Rajah Banerjee: Darjeeling’s Bad Boy
“I don’t make mistakes; I only learn another way not to do it right.”
So says Rajah Banerjee, the iconic leader of Darjeeling’s legendary Makaibari Estate. As you can imagine from this quote, Rajah is a polarizing figure in the tea world – some call him a visionary, while others write him off as out of touch with reality.
In my experience, both views fall short of the actual. Equally inspiring and infuriating, Rajah escapes any quick definition. And as I’ve had the chance to get to know him, this enigma of a man has only become more complex.
“The basic issue of all humanity is one of imbalance.”
I met Rajah three years ago at Makaibari, and my first impression was mixed: chasing after him during a walk through the Makaibari garden, I was both drawn to his overwhelming charisma and highly skeptical of his heavy-handed bravado.
Yet his graciousness and intelligence were undeniable, as was his track record. As a pioneer of organic and biodynamic practices, where Rajah has gone, the rest of Darjeeling has followed.
Then last April I invited Rajah to visit the US for a lecture series. To my surprise he accepted, so I worked with Ms. Anupa Mueller of Eco-Prima Tea to organize Rajah’s first west coast tour. Then in October, Rajah and I made the drive from Seattle to San Francisco in my beat up ’98 Honda CR-V. Along the way, Rajah shocked, frightened, and dazzled people as he talked about the holistic practices at Makaibari.
Having seen Rajah in and out of the public eye on two separate continents, the fairest way I can summarize him is this: Rajah Banerjee operates on a different wavelength than the rest of us.
Rajah is the closest thing to royalty I’ve ever met. Born into Darjeeling high-society, he did his college studies in the UK. Following, he returned to become the fourth generation of his family to own and manage the Makaibari Estate. From the first few hours we spent together, it was clear he felt responsible for the well-being of the communities that supported and relied on Makaibari’s success.
Since meeting Rajah, I’ve visited many other Darjeeling gardens and Makaibari clearly adheres to an ethical standard that sets itself apart. The community readily voices their strong loyalty to Rajah while also being empowered enough to give critiques. I learned this by staying in the Homestay Program that Rajah introduced, where visitors can stay with Makaibari families. The program’s encouraged interaction between tea workers and outsiders has created unparalleled levels of transparency for an Indian tea garden.
“Trees are poetry that the earth writes for the sky; we chop them down to record our own emptiness.”
Biodynamics takes a systems-level approach to agriculture, considering the health of the ecosystem as a whole rather than that of any individual crop. Strongly influenced by Steiner, Rajah returned to Makaibari where he applied Steiner’s work on the slopes of the family garden. After leading Makaibari to become the first certified organic tea garden in the world, he then made Makaibari the first garden to receive the Demeter certification for biodynamic practices.In addition to caring about Makaibari’s people, Rajah also cares about the garden itself. He attributes that commitment to a moment when he fell off his horse, and in an out-of-body moment, heard the trees saying “Save us”. However, the groundwork for the epiphany, which he calls the “Critical Ignition Point”, was laid before that — in college Rajah was introduced to the work of Rudolph Steiner, an Austrian philosopher and scientist who lived between 1861-1925. Steiner’s work aimed to synthesize science and spirituality, and the agricultural application of his work has become known today as Biodynamics.
When Rajah visited the US, his lecture series focused on the work of biodynamics. And of course, it was complete with signature Rajah flair — the title of his presentation was “Biodynamic Bullshit.” Hearing him speak so passionately about his work, this was Rajah in his element.
“You must be a mirror for others to see reflections of themselves.”
Yet, beyond any social or environmental issue, the most captivating aspect of Rajah is his aurora of otherworldliness. He seems to draw his energy from somewhere beyond, and the rest of us can only try to keep up.
Often, he’ll be saying something esoteric and inside my head, I’m thinking “Rajah, I have no clue what you’re talking about.” Then he’ll slide into focus and drop an idea both profound and poetic. While I’m trying to absorb the significance, he’s already off into another story, laughing himself into an infectious joy.