Assam tea – known globally for its strong body and golden color – steps into its 200th year since Camellia sinensis var. assamica was first discovered in the region by Englishman Robert Bruce in 1823.
Previously, tea was drunk as a magic potion by the Singpho tribe and the plant grew wild in the upper reaches of the vast plains of the Brahmaputra River. The Brahmaputra, one of the major rivers in India, originates at Tibet and, after flowing through Arunachal Pradesh, enters Assam before joining the Bay of Bengal through Bangladesh.
Experts say that it was Bisa Gam, a chief of the Singpho tribe, who helped Robert Bruce in discovering the tea plant in this region and another chief of the tribe, Ningroola, helped the British start commercial production of tea in the region in the early part of the 1830s.
Tea produced by Ningroola with the help from the British was sold for the first time in the Calcutta (now Kolkata) market for 480 pounds. It is also believed that in the 35 chests manufactured by various clans of the Singpho tribes – out of the 130 chests produced in 1840 – a small quantity of tea was produced by Ningroola, during the first tea auction in India in March 1841.
The Early Planters of Camellia Sinensis var. Assamica
The early planters were a very tough lot who braved extreme conditions to clear forests and plant tea seeds. The river Brahmaputra was the mainstay for transport, and all machinery, supplies and manpower was transported through the river system. Major towns of Assam like Golaghat, Sivasagar and Dibrugarh became the hub of tea.
Among the first and oldest companies set up by the British, “The Jorehaut Tea Co” began a systematic process to isolate good cultivars from their plantations and subsequently cloned them. Today, many of these clones are used all over the tea growing regions and form the mainstay of good quality cultivars.Later on, the Tea Research Association (TRA), through a long and systematic approach, isolated and released many more clones and poly-clonal seeds. And the world’s oldest tea research station, Tocklai, which is under TRA, came about at Jorhat in 1911 (89 years after the first planting).
Many of these clones were used by tea growing countries across the world, and lot of African and Nepal tea plantations are from the stock released by TRA. In other words, it could be said that a significant part of the world uses original Indian tea stock.
Assam Tea – A Rich History
The original orthodox style of manufacturing emulated the traditional hand-rolled tea and continued for many years till the time William McKercher, the then superintendent of Amgoorie Tea Company invented the CTC (crush, tear, curl) machine at Borbam Tea Estate in Sivasagar district in 1931. This revolutionized the world of black tea manufacturing and changed the tea growing world to this day.
Research by James Buckingham, another superintendent of Amgoorie Tea Co., noticed that tea plants were doing well under leguminous trees, and his curiosity led to the adaptation and concept of shade trees in tea estates as we know it today. This again had global implications with many low elevation tea-growing areas following this practice.
By India’s independence in 1947, tea export was a major source of foreign exchange for India. And much water has flowed through the Brahmaputra since then.
Today, Assam, located in the north-eastern region of India, has more than 800 of the world's largest tea plantations located both in the Brahmaputra and the Barak valley. The Brahmaputra valley today also boasts of the world’s greatest concentration of the tea plant – Camellia sinensis var. assamica, as science calls it. Assam also houses the world’s largest tea estates, Monabari, in Biswanath district, which has 1,158 hectares under tea cultivation. This part of India experiences heavy rainfall during the monsoon season, and the loamy soil makes a perfect cocktail for producing the caffeine-rich, strong bodied, malty tea, which is much in demand globally as the breakfast tea.
Assam has been the most bountiful of India’s tea growing regions, producing more than half of the country’s 1.325 million kgs of tea (2018 figure). India produces 22 percent of global tea, making Assam’s contribution about 10 percent of the world’s tea.
Apart from generating an annual foreign exchange, earning an estimated equivalent to 350 million in U.S. dollars, Assam’s tea industry today provides livelihood to millions with many others directly or indirectly dependent on the tea plantations.
Small tea growers have also come up with plantations a few decades back across the state, and these farmers today play a crucial role in the state’s total production. Statistics say that small tea growers produce nearly half of the state’s total production.
Assam’s Tea Industry – A Force to Reckon With
Since the discovery of the local tea plant in Assam by the British, tea gardens have become an integral part of the state’s landscape. One is witness to never-ending stretches of tea gardens while travelling on National Highway 37, especially towards the eastern corner of the state. With the British taking up tea cultivation seriously in the state, they brought in a labor force from other parts of India to clear jungles for planting tea bushes. The darkly tanned ethnic population of the tea tribe today has become a part and parcel of Assamese society and has turned out to be a force to reckon with, playing a crucial role in state’s politics.
“Tea can rightly be called one of the foremost contributions ambassador of our homeland... this exalted status of the state’s tea industry that we witness today hasn’t been arrived at in a day but came with 200 years of trials and tribulations, ups and downs,” noted Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma in a message.
The stakeholders of the industry in Assam are leaving no stone unturned to celebrate the occasion, with the North Eastern Tea Association kicking off the first event recently by organizing a get-together at Jorhat, the tea capital of Assam, where a book – Two Hundred Years Assam Tea 1823-2013: The Genesis and Development of Indian Tea, written by Pradip Baruah, a renowned tea expert in India – was released.
Baruah, who is also the chief advisory officer of Tocklai Tea Research Institute, said that the book chronicles the entire journey of two hundred years of Assam and India tea since its discovery in the wild forests of Assam in 1823. “Some thoughts on how to celebrate the memorable occasion fruitfully are given in the book,” he said.
Another booklet “Genesis of Assam Tea Industry,'' was also released on the occasion.
A tea academy, to carry out long-term and short-duration courses to create trained manpower for the industry, was also launched to mark the occasion. Plans are also on for year-long celebrations with a screening of a documentary on tea, inauguration of a tea museum, etc.
Ninety-four-year-old Sagar Mehta, the oldest tea executive in India, who is yet to hang his boots, said that this is an occasion to celebrate. “I have seen ups and downs in the industry over the years... I am happy to have put my years in an industry which plays such a crucial role in the state’s economy and where such a huge population of Assam is involved,” he said.
Mehta is one of the first Indian executives to have been appointed by the British in the tea industry. He is presently serving as the president of the Badulipar tea company located in Golaghat district of Assam.
Today, tea in Assam is not confined to the cuppa. It not only forms a major part of the state’s economy but is deeply entrenched in the lives of the people and is a part of its cultural ethos.
As Abid Rahman, former senior manager of Borbam tea estate puts it: “You can take tea out of Assam but you cannot take Assam out of tea.”
Pullock Dutta – based in Assam, near the Tocklai Tea Research Institute – is a freelance journalist, contributor to World Tea News, and a previous special correspondent of the Telegraph in India for more than two decades.
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