If Goscinny and Uderzo are to be believed, it was Getafix who 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?
On this, both history and comic books are in accord: ancient China, where, according to legend, the wind accidentally blew tea leaves into the hotwater bowl of the emperor Shennong sometime around 2737 BCE. Others say that it was actually the hot-water bowl of Gautam Buddha. Not a bad creation myth either way. But what we do know is that a certain Dr. Campbell, a civil surgeon of the Indian Medical Service, planted the first tea in Darjeeling in 1841, with seedlings sourced from China via the Botanical Gardens in Kolkata. For six years, he tended the plants in his garden and then decided to begin tea nurseries in the area.
His first converts were his fellow brethren in the civil service: Captain Samler, Dr. Whitcombe, Mr. Grant and Dr. Hooker who first planted tea in famed Lebong. One must add the name of the legendary Maniram Dutta Baruah of Assam. Originally a counsellor to the titular Ahom King, Maniram joined Assam Company, the first-ever tea company in India, as Dewan in 1839.
His initial bonhomie with the British, who deposed the Ahom King in 1833, did not last long. In 1845 he resigned to start his own tea gardens, thereby becoming the first Indian tea plantation owner in the subcontinent. For his defiance, and for his participation in the Sepoy Uprising in 1857, Maniram Dewan was hanged by the British in 1858. In Darjeeling, meanwhile, the British love affair with tea was in full bloom. Plantations came up 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 hot water. By 1870, there were 56 tea gardens, with a cover of 4,400 hectares and producing over 70,000 kg of tea.
Vast tracts of jungle had to be cleared for the plantations and labourers had to be induced or coerced 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, little pockets of quaint tradition in a changing land. The tea planters had huge salaries, multi-roomed colonial bungalows and countless minions, went off to kamjari (work) and partook of bara hazri (breakfast), enjoyed golf, tennis, picnics and hectic drinks parties in the off-season….The contemporary phenomenon of tea-plantation tourism is based on letting you taste these discreet charms of the plantation life, but you also get to know your tea, new landscapes and new ways of life.
Out at sea for long periods, sailors sometimes hallucinate that they are surrounded not by blue waters but rippling green fields. This condition is known as calentura and crazed mariners have been known to step off the deck and slip silently into the bottomless blue. But in these plantations, it feels possible to be marooned in a real 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 sylvan grace of Mancotta when one gets into the pristine town of Dibrugarh. The town is quite indistinguishable from maybe a thousand other such small towns in India. But two things make it unique: tea gardens in the heart of the city, and the river Brahmaputra, well-behaved for most of the time, but a roaring, bellowing torrent in the monsoon months.
The Jalan tea gardens are spread all over Dibrugarh town — the Jalans are one of the oldest tea-growing families in Assam, their business dating back to the middle of the 19th century and still going strong — and we drive through them on our way to the main office. The shrubs are about 2 ft high and we’re told that the peak tea-picking season is from April to October. Unlike their Darjeeling counterparts, the Assam tea gardens are situated on the plains and receive the direct glare of the sun all through the day. Since this is not good for the plants, acacia or black pepper trees have been planted at regular intervals so that they can filter the sunlight and provide necessary shade. Citronella borders along the perimeter of the gardens keep away unwanted insects.
As we drive on, a narrow dirt track slips off the main road and leads to the main gate of the manager’s compound. Inside is a stately bungalow, over 150 years old, seemingly floating without any visible means of support over a gently unrolling prospect of tea bushes. The lawn and the gravelled paths are impeccable and a gardener is hard at work over flowerbeds. It is only when we get near that we see the dozen-odd wooden stilts on which the bungalow stands.
All over the state of Assam, such bungalows are known as Chang bungalows. The original reason for the stilts was to keep water out and ward off attacks from wild animals — even now, occasional forays by leopards into the tea gardens are not unheard of. We are looking at probably the finest of them all, the Mancotta Chang, situated on the outskirts of Dibrugarh. The Mancotta bungalow is also owned by the Jalans. They have converted two of their ‘manager’s bungalows’ into guest houses, but not of the usual touristy kind. They are not even widely advertised.
