By Kokila Dhakal, Ilam, Feb. 26: The plantations of Ilam instantly come to mind whenever someone mentions tea in Nepal. Workers plucking tea leaves from great green fields is a magnificent sight to behold in Ilam, especially near the district headquarters, Ilam Bazaar.
But tea in Ilam is not just a modern phenomenon. The district holds a long and glorious history as far as the drink is concerned. In fact, Ilam was the place where tea was planted for the first time in Nepal, by the then governor of Ilam Gajraj Singh Thapa.
But the very first plantation that introduced our most popular beverage, now lies in ruins. The government decided to lease the plantation to the Triveni Shanghai Group for 50 years in 2000, but the group has taken no concrete steps towards protecting or renovating the site.
Fearing the loss of their tea history, the locals of the district have been asking the government to declare the plantation as a tea research centre. The condition of the site is so bad that the sixth municipal assembly of Ilam Municipality also requested the government to preserve it and to hand it over to the municipality.
According to Thakur Shrestha, spokesperson of the municipality, the assembly decided to ask the government to conserve the historical plantation and to develop it as a tea museum and study and research centre.
The tea plants here are of a rare species that is hard to find anywhere else in the world, as per Sonam Paljor Lama, a tea specialist. “These tea plants, brought over from China 150 years ago, are original Camellia Sinensis, which are only found in three or four sections of this plantation,” he said. “To see such a rare tea plant, not found anywhere else in the world, not properly studied and conserved is disheartening,” he expressed.
However, chairman of National Tea and Coffee Development Board (NTCTB) Deepak Khanal said that NTCTB had no record that Ilam tea garden had rare species as claimed by Lama.
“I do not know why and how Sonamji made such claim; officially we have no such record in our office in Ilam,” he said.
According to historical records, the Chinese emperor had presented the tea plants as a gift to the first Rana prime minister Jung Bahadur Rana who then gave them to Gajraj Singh Thapa. Thapa brought the plants over to Ilam and started cultivating them and gradually they spread to other districts as well.
“This history is being destroyed because the plantation was privatised,” claimed historian and former chief of Ilam Campus Yuddha Prasad Vaidya, adding, “The plantation had many old brass machines, a big bell and many artefacts which have all disappeared now.” He stated that the tea plantation was a national heritage and carried the legacy of tea in the country.
NTCTB chairman Khanal also said that the tea garden of Ilam should be developed into a research centre.
“As the tea garden is the oldest one of Nepal and since we have no tea research centre, the NTCDB also wants to develop the Ilam tea garden into a research centre,” Khanal told The Rising Nepal.
Even though the locals and the municipality have long been raising their voice for the preservation of the area, their pleas have so far fallen on deaf ears. “We have asked the former speakers, former prime ministers, many sitting and former lawmakers to take initiatives to hand the plantation over to the municipality, but no action has been taken so far,” Mayor of Ilam Municipality Mahesh Basnet stated, “So, we passed a formal resolution from the municipal assembly this time and have asked the government to conserve this historical site.”