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Darjeeling hangs 2,130 metres above sea level in the Himalayan foothills. A town more Nepalese than Indian in character, it is accessed by a single tortuous road, hardly wider than a track. Known as the Queen of the Hills in the days of Empire, the famous tea estates associated with the town still blanket the vast, steep and beautiful slopes of the area. The tea output: Assam, China, Oolong, and Orange Pekoe, is coveted around the world.
The story of Darjeeling tea has always been intricately tied to the women of the area who form 70% of the labour force. Their traditional knowledge of the two-leaves-and-one-bud plucking methods and care of the tea bushes is passed down by mothers to daughters. Toiling hard, these women are the true queens of the tea plantations. Days are long during the picking season, with their baskets being filled with leaves on an average of twice a day. Once full, the women carry these loads of leaves down to a weighing station where their quota is noted. In their homes, they continue working: cooking, cleaning, drawing water, and taking care of their children who attend local schools. Often the main breadwinners, the the work of these skillful women entitles their families to year-round wages and the housing and other benefits offered by the tea estates.
Despite their hard lives, the tea pickers have their own beauty, the imaginative colours of their clothes and accessories amplifying the effect. The following images record the story of the leaves picked with such grace, dignity and tenacity by the women of Darjeeling.