A ‘condolence’ message to Madan Tamang’s family … “For His Truth, he lived & died, so that man could become Wiser”.
Oolongs & Rhododendrons
Madan Tamang’s Twin Passions
Madan Tamang is the gentleman behind the family-run Meghma tea estate on the India-Nepal border. Our Honeybee oolong tea was grown there, which makes us doubly excited about sharing his story. Meghma is very close to Darjeeling, so we were able to catch up with Madan during a visit in October, 2006. As you’re about to find out, he’s very passionate about two things oolong tea and rhododendrons. Lucky for him, he’s found a way to incorporate both into his life’s work. We should all be so fortunate. Here’s a glimpse into Madan’s world.
Madan — thanks so much for speaking with us. Why don’t you start by telling us a little bit about yourself.
Madan Tamang at our Darjeeling home / Photo by The Simple Leaf ©
I come from a large family of 12 brothers and sisters. Our ancestral village is in Meghma, on the Indo-Nepal border. Our family has large tracts of land on both sides of the border. In the past, we used these areas for growing food crops and rearing livestock. This took care of our basic daily needs.
What brought you into the world of tea?
My grandfather had always wanted to grow tea but could not source the expertise and knowledge required to start. He also did not have the time as he was a very busy man. Basically, I am doing my best to fulfill his dream. I am also trying to make responsible and adequate use of our ancestral land holdings.
How did you get started? I would imagine that it is probably not that easy to start a tea estate.
I got my start back in 1994 when I simply planted a few saplings as an experiment. Well, things went very well and I now have about 85 acres under tea cultivation. I know this is a small amount of land, but my goals are not to be a big industrial tea estate. What I really want to do is to cover only about 120 acres. I want to produce very exclusive teas for a select, discerning clientele.
In my younger days, I had limited knowledge of tea but with the help of expert tea growers from Darjeeling, I was able to learn a lot. Being close to Darjeeling and in constant contact with some of the world’s best tea growers has helped give me my start into the world of tea.
Where exactly is Meghma located?
The wind-swept Mt. Kumbhakarna viewed from Tonglu, near the Meghma tea estate.
Meghma tea estate is located in the India-Nepal border region, in the Darjeeling District of India. It’s so close to Darjeeling that I spend a lot of time in both places. In fact, our ancestral land, as I mentioned before, is on both sides of the border. So I am equally at home in both places.
The Indian sub-continent is not really known for it’s oolong teas. What made you decide on producing an oolong?
My vision is to create a 200 acre Rhododendron forest in Meghma.
It’s largely a matter of economics. We didn’t have all the resources that the larger tea estates have. So the cost-structure of producing an oolong tea suited me very well. No factory or expensive equipment was required for this type of manufacture. Secondly, I was able to (by trial and error), eventually produce a fairly pleasing cup which my clients abroad found quite refreshing. Once I knew that I had produced a good tea, I decided to focus on oolongs.
The other aspect of my wanting to produce an oolong was because of its healthy properties. Recorded medical benefits are that this tea reduces cholesterol levels as well as high blood pressure whilst reducing the risk of arterial diseases as well. So it’s quite healthy of course. That’s an added benefit!
What makes an oolong an oolong?
Basically an oolong is a semi-oxidized tea, which means it is exposed to oxygen less than a typical black tea, but slightly more than a typical green tea. This is what distinguishes it from black or green teas. Green tea undergoes little to no oxidation, while black tea undergoes longer oxidation, or exposure to oxygen in the air. Sometimes people say that an oolong tea is in between black and green tea.
Is your tea really all hand rolled? Can you walk us through the process of making your oolong?
Our production is more akin to the Taiwanese methods with local adaptations.
Yes, our tea is completely hand rolled. Our methods are actually very simple — after plucking the green leaf, it is manually hand rolled and then spread out on a table and covered with a moist cloth for the semi-fermentation process to begin. This can take up to 4 hours.
The leaves are then placed on large pans with handles and charcoal-fired for about 10 to 15 minutes, depending on atmospheric conditions.
Next, we place the leaves on a table for cooling — we do this for up to 3 or 4 hours. Most of the moisture in the tea has gone by now. These unsorted, dried leaves are then passed through a series of meshes of varying sizes to separate the larger leaves from the smaller ones. In the tea industry, we call this process grading. Finally, we pack the tea into plywood chests or paper sacks for delivery to customers, and the production process is complete.
Some critics say that oolongs produced in the Indian sub-continent will never rival those from Taiwan or mainland China. What are your thoughts?
My response is simple. Of course Taiwan and China produce some wonderful oolongs. But I think it is important to note that we are not in competition with them. Incidentally, our production is more akin to the Taiwanese methods than the Chinese methods. But of course, there are some local adaptations as we do not have the same conditions as China or Taiwan. As far as quality, we think ours is a unique oolong that can stand on its own. What matters ultimately is that a few discerning people like my tea. That makes us very happy indeed.
On to a more serious topic. The welfare of tea workers is a big issue throughout the Indian sub-continent. How are you addressing this at Meghma?
Meghma Tea Bushes / Photo courtesy Madan Tamang ©
It is a sad fact that the Indian sub-continent has a long way to go before it addresses the economic plight of the poorer sections of society, no matter in what industry. That being said, we try to do our part to improve our worker’s lives in whatever small ways we can. For example, we pay our workers a daily wage that is higher than the industry norm in Nepal.
Ours is largely a philanthropic venture, so as we make profits, we re-invest the proceeds into a fund that rejuvenates the rhododendron forests and generates additional local employment. As profits increase, we plan on doing much more in terms of improving basic amenities like housing, water etc. Social welfare is a big part of our current and long term plans. As our project yields returns, it is my earnest wish to continue to improve the lot of the local population.
Since tea is a seasonal crop, we try to look after our workers in the off-season as well. That is why, during the lean months, our workers produce and sell a hand-made paper from the bark of the Daphne bholua plant. The bark of this plant is pulped in water and then spread out and dried to produce an eco-friendly paper. In fact, we use this paper in some of our packaging. This provides some much-needed income to the workers to help weather the slower times of the year.
You’re also very passionate about Rhododendron forests. Why is this so important to you and how does it impact the people of Meghma?
So far in 2006, I have planted 227,000 rhododendron saplings.
In addition to tea, Rhododendrons are also a serious passion for me. This is mostly because as a child, I have fond memories of growing up surrounded by beautiful Rhododendron forests. Unfortunately, scarcity of fuel resulted in the denuding of these forests by villagers. Sadly, people were forced to chop the trees down for firewood just to fulfill basic heating needs.
Having witnessed the destruction of these forests, it is my dream to help rejuvenate these areas by planting as many Rhododendron saplings as possible. So far in 2006, I have planted 227,000 saplings. My vision is to create a 200 acre forest with proper fencing. This will not only help the eco-system’s health, but it will also have the addded benefit of generating plenty of local employment. It is a 10 year project and an ongoing labor of love for me. I feel that the Rhododendron replanting initiative is one of the best ways that we can help the regional eco-system and its people. As I mentioned before, we channel the proceeds of the sales of our tea into a fund that is used to rejuvenate these forests.
What does the future hold in store for the Nepalese tea industry?
The tea industry in Nepal is in dire straits today. I hope that being in the neighborhood of the Darjeeling district, which has similar climatic conditions, will help promote our teas to a sustainable level. We have been practicing organic farming on our estate for some time now, and I think our practices illustrate a sustainable future for the Nepalese tea industry.
Thanks for speaking with us Madan. It’s been very enlightening to learn about the Meghma project.
It has been a pleasure. It is extremely encouraging to see that teas from our region find mention in the west. I do hope that The Simple Leaf meets with all success and I wish you the very best. I will be forwarding you samples of our produce from time to time, to enable you to keep your customers abreast of our efforts to improve quality to the best of our ability.
OBITUARY: Madan Tamang – 1948-2010 – Voice of opposition, always
Madan Tamang died as bravely as he had lived.
Arguably, the hills’ most-gifted orator in politics, Tamang had never wavered when it came to speaking his mind, which, in the end, cost him his life.
He entered politics when in college and became a close associate of the then undisputed leader of the hills, Deo Prakash Rai. During the 1970s, he headed Tarun Gorkha, the Akhil Bharatiya Gorkha League’s (ABGL) youth wing, and shot into the limelight with his oratory.
In 1977, he was made the district secretary of the League but resigned in 1980 to join a new outfit called Pranta Parishad. His exit from the League was largely because of differences with senior leaders.
Pranta Parishad threatened to overshadow the League after it spearheaded a campaign along with apolitical organisations like the Nepali Bhasa Manyata Samiti to include the Nepali language in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution.
