Eastern India

Eastern India: tea plantations – Friends Holiday 2023

If Goscinny and Uderzo are believed, it was Getafix that brought tea to the Western world. At the end of Asterix in Britain, Asterix adds hot water and a dash of milk to the herbs given to him by the druid, and voila, a cup of steaming tea results. And where did Getafix’s herbs come from?

This is what both history and comic books agree on: ancient China, where legend has it that the wind accidentally blew tea leaves into the Shennong Emperor’s hot water bowl sometime around 2737 BCE. Others say it was actually Gautam Buddha’s hot water bowl. Not a bad creation myth in either case. But what we do know is that a certain Dr. Campbell, a civilian surgeon in the Indian Medical Service, planted the first tea in Darjeeling in 1841, with seedlings brought from China via the Botanical Gardens in Kolkata. He tended the plants in his garden for six years and then decided to start tea plantations in the area.

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Hillside (Photo by rajkumar1220)

His first converts were his confreres in the civil service: Captain Samler, Dr. Whitcombe, Mr. Grant and Dr. Hooker who first made tea in the famous Lebong. One must add the name of the legendary Maniram Dutta Baruah of Assam. He was originally an advisor to the titular Ahom King. Maniram joined Assam Company, the first ever tea company in India, as Dewan in 1839.

His first bonhomie with the British, who deposed the Ahom King in 1833, did not last long. In 1845, he resigned to start his own tea garden, becoming the first Indian tea plantation owner in the subcontinent. Due to his rebelliousness and his participation in the Sepoy Rebellion in 1857, Maniram Dewan was hanged by the British in 1858. Meanwhile, in Darjeeling, the British love affair with tea was in full bloom. Plantations emerged in the 1850s and 60s, with gardens in Tukvar, Steinthal, Alubari, Dhutaria, Ambutia, Phubsering, Badamtam, Makaibari…. Whisper these names: they make a strange music, like tea leaves dancing in warm water. By 1870 there were 56 tea gardens covering an area of ​​4,400 hectares and producing more than 70,000 kg of tea.

Tea plantation in Sontipur, Assam (Photo by Amlam Basumanti)
Tea plantation in Sontipur, Assam (Photo by Amlam Basumanti)

Vast areas of jungle had to be cleared for the plantations and workers had to be coerced or forced to work in the gardens. Most of them were recruited from Nepal and parts of Sikkim, often working in dangerous, unsanitary conditions. The plantations continued in independent India, small portions of special tradition in a changing country. The tea planters had huge salaries, colonial bungalows with multiple rooms and countless followers, went to kamjari (work) and partook of bara hazri (breakfast), enjoyed golf, tennis, picnics and hectic drinking parties in the off season…. the contemporary phenomenon of tea plantation tourism is based on giving you a taste of these discreet charms of the plantation, but also getting to know your tea, new landscapes and new ways of life.

Long periods at sea, sailors sometimes hallucinate that they are not surrounded by blue waters but rippling green fields. This condition is known as calentura and reckless sailors have been known to step off the deck and slide silently into the bottomless blue. But in these plantations, it feels possible to be stranded in a veritable sea of ​​green, to look out at endless vistas of vegetation stretching as far as the eye can see.

Mancotta Chang Bungalow

Little prepares one for the grace of the sylvan of Mancotta as one enters the pristine city of Dibrugarh. The city is indistinguishable from perhaps a thousand other small towns in India. But two things make it unique: tea gardens in the heart of the city and the Brahmaputra River, well-behaved most of the time but a roaring, roaring torrent in the monsoon months.

The Jalan tea gardens are spread across the town of Dibrugarh – the Jalans are one of the oldest tea growing families in Assam, their business dating back to the mid-19th century and still going strong – and we drive through them on the way to the headquarters. The bushes are about 2m tall and we are told that the peak tea picking season is from April to October. Unlike their Darjeeling counterparts, Assam’s tea gardens are located on the plains and receive the direct glare of the sun all day long. Since this is not good for the plants, acacia or black pepper trees are planted at regular intervals so that they can filter the sunlight and provide the necessary shade. Citronellas along the edges of the gardens repel unwanted insects.

Dibrugarh (Photo by Akarsh Simha)
Dibrugarh (Photo by Akarsh Simha)

As we drive along, a narrow dirt road slides off the main road to the main entrance to the manager’s property. Inside is a stately bungalow, more than 150 years old, seemingly floating without any visible support in front of a gently unfurling prospect of tea bushes. The lawn and pebble paths are immaculate and a gardener is hard at work over flower beds. Only as we get closer do we see the dozens of even wooden stilts on which the bungalow stands.

