“Tea is always a good idea” and then “We are like tea, we don't know our own strength until we're in Hot Water” ... and yet again “Where there's tea there's hope.” Indeed, each of the quotes eulogise the wonder drink that is tea.
Ever imagined how it actually feels to visit a tea estate? How is tea manufactured? The environs surrounding tea estates/gardens? And last but not the least – what does a planter’s life entail and the actual ambiance of life inside a tea plantation site that the whole world seems to be raving about; more so in times of pandemic, as the urge to live close to nature and go organic has increased phenomenally!
The fabled land of Assam in India’s colourful and majestic Northeast is undoubtedly the world's largest tea-producing region that produces around 400 million kg of tea annually; it is a state where approximately 2,16,2000 hectares of land is under tea cultivation and “the jewel in the crown” of the 200 billion dollars global tea industry is India’s tea city of Dibrugarh, which is blessed with a mind-boggling 177 tea estates.
Today, residing in metropolