted mainly at high-end tourists, will begin at 8 am. The visitors will leave with garden workers for the fields. Each visitor will be provided with doko (bamboo baskets) and namlo (rope by which the doko is carried) for plucking tea leaves.
The visitors will be constantly assisted by a tea guide. The guide will also brief the visitor on various aspects of tea plantation — plucking, pruning and soil health. At 11 am, there would be a break in which tea lunch would be served in an open cafeteria. “All the beverages and the spread will have tea leaves as a main ingredient,” said Bansal. This would be followed by a visit to the museum. “The tea plucked by the visitors would be processed for them. A unique experience indeed,” added Bansal.
Charges for the tour hasn’t been worked out yet. “We will sit with major tour operators of Darjeeling and will work this out. We hope to start operations in the museum in the next three months,” he said.
However, all the hands involved in the tour would be from the garden. “There are children of the workers who are educated. We would like them to get involved in this process. We are not getting anyone from outside,” Bansal said. At present the garden employs 338 workers and the population of the garden is around 1,500 (workers and dependents).
About full-fledged tea tourism, Bansal said: “Our primary objective is the sale of tea. The museum would definitely boost tea sales. Later, we could give full-fledged tea tourism a thought.”
The museum and renovated factory was inaugurated by Andreas Beuch, owner of the Haelssen & Lyon, one of the largest tea importers in Germany. Beuch was accompanied by his family and had flown in from Hamburg for this occasion. He said: “The tea museum would definitely attract a lot of international tourists. Tea tourism in Darjeeling has great prospects. However, for this purpose, infrastructure has to be developed. Roads have to be in good condition. Good hotels and lodges have to come up and the local airport has to be of international standards.” Beuch also remarked that in the last five years, Darjeeling’s tea industry has undergone a sea change.
Though Bansal did not disclose the amount of money pumped into the project, he said it could roughly run into a million US dollars.