Tales from Assam

Today I chronicle something that I have not experienced first-hand, but writing about experiences of other people that I know.  All anecdotes are from the state of Assam in the northeast of India.  Assam is synonymous with two things – tea and Indian One-horned Rhinoceros.

Assam is the largest of the north-eastern states (a.k.a. the Seven Sisters viz. Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Meghalaya, and Tripura) and was once known as Kamrup.  Assamese culture is very similar to Bengali culture; the state is very fertile and green and during the Monsoon season highly flood-prone, when the waters of the Brahmaputra River swell menacingly.  Kamrup for centuries was ruled by a dynasty called Ahom.  A friend of mine, descended from the Ahoms, owns one of the largest private tea gardens in the state.  Ahom is pronounced the same way as you would say in English “a zoo is like ‘a home’ for wild animals”.

Anyway,let me first tell you about the history of tea planting in India, before a word on the fascinating Rhinos and a few adventurous anecdotes from Assam.

There is a general belief that tea drinking originated in China as a medicinal drink and was introduced in India in early 19th century when British East India Company began tea cultivation in Assam, but this is only half the truth.  Yes, indeedy doo, tea seeds smuggled out of China by the British were planted here, but India’s tryst with tea goes a long way… nearly 3000 years.  According to historical records Indians drank tea as far back as 750 BCE, but the thrust for large scale systematic tea production and export was done by the British who were addicted to tea drinking.  The other reason British wanted to grow tea in India was to break the Chinese monopoly on tea trade.

Owing to their predilection for this beverage British bought large quantities of it from the Chinese and by the middle of the 18th century were purchasing tea worth millions of poundsevery year from China.  It was quite obvious that their addiction to tea was costing them a pretty penny though they managed to offset some of it through opium trade with the Chinese who were as addicted to the drug as the English were to their tea.  The English Lion chafed at being held to ransom by the Chinese Dragon and desperately wanted to break itsmonopoly on tea trade and geta bigger slice of the profits, so they made a critical decision!  They decided to understand tea production and cultivate the crop in India.

All rivers in India are females but Brahmaputra is the only male river.  Brahmaputra literally means ‘Brahma’s son’; ‘putra’ means son and Brahma is one of the holy trinity that includes Vishnu and Shiva.  Brahma is the creator of the universe; Vishnu is the protector; and Shiva is the destroyer.  There are only two temples dedicated to Brahma in the whole of India (he has done his job, now what more do we want from him), but there are thousands dedicated to Vishnu and Shiva (we must pamper them because we need their help all the time).

Every year Brahmaputra floods over and the national highway (N.H. 37) that passes through the length of the state (from west to east) gets inundated.  In one of the very popular National Parks of India Kaziranga NP – a 430 sq. km area famous for the Indian One-horned Rhinoceros – Brahmaputra floods the forests and grasslands, forcing animals to seek higher ground outside the park area.

Kaziranga NP is sandwiched between the river to its north and the highway to the south, and on the other side of the road are tea gardens, so animals fleeing the flood waters venture onto the highway, and then into the tea gardens.  Each year dozens of wild animals that include the Indian Rhino are run over by speeding trucks on the highway and several die in thisdeluge.  It’s sad to see these animals caught in a crossfire between Nature’s fury and man’s apathy.

In early 1774 Warren Hastings, the Governor-General of Bengal (1773-1784), sent a few select samples of Chinese tea seeds to George Boyle, the British emissary in Bhutan, to be planted there.In 1776, the eminent English botanist Sir John Banks was assigned to make notes on tea who, after an extensive study,concluded that the British can undertake tea cultivation in India.  Some others like Colonel Robert Kyd of East India Company who founded abotanical garden (now known as Indian Botanical Garden)at Howrah in Calcutta (Kolkata) in 1780, also tried to cultivate the Chinese tea seeds, but all such early attempts at tea cultivation in India were not successful.  The Chinese tea seeds could not survive the hot Indian weather!