The Jalans have a stable of over a dozen superb thoroughbreds and, in collaboration with an international riding agency ‘In the Saddle’, offer riding holidays with Mancotta as the base. Our bedroom is on the first floor (six rooms are on offer at Mancotta Chang) and we have to climb a semi-covered staircase with a charming umbrella-and hat-stand in one corner. Once upstairs, we cross what seems like acres and acres of floor-space to get to our room.
The planters obviously did not believe in doing anything in half measures. The bedroom seems large enough for an army to sleep in, with huge box-windows overlooking the lawn. There is a writing-table by the wall opposite the bed, an easychair, 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 these are not enough, there is a huge sitting room outside. We spend most of our time lazing on the right-angled verandah that runs all along the front and side of the bungalow.
Most of it is covered by the ubiquitous mosquito wire so beloved of the Raj. There are maps on the walls and fading group photographs of the garden staff. In the somnolent afternoon haze, I feel I have been time-warped back to over a century ago. I half expect to see screaming children explode out of the rooms, pursued by an admonitory ayah or an elder sibling, or a red-faced, loudvoiced army colonel demanding his afternoon cuppa. Daily life in the bungalow is ceremonial, like a slow pavane danced to an invisible orchestra.
Breakfast is laid out on the sunny verandah in all its English splendour — there is honey and marmalade and scrambled eggs and chops and fried tomatoes to go with the toast and tea. Dinner had been equally solemn and elaborate, beginning with an excellent tomato soup and ending with a trifle pudding. We are overwhelmed by the attentions of the kitchen staff who flit to and fro noiselessly between courses. And, of course, there is that most English institution of them all, bed-tea (palangchai), delivered with Jeevesian precision and discretion at the desired hour. Lulled into an almost lotus-like trance by the charms of Mancotta, it is sometimes easy to forget that one is in the middle of a working tea estate.
Mancotta is not your average heritage property marooned in its own splendid isolation, cut off from its past. Life goes on as usual amidst the rectilinear neatness of the tea hedges. Children go to school while their mothers pluck tea leaves and the factories hum with the business of rolling, firing and sorting. The tea is then packed and labelled and sent to the auction houses in Guwahati from where they find their way to all corners of the world. Over all these activities, the Mancotta Chang has stood sentinel for over a century and a half, a fixed point in a world of change.
And having been to the Dam Dim Tea Estate, back in the city, we still dream fitfully of green fields and a cup of gold. We drive into the Tata Tea owned estate in the middle of the afternoon, with the weak winter sunlight turning from golden to grey. Located in the Chel Range of Jalpaiguri District, the estate was originally known as Barrons Tea Estate in the 1920s and is spread over nearly 1,400 hectares. The cream-and-white bungalow nestles in the heart of the plantation, all gleaming and newly painted. In the bungalow, we live the good life, billeted in two of the three newly refurbished suites.
The meals are sumptuous, and cooked to a turn with the vegetables and spices freshly picked from the kitchen garden. We spend daylight hours sitting atop one of the miniature machans in the bungalow garden and reading a book. The landscape all round has gently undulating tea bushes as far as the eye can see. After sundown, we are treated to a small divertissement of song and dance by the young people living in the gardens. What appears to be a simple routine of drumbeats and a conga line become immensely complex as soon as 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.
Everyone we meet speaks excitedly about the herd of elephants, which had been drummed up for the benefit of a BBC team the previous month. Elephants are somewhat awkward neighbours; good for tourism, they also occasionally take it in their heads to picnic in the plantation for days, eating up crops and damaging tea bushes. When we drive along the river the next morning, we immediately see telltale signs of pachyderm presence by a solitary tree — dung and hair.
The riverside has a pucca watchtower from which it is possible to keep an eye out for the approach of wild elephants. We are told that it is possible to smell a herd even before you can see them. We look across the river at the dim outlines of the forest reserve and sniff the air in vain — but the elephants of Gorumara are not about to oblige us with a photo-op. We live in hope, and in the content knowledge of returning to Dam Dim some golden tea-scented day.
By Abhijit Gupta
Abhijit Gupta teaches English at Jadavpur University in Kolkata. His other inerests include graphic novels and science fiction.