CHAMPAWAT TEA GARDEN
Nestled in the foothills of the northwestern Himalayas, Kumaon is a sort of forgotten region when it comes to tea production.
When the British introduced tea to India in the 1830s, they were first drawn to the acidic and well-drained soils of Kumaon. Although the plant thrived on the mountainside slopes, the region’s isolation made it difficult to get the tea from the mountains to the port, and the area was essentially abandoned in favour of Assam and Darjeeling.
It wasn't until the 1990s that the state government began looking for ways to create more economic opportunities for rural communities and turned to tea. And so, abandoned land with once-rich soil was leased from locals for cultivation, old tea bushes were rehabilitated and new organic ones were planted.
Today tea production is centered around the ancient village of Champawat where more than 450 farmers produce tea on small-scale farms amounting to nearly 150 hectares. About 90% of those working on tea cultivation are women.
The little known region known as the Kumaon Himalayas lies in the north Indian hill state of Uttarakhand, bordered on the north by Tibet, and by Nepal to the east. Tea is grown on a series of high-altitude mountain ridges that rise from gentle rolling foothills to elevations of 1900m.
The mountain environment and rich biodiversity make it a perfect place for growing tea. It’s also one of the most beautiful tea growing regions with its soaring snow clad mountains, rushing streams and steep-sided ravines fed by fresh snowmelt, alpine woods, and terraced tea gardens.
Below the snow line, the climate at the elevations where tea is grown is temperate from October to March, getting warmer and more humid from March till June. From July to September, the region experiences monsoon rains.
The first records of tea cultivation in Kumaon date back to the 1830s, when the British East India Company was searching for places to grow tea on the Indian subcontinent and find an alternative source to China. They planted imported Camellia Sinensis seeds from China and established test plots on the rugged hillsides.
The tea plant thrived here, but the region’s success was hindered by its distance from seaports. Kumaon was located hundreds of miles from the coastal British capital in Kolkata. Getting tea out of the mountains and onto ships required roads and a supply chain network that didn’t yet exist.
By the 1920s, the experimental plots in Kumaon were essentially abandoned. About a decade later, a group of six British families living on the island of Sri Lanka moved to Kumaon to revitalize its gardens. Enticed by the prospect of owning land (something unattainable on their home island), they immigrated to steward these untamed shrubs. Most of those families eventually moved away, except for one—the Birkbecks who have played a pivotal part in bringing tea growing back to life in the region.
In the 1990s, the state government was seeking ways to create more economic opportunities in rural areas and joined forces with the Birkbecks to help other local communities grow tea.