Tea time in Assam

In Dibrugarh, Assam, you get a chance to know about the history of tea and of the people whose lives revolved around it
Tea time in Assam

Tea is in my blood. Growing up in the tea gardens of the Dooars, I learnt early to savour the brew, and to live the good life of a planter&rsquos family &mdash the bungalows, the parties, the gastronomic indulgences, the good graces and much else. The tea estate was the planter&rsquos kingdom the owners of the gardens &mdash called &lsquocompany sahab&rsquo by the workforce &mdash usually lived in Kolkata, and visited once in a while, and when they did, everyone was on their best behaviour. Even the tea bushes&hellip

All my life, I&rsquove been told that the tea plantations in Assam were just different from those in the Dooars. For sure, we&rsquod hear about the planters&rsquo lives in Assam &mdash both good and bad &mdash but we&rsquod decant the good and scoff at the bad. In December, however, I had occasion to travel to Dibrugarh to get an up-close experience of the planter&rsquos life in the great beyond &mdash and to learn that I was probably a victim of false doctrine and that the &lsquotea life&rsquo there wasn&rsquot half as bad as I had been led to believe.

The advent of tea tourism has opened up the planters&rsquo lavish lifestyle to those who can afford it. But whereas tea tourism in Darjeeling is directed at the rich foreign tourist, in Assam it is accessible for discerning Indian travellers as well. For instance, in Dibrugarh, Purvi Discovery, owned and operated by the Jalans, who are old-time tea plantation owners from the area, lets visitors savour the life of a British planter. The Jalans have renovated and refurbished the bada bungalows in the gardens they own in and around Dibrugarh and Jorhat to reflect the days of the Raj. The claim was made that they&rsquod still kept their tea garden dastoors alive. Well, I was ready to test that while I was there.

There are two histories to tea &mdash one of the plant and its production, and the other of the people whose lives revolved around it. Assam is the world&rsquos largest tea-growing region, and, more uniquely, the variety of tea plant (Camellia assamica) that grows here is indigenous to the state. Long before the British started growing tea in Assam, the Singpho people, native to the region, were believed to have been aware of the properties of tea leaves but they were extremely secretive, perhaps even hostile towards their colonisers. Today, the tribespeople produce organic tea coins, which have gained immense popularity around the world.

The British set up the first tea plantations in the region in the 1830s after the East India Company lost its hold over the Chinese tea trade. The first consignment of tea sent to London was hand-rolled and roasted over slow fires for hours, packed in chests and transported on a small river vessel on the Brahmaputra to Calcutta port. In 1839, eight such chests, containing 350lb of tea, were laden on the Calcutta and auctioned at the then princely price of 35 shillings a pound.

The British planters who initially came to India to cultivate tea had no idea about tea &mdash or how their lives would turn out in India. They were selected for their knowledge of the sciences and agriculture, and packed off to India on three-and-a-half-year contracts, at the end of which they would return to England for a holiday. Their social lives revolved around the planters&rsquo clubs in each sub-district. The wives would teach the cooks to prepare food that they were accustomed to. And life would go on, until a few months before their return to England, when the servants would be dismissed and the wives would get down to doing all the household chores by themselves in preparation for their visits home.

I arrived in Dibrugarh on a bright, sunny winter afternoon, at the fag end of the tea production process and settled into my bada bungalow. When the British arrived in India, they built comfortable housing to ease themselves into life in a strange land. Most bungalows were built on stilts (and were called chang) to keep away unwanted elements and to keep the house cool. Most had huge lawns and a vegetable garden. Each was also allotted a retinue of servants cook, bearers, kitchen help, sweepers, maids, gardeners, drivers and watchmen. Mancotta Chang Bungalow, where I was to stay, was built in the late 1800s. Located a half-hour drive from Dibrugarh town, it has the endearing charm that all tea bungalows seem to possess. The high-ceilinged rooms had imitation period furniture and furnishings and the entire bungalow was surrounded by acres of tea bushes. The only sound I could hear was of birdsong.

There&rsquos a certain tea garden tradition that revolves around meals. Breakfast was the grandest affair laid out on a table in the open verandah was an array of fruit, fresh juices, eggs made to order, and heaps of toast and a ceaseless supply of steaming-hot Assam tea. The cooks, trained by Mrs Jalan, rustle up everything from scrumptious Continental dishes to local Assamese delicacies.

Evenings in the bungalow are well-suited for those who seek comfort in solitude and silence. The sun sets by 5pm in summer and 4pm in winter. From then on, the bungalow is a halogen-bulb-lit oasis in a dark desert of tea bushes and trees. Venturing out of the bungalow on foot after nightfall isn&rsquot wise  a white owl swoops down to catch a prey bats flit about in the dark. On occasion, you may even hear a leopard in the bushes.

I did venture out of the bungalow, by day, on a tour of Ethelwold Tea Estate. The air was thick with the aroma of fresh tea leaves being roasted. The hum of machinery, and the sounds of factory workers going about their tasks, brought back childhood memories of Sunday visits to the factory with my dad. I was at Ethelwold factory to (re)discover the intricacies of black tea production (crush, tear and curl or CTC method) under the guidance of Mr Bora, the plantation manager. CTC or black tea goes through five stages of production before it reaches us in the packaged form withering, processing (CTC), fermenting or oxidation, drying or roasting, and sorting. With each process, the colour, aroma and taste of the tea leaf matures. But none of this would mean much if the tea bush isn&rsquot &lsquotreated&rsquo right.

Mr Bora and I drove out into the verdant plantation. There was a nip in the air, sunlight was streaming through the trees and the wind was whistling a merry tune to the tak-tak of the plucker&rsquos fingers as they picked the &lsquotwo leaves and a bud&rsquo from the bushes. Plucking rounds start early in the morning and, depending on the humidity, several weighments (each plucker weighs in the tea leaves they&rsquove plucked) are conducted. The plucking season starts in March and ends in early December. Camellia assamica typically grows to a height of 40 to 50 ft, and so during the &lsquooff season&rsquo, tea bushes are pruned and skiffed to keep them manageable.

The slow pace of life in a tea estate can calm even the most frayed nerves. I was asleep on the dot of nine and up at daybreak raring to discover what else the place had to offer. And there was much on offer &mdash such as a stately cruise on the Brahmaputra. We drove for an eternity on bumpy village roads, and as we turned a corner, the calm blue expanse of the Brahmaputra opened up in front of me. I settled myself in a boat, mesmerised by the water and, despite the loud roar of the boat&rsquos engine as it fired up, I sank into a trance praying that I might see a river dolphin. That prayer went unanswered, but the cruise itself &mdash and a lunch break on a sandy island on the river &mdash served to keep my spirits up.

Another attraction in the area is the Namphake village, about 60 kilometres northeast of Dibrugarh in the riverine region of Buridihing, and home to some 150 families of the Tai Phake tribe. The tribe migrated from Thailand to Burma and then to Assam in the latter half of the 18th century. With them they brought their language and customs, which they nurture even today. Members of the tribe live in traditional houses built of bamboo and thatch and weave their own colourful fabrics. There&rsquos a Buddhist monastery in the town, with several ancient scriptures engraved in gold and etched on palm leaves &mdash and monks who engage visitors with cheerful banter.

We also visited the Tilinga Mandir, a Shiva temple, in Bordubi town, about 50 kilometres from Dibrugarh. Some years ago, a natural shivling formation was discovered at the base of a peepal tree, which still stands in the temple compound. Devotees come from all over Assam to tie a bell and a red thread on the walls around the tree. Today, the temple area resonates with the clink-clank of more than a million bells.

My last evening in the bungalow, one of the coldest, came alive with preparations for a Bihu performance. I stepped into the garden, where spotlights had lit up a small raised platform. A blazing fire cast a glow on the wicker chairs around. Performers dressed in traditional Assamese attire stepped onto the stage and started their song-and-dance routine as I chomped away on tea leaf pakodas. The beat of the drums, the lilting voices of the singers and the graceful moves of the dancers had me transfixed.

I returned to Mancotta for one last look at the estate. An early morning walk accompanied by my entertaining young guide, Upasana, to a machaan in the middle of the garden for my morning cuppa. The greenery, the hint of mist in the air and the smells and sounds of tea garden life made me ache for home. I sat on the machaan holding my cup of tea and looked at the more than a century old bushes around me. They had seen history being made and, with each cup of tea that they yielded, they had given back a bit of that history. Just then, my phone rang. It was my old ayah in my parents&rsquo bungalow. She asked me how I was and said, &ldquoBada baby, aap toh company sahab ban gaya&rdquo I laughed, and the tea bushes laughed with me.

The Information

Getting there
The closest airport is Mohanbari Airport, 15km northeast of Dibrugarh. Indigo and JetKonnect have direct flights to Mohanbari Airport (approx Rs 5,000 from Delhi if booked well in advance). Purvi Discovery offers pick-up and drop facilities.

When to visit
The area can be visited through the year, but is best during the tea production season (March&ndashDecember).

Where to stay
Purvi Discovery offers accommodation in three bungalows around Dibrugarh. Mancotta Bungalow and Chowkidinghee Heritage Bungalow are both on the outskirts of the city. Both are traditional chang bungalows. Wathai Heritage Bungalow, in Limbuguri Tea Estate, is the perfect base to explore Dibru Saikhowa National Park. This plinth bungalow has three guestrooms, and is the most serene and beautiful of the three.

Each bungalow has its own rates. Mancotta Chang Bungalow Rs 3,000&ndash8,500 per night Chowkidinghee Chang Bungalow Rs 1,500&ndash7,500 per night and Wathai Heritage Bungalow Rs 1,500&ndash9,000 per night. Rates are exclusive of the 5% luxury tax and the 7.42% service tax, but are inclusive of breakfast.

What to see & do

&mdash Dibru Saikhowa National Park This birdwatcher&rsquos paradise covers an area of around 340 sq km and is best known for its feral horses and white-winged wood duck.

&mdash Digboi Assam&rsquos first oil town, 80km from Dibrugarh, is home to the Digboi Centenary Museum, which through its excellent displays maps the history of oil fields in Assam. The town also has a WWII Cemetery, which makes for an interesting walkthrough.

&mdash Horse-Riding Select a horse from Purvi&rsquos stables and enjoy rides on the banks of the Brahmaputra and through the tea estates.

&mdash Boat Cruise The best time to take a leisurely cruise on the Brahmaputra is between October and April. Keep your eyes peeled for dolphins.

&mdash Tilinga Mandir Located 53km from Mancotta, this temple has a fascinating collection of bells of all shapes and sizes.

&mdash Village Visits Singpho and Namphake villages can be easily visited from all the bungalows. The Singpho village is best visited during the tea coin production season (March&ndashDecember).

Purvi Discovery customises itineraries for all its guests. For more information, see purviweb.com.

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