Throughout the state of Assam, these bungalows are known as Chang bungalows. The original reason for the stilts was to keep out water and ward off wildlife attacks – even now, occasional forays by leopards into the tea gardens are not unheard of. We look at probably the best of them all, the Mancotta Chang, located at the outskirts of Dibrugarh. The Mancotta bungalow is also owned by the Jalans. They have converted two of their ‘manager’s bungalows’ into guest accommodations, but not of the usual tourist variety. They aren’t even advertised often.

The Jalans have a stable of more than a dozen beautiful thoroughbreds and, in collaboration with an international maturation company ‘In the Saddle’, offer a horse riding holiday based in Mancotta. Our bedroom is on the first floor (there are six rooms available at Mancotta Chang) and we have to climb a semi-covered staircase with a charming umbrella and hat stand in one corner. Once we get to the top, we cross some acres and acres of floor space to get to our room.

Traditional Stilthuis (Photo by rajkumar1220)
Traditional Stilthuis (Photo by rajkumar1220)

The planters clearly did not believe in doing anything in half measures. The bedroom seems big enough for an army to sleep in, with huge box windows looking out onto the lawn. There is a writing table on the wall opposite the bed, an armchair, a shoe rack, a mirror and a dresser. The room leads to a small dressing room, which in turn communicates with the bathroom. As if this isn’t enough, there is a large sitting room outside. We spend most of our time lounging on the rectangular veranda that runs along the front and side of the bungalow.

Most of it is covered with the ubiquitous mosquito wire so beloved of the Raj. There are maps on the walls and fading group photos of the garden staff. In the somnolent afternoon of the afternoon, I feel like I got confused more than a century ago. I half expect screaming children to explode from the rooms, chased by an admonishing ayah or an older sibling, or a legendary red-faced army channel demanding his afternoon cuppa. Daily life in the bungalow is ceremonial, like a slow pavane danced to an invisible orchestra.

Breakfast is served on the sunny veranda in all its English splendor – there’s honey and marmalade and scrambled eggs and chops and fried tomatoes to go with the toast and tea. The dinner had been equally solemn and elaborate, starting with an excellent tomato soup and ending with a trifle. We are overwhelmed by the attentions of the kitchen staff as they flit silently back and forth between the courses. And of course there is that most English institution of all, bed tea (palangchai), delivered with Jeevesian precision and discretion at the desired hour. Lulled into an almost lotus-like trance by Mancotta’s charms, it is sometimes easy to forget that one is in the middle of a working tea plantation.

Mancotta is not your average heritage, stale in its own beautiful isolation, cut off from its past. Life goes on as usual, amid the linear cleanliness of the tea hedges. Children go to school while their mothers pick tea leaves and the factories hum with rolling, baking and sorting. The tea is then packed and labeled and sent to the auction houses in Guwahati from where they make their way to all corners of the world. Over all these activities, the Mancotta Chang has stood sentinel for more than a century and a half, a fixed point in a world of change.

Sunset at the Brahmaputra River (Photo by Donvikro)
Sunset at the Brahmaputra River (Photo by Donvikro)

Dam Dim

And after going to the Dam Dim Tea Estate, back in the city, we still dream of green fields and a cup of gold. We drive into the Tata Tea estate mid-afternoon, the weak winter light turning from gold to gray. Located in the Chel area of ​​Jalpaiguri, the estate was originally known as Barrons Tea Estate in the 1920s and is spread over nearly 1,400 hectares. The cream bungalow is in the heart of the plantation, all shiny and newly painted. In the bungalow we live the good life, billeted in two of the three recently renovated suites.

The meals are delicious and in turn cooked with the vegetables and herbs freshly picked from the vegetable garden. We sit for hours on top of one of the miniature machans in the bungalow garden and read a book. The landscape around has gently undulating tea bushes as far as the eye can see. After sunset we are treated to a small divertissement of song and dance by the young people who live in the gardens. What appears to be a simple routine of drum beats and a conga line becomes immensely complex once we join the dance, with our inept footwork providing some comic relief. Not far from the bungalow is the Gorumara Forest Reserve, famous for its elephants and separated from the estate only by the watery ribbon of the Chel River.

Lush green tea field (Photo by Akarsh Simha)
Lush green tea field (Photo by Akarsh Simha)

Everyone we meet speaks excitedly about the herd of elephants, which had been rounded up last month for the benefit of a BBC team. Elephants make somewhat uneasy neighbors; good for tourism, they also occasionally take it into their heads to spend days picnicking in the plantation, eating crops and damaging tea bushes. Driving along the river the next morning, we immediately see telltale signs of pachyderm presence throughout a lone tree – dung and hair.

The riverbank has a pucca watchtower from which you can keep an eye on the approach of wild elephants. We’re told it’s possible to smell a herd even before you can see them. We look across the river at the dim outline of the forest reserve and smell the air in vain – but Gorumara’s elephants have no intention of obliging us with a photo-op. We live in hope, and in the substantive knowledge of returning to Dam Dim, a day with a golden tea scent.

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