According to an Indian proverb ‘it is always darkest under the lamp’ which means that at most times we fail to appreciate (or even notice) something familiar or closest to us; something similar happened around that time.  While some were busy trying to grow Chinese tea in India, a Scottish explorer Robert Bruce made a startling discovery in 1823.  An Assamese aristocrat – Maniram Dutta – told Robert about a tribe called Singphos, and to his astonishment found them consuming a beverage prepared from a native plant growing in the Upper Brahmaputra Valley.  It tasted like tea!

Robert decided to get the plant classified and catalogued butbefore he could do that he passed away leaving the task to his younger brother Charles Alexander Bruce.  In 1834, a year after they were located by Robert, Charles sent the tea samples to the Botanical Garden in Calcutta where they were officially classified as a variation of Camellia sinensisvarsinensis – the Chinese tea plant.  The Indian plant was named Camellia sinensisvarassamica.

As has been the case with many things in India, the ‘bloody native’ plant was considered inferior to its Chinese cousin but that soon changed.  Another factor that went in its favour was that the Chinese variety was unable to survive the hot weather conditions in Assam. Eventually, the British decided to go ahead with Camellia sinensisvarassamica, welcominganyone who was willing to grow tea for export, offering them land in Assam.  It appealed to the enterprising, as well as the adventurous, as at that time Assam was considered a dangerous place to be in, with its wildlife and tropical diseases.  But there were some who dared and the tea industry began to take its shape on shaky but firm foundations.

Large scale tea planting began in the 1820s: land was acquired from the Ahoms(dynasty that ruled Assam for six centuries) under the treaty of Yandaboo, and the first English tea garden came up in 1837, in eastern Assam in a place called Chabua*.  A tea plant takes up to 12 years to mature and by 1838, the first consignment of 12 chests of Assam tea had reached London. Subsequently Assam Company – the first joint stock tea company – was set up in London and followed by other companies like George Williamson and Jorehaut Tea Company.

*During the Second World War, Chabua was one of the largest air bases used by the US army to ferry supplies and personnel to China.

At the same time as this, the Royal Horticultural Society engaged Robert Fortune, a Scottish botanist, for collecting various plants for export to Great Britain (1842-45).  This was not Fortune’s only trip to China, and he returned a few years later on a covert mission.  In 1848, the British East India Company sent Robert Fortune on a trip to China’s interior, an area forbidden to foreigners. Fortune’s mission was to steal the secrets of tea horticulture and manufacturing.  Incognito the daring Scot ventured into the Wu Si Shan hills in a bold act of corporate espionage.  Thiscloak and dagger mission was necessary as tea cultivation and processing was a well-guarded secret in China.  Tea seeds and plants had been available to the British earlier,but they lacked the expertise for tea plant care, as well as processing and oxidising of tea leaves.

In 1829,Lord Bentick – then Governor-General of India – sent two officers to settle a border dispute between Nepal and of Sikkim*.  These officers stayed in Dorjeling – an old Gurkha station – and found the area fit for a sanatorium and military outpost.  On behest of Lord Bentick, Dorjeling (later Darjeeling) was transferred to the East India Company on February 1st 1835, thus setting the stage for one of the most successful Anglo-Indian enterprises of the Raj.

*Sikkim was annexed by India in 1975, till then it was an independent princely stateruled by a Chogyal (king).

Up to now cultivating Camellia sinensisvarsinensis had been unsuccessful but with the acquisition of Darjeeling the area presented a new possibility and after a meticulous study it was declared suitable for the Chinese plant. Dr. A Campbell was the first to plant Chinese seeds in Darjeeling that he had brought from Kumaon. On return from his last mission to China (1848-1851),to bring back the botanical knowledge for growing tea,Robert Fortune introduced nearly 20,000 tea plants and saplingsto the Darjeeling area. Commercial plantations started in the 1850s and 113 plantations were set up in Darjeeling by 1874, covering 18,888 acres and accounting for a production of 3.9 million pounds of tea.

Rahul Sharma

SherKhan!Tiger Guru!….Rahul has spent many years exploring the jungles of the Himalayan Foothills, Central India and Assam in North East. Passionate about the wildlife and especially the Royal Bengal Tiger, his tryst with the nature, bird watching and wildlife photography began at a tender age and won the prestigious Jim Corbett memorial Essay writing Competition. Rahul is also a profound story-teller with a focus on the Great Mughal Empire in India!

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