ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY live the plantation life of a ‘Burra Sahib’ on a tea bungalow trail around Jorhat in Assam
The mist shimmied slowly in the tea gardens as we sipped orange pekoe – prepared the English way as “propah tea” should be – in the spacious verandah of our heritage bungalow. Tossing a cursory glance at local ladies getting about their daily business of plucking ‘two leaves and a bud,’ it was hard not to feel like a Burra Sahib.
We were after all in the ‘Burra Sahib’s Bungalow’ in the tea-town of Jorhat. Unlike the rest of India, the tea gardens of Assam do not follow Indian Standard Time (IST). In this eastern nook, the sun rises early so the British introduced a local system that was an hour ahead of IST. This was ‘Tea Garden Time’ or simply Bagan-time.
Assam is the largest tea-growing region in the world and the tea gardens stretched as far as the eye could see. We were at Sangsua, one of the seven South Bank estates ‘south’ of the Brahmaputra run by the B&A Group of the prominent Khongiya Barooah family of Upper Assam. Renovated into Kaziranga Golf Resort, the main bungalow served as the Club House with a Heritage Suite while eight colonial style Golf Cottages overlooked pretty flower gardens and sprawling greens. Designed by Ranjit Nanda, the 150-acre golf course was truly a first of its kind in the world – located in the midst of a tea garden!
Before tea, this region was a wild tract ruled by the Ahom kings. In 1794, Gaurinath Singha shifted his capital from Sibsagar to Jorhat but a series of Burmese invasions from 1817 destroyed the new commercial metropolis. By 1823, the British arrived on the scene. While trading in the region, Scottish adventurer Robert Bruce found the tea bush growing wild and noticed local Singhpo tribesmen brewing tea from its leaves.
The British East India Company defeated the Burmese and took over the region from the Ahoms in 1826. The leaves from the Assam tea bush were properly examined in Calcutta’s Botanical Gardens and it wasn’t long before the first English tea garden was established at Chabua in Upper Assam by 1837.
Assam’s geographic conditions were ideal for growing tea. The clayey soil in the low-lying floodplains of the Brahmaputra river valley was rich in nutrients. The climate varied between a cool, arid winter and a hot, humid rainy season, ensuring a lengthy growing season. This tropical climate contributed to the unique malty taste of Assam tea. All these factors, coupled with generous rainfall, made Assam one of the most prolific tea-producing regions in the world. Each year, Assam’s tea estates produce over 6.8 billion kg of tea! At its peak, there were over 1500 tea plantations dotting the Assam valley; today there are about 800.
The tea industry and early planters inadvertently brought about a sea change in the region – the introduction of railways, golf, the discovery of oil and the creation of Kaziranga, the home of the one-horned rhino! For a small unassuming town, Jorhat has many firsts to its credit. Jorhat Gymkhana Club, dating back to 1876, is the oldest golf course in Asia and the third oldest in the world.
The Tocklai Tea Experimental Station – the world’s oldest and largest – was established here in 1911. Jorhat was the first town in Upper and Central Assam to have electricity in 1923! The GI-AA-X, piloted by Barnard Leete, was the first aeroplane to land in the northeast in 1928 at Jorhat. Yet, there’s not much to see or do here besides using it as a transit point for Majuli Island and tea trails.
We picked up the nuances of tea tasting at Sangsua Tea Estate before heading to Gatoonga Tea Factory to see the leaf’s fascinating journey from bush to cup. After collection, the tea leaves are spread on wire mesh racks in the withering shed and allowed to dry, then processed through a CTC machine which ‘crushes-tears-curls’ the leaves, which are left on trays for fermentation and oxidation for an hour or so and finally dehydrated in a drying machine.
The plucked leaf is processed into black tea within 24 hours and sorted into varying grades within the next 24. The tea is then passed on a conveyor belt with vibrating mesh trays so that the tea dust falls right through and the rest are sorted into primary and secondary grades.
After our tea factory visit, we moved from the erstwhile Burra Sahib’s Bungalow to the Mistry Sahib’s Bungalow, the old abode of the Factory Assistant Manager. Built over a century ago and spread over 2 hectares, it had been renamed Banyan Grove after the massive banyan tree behind the sprawling bungalow. Jorhat’s charm lies in its lovely tea bungalows, some of which are open to guests.
Just 5km from the city center is the beautiful Chameli Memsaab Bungalow, named after the award winning 1975 Assamese movie that was shot here. It was based on Nirad C Chaudhuri’s tale on the relationship between a British planter and a local plucking girl, a common theme back then.
The way silver tips is considered the champagne of teas, we were primed for the crème de la crème of heritage properties. Pioneer native tea planter Rai Bahadur Siva Prasad Barooah constructed Thengal Manor in 1929 at Jalukonibari, a village where pepper (jaluk in Assamese) was once cultivated. It served as the nerve centre of cultural and literary activities of many cultural icons of Assam.
In 1931, the talkie film Alam-Ara was screened here, becoming the first Indian film to be shown in Jorhat. This was where ‘Dainik Batori’, the first Assamese daily was launched. Though the newspaper and printing press are defunct, the bungalow managed to survive two earthquakes and one world war!
Set in an immaculate lawn, the façade of the palatial homestead resembled the Pantheon in Rome rather than a planter’s home in Assam. The hallway had black and white pictures of the Barooah family and the living room was decorated with riches collected from the Far East.
The red oxide floors with colourful tiles gleamed like mirrors as we soaked in the luxury of sleeping in antique beds and dining on excellent home cooked fare. The sprawling estate had a beautiful remembrance garden enshrining the mortal remains of their ancestors.
Soon, we set off to explore the Hoolongapar Gibbon Sanctuary, home to India’s only ape, the Hoolock Gibbon. We scoured the endemic hoolong trees to spot the flagship species but also ended up spotting its other creatures – the stump-tailed macaque, pig-tailed macaque, Assamese macaque, rhesus macaque and capped langur. The forests echoed with the whoops and calls of the simians. While most of Assam’s wilderness has given way to manicured tea gardens, this small 8 square mile patch seemed to be holding out.
While exiting we stopped at a small roadside chai stall. It was not the refined near-ceremonial experience we had grown accustomed to. No tea cosies and delicate English crockery to gaze hypnotically at milk swirling into the liquor. This was milky tea over brewed with spices and served in a well-worn glass; yet the full-bodied taste of Assam tea lingered on our lips…
Jet Airways flies direct to Jorhat via Guwahati (55 min). Sangsua Tea Estate and Gatoonga Tea Factory are 16km from Jorhat while Thengal Manor is at Jalukonibari, 15km from Jorhat towards Titabor, from where Gibbon Sanctuary is 19km.
When to Go
Tea harvesting is a year-round activity – the “first flush” is picked in March, the “second flush” in May-June, followed by the summer flush (July-September) post rains and the autumnal flush (October-November), the year’s final harvest.
Where to Stay
Banyan Grove, Jorhat
Thengal Manor, Jalukonibari
Tariff Rs.6,500 upwards
Kaziranga Golf Resort
Sangsua Tea Estate, Gatoonga
Chameli Memsaab Bungalow
Cinnamara, Mariani Road, Jorhat
Ph 094355 84958
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared as part of the Cover Story ‘Jewels of the North East’ in the September 2018 issue of JetWings magazine.