Tamang had worked closely with Subash Ghisingh during the early days of Pranta Parishad, but the latter floated the GNLF in 1980 and slowly started overshadowing the Parishad with the statehood demand.
By 1986, the entire hills were with Ghisingh but Tamang refused to join him. Even at the height of the Gorkhaland agitation, between 1986 and 1988, Tamang never shied away from criticising Ghisingh and the violence he had unleashed. Tamang was then the only hill resident who openly spoke against the GNLF.
The GNLF did not take things lying down and burnt his ancestral house at Meghma near Sandakphu.
In 1992, Tamang floated the Gorkha Democratic Front (GDF) when the GNLF started opposing the inclusion of the Nepali language in the Constitution. The GNLF wanted the language in the Constitution after having its name changed from Nepali to Gorkhali.
At a public meeting at Chowk Bazaar, hordes of khukuri-wielding GNLF supporters surrounded Tamang once but he stood his ground and continued with his speech. In the end, the language was incorporated as Nepali/Gorkha in the Constitution.
After his success with the language agitation, Tamang lied low only to rejoin the League in 2004.
He defied GNLF-sponsored strikes to address public meetings against the inclusion of the hills in the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. His vehicle was attacked in Kalimpong, his meeting was stoned in Bijanbari but he never lived in fear. Instead, he headed an anti-Ghisingh conglomeration called the People’s Democratic Front.
When the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha came into being in 2007, he initially supported the new party but animosity started to set in when his call for a collective leadership to pursue the statehood demand was disregarded. Alleged Morcha supporters attacked his house, burnt a League office and prevented him from holding public meetings, but nothing could stop him from voicing his views.
Recently, Tamang played a vital role in bringing several non-Morcha outfits to form the Democratic Front.
Tamang dedicated his life to politics but he also loved to live life kingsize. Well read, he had one of the finest collections of books in the hills. He was a keen gardener and his Gothic-style house suggested he was a man of taste.
Tamang – A dissenting voice
FROM INDIAN EXPRESS
BY SUBRATA NAGCHOUDHURY
KOLKATA: Barely three days before he was brutally killed in the heart of Darjeeling town on Friday morning, Madan Tamang, president of the All India Gorkha League — one of the oldest political outfits in Darjeeling — had met West Bengal Governor M K Narayanan in a deputation, urging him to do everything to restore the rule of law in Darjeeling.
“The issue at the moment is not a separate state, but to safeguard the fundamental rights of the people and to allow them to live freely and fearlessly,” Tamang had told the Governor on May 18, according to R B Rai, of the Communist Party of Revolutionary Marxists (CPRM).
Tamang and Rai were part of a forum called “Democratic Front”, which included organisations like the All India Gorkha League, CPRM, BJP, Gorkha National Liberation Front (C), Darjeeling-Sikkim Unification Manch, and Sikkim Rashtriya Mukti Morcha. All of them felt suffocated in the hills as Gorkha Janmukti Morcha led by Bimal Gurung was said to be suppressing their freedom.
Tamang, brother of Amar Lama who is one of the top most leaders of the GJM, was the last one to be cowed down by threats. His was a dissenting voice that did not stop shouting when Subhash Ghisingh was at the helm of affairs. He did not stop criticising Gurung and publicly described the proposed interim council which the GJM was negotiating with the Centre as a “sell-off”.
The Gorkhaland movement started in the early 80s, with Tamang setting up the “Pranta Parishad”, which demanded a separate state for Darjeeling. But soon the emergence of Ghisingh and the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) virtually hijacked Tamang’s movement.
The GNLF supremo undoubtedly eclipsed all the hill leaders except Tamang, who continued to criticise the hill council accepted by Ghisingh and would often dare him to oust him from the hills.
In fact, Tamang was described by a number of hill leaders as the one who had the guts to treat Ghisingh’s diktats with utter contempt and in a way stoked the simmering dissent within the GNLF that ultimately reflected in the formation of the GJM led by Gurung.
“It was Madan Tamang who readied the ground for opposing the autocratic rule of Subhash Ghisingh for over two decades, and the GJM took the advantage,” said Rai.
A Buddhist by religion, Tamang had adopted a son. His hilltop bungalow in Darjeeling was always the talk of the town. Apart from being a contractor, he owned a tea garden called Meghma on the Indo-Nepal border.