Guest Contribution by Anirudha Singh Dhanik
Berinag is a Himalayan town located 102 km from Pithoragarh (District Headquarters and easternmost Himalayan district in the state of Uttarakhand, India) and 160 km from Nainital. It is one of the six Administrative Subdivisions (tehsil) of Pithoragarh. National Highway 309A passes through Berinag. The closest prominent villages include Sangarh, Tripuradevi, Garaun, Dhanoli, Bana, Bhattigaon, Banoli, and Quarali.
Berinag gets its name from the Berinag Temple (called ‘Bedinag’ locally), which is a Nāga Devta Temple situated at the top of Berinag Hill. Berinag is among the many temples devoted to Nāgas namely Dhaulinag (Dhavalnag), Kalinag (Kaliyanag), Feninag (Faninag), Bashukinag (Vasukinag), and Pinglenag.
It offers a panoramic view of the Greater Himalayas, from Garhwal Himalayas to the Nepal ranges, especially lofty peaks like Panchachuli and Nanda Devi. The region was famous for tea estates developed during the British rule.
Berinag Tea was a highly sought-after tea in London tea houses and tea blenders for its kippery flavour. This tea was a well-known brick-tea made of leaves compressed into a solid mass and made from the leaves of a wild plant which grows in many localities in the Himalayas. It was grown in the most eastern Himalayan district in the state of Uttarakhand, but is now only grown in Chaukori which is famous for its tea gardens established by the Britishers. Laurie Baker, the connoisseur, loved Berinag tea remembering it throughout his life. Unlike other kinds of tea, Berinag tea is low in color which accounts for the delay in infusion. It is an old saying that Berinag Tea was very popular in Tibet and Daba Jongpen a Tibetan trader made a practice to buy tea from Berinag at very frugal price and label it “Chinese”, putting it in customary Tibetan regime skins to sell it to the peasantry as the best Tibetan article without giving genuine credit to the Berinag Tea.
After some years, an expert committee was appointed in 1827 to investigate the possibility of the successful cultivation of tea in Kumaon region and a tea estate was set up in Berinag. Soon after, Berinag Tea estate was bought from agents of Corbett by Dan Singh Bist. It was distributed by D.S. Bist & Sons, a company owned by Dan Singh Bist who is a billionaire philanthropist in India and popularly known as the Timber king of India. From the late 1900s till his death in 1964, Dan Singh Bist sought the tea in China, India, and London. The managers of the Berinag tea company discovered the secret of manufacturing Chinese brick tea, and their tea was admitted by unprejudiced Bhotia traders to be far superior to the Chinese article imported into Western Tibet via Lhasa. The secret ingredient not only rejuvenated the drinker but it catapulted Dan Singh like a shooting star. On 20 May 1924, at the age of 18 years, he purchased a brewery from the British Indian Corporation Limited and on those 50 acres began to build a home and office for himself and his father at Bisht Estate. Berinag tea was the number one brand in all three markets: Chinese, London and Indian. These details may be found in the Indian Government’s page of the Tea Board of India, where Berinag has file number B-803/LC and Chaukori is C-804/LC both listed as owned by D. S. Bist and Sons, on page 3 of the Tea board document. Dan Singh Bisht even managed to get handsome quota money from the Tea Board Association Calcutta, something both Corbett, as well as the previous owner Robert Bellairs’ father (from whom Corbett had bought Berinag) had failed to do. Gradually the business declined, and by 1960 only a small tea garden survived. However, after his death the tea estate was taken over by settlers and encroached. Berinag was home to one of the best tea gardens in the country until Dan Singh Bisht died.
In the famous book “Footloose in the Himalayas” written by William McKay Aitken, regarding Berinag Tea he said the packaging was just the same as it was in the 1930s: Printed on one side of the box is the advertisement “Berinag Tea Revives You”, at the top is the claim “fresh from garden”, below which the garden itself is depicted. Beneath three snowy peaks runs a long factory building at chaukori with a red tin roof. Picking the tea bushes are the three ladies all with ebony bobbed hair. The girl in the foreground looks convent educated and carries on her back the long wicker basket peculiar to Kumaun. What is intriguing is the girl’s dress: Her salvar kameej is more Chinese than Indian and sports a mandarin collar.
Woefully the brand is forgotten except by older generations. The accidental death of the magnate Dan Singh Bist in 1964 left the brand without a successor. It’s disheartening to see the current condition of the tea gardens. But for now, let’s hope for the best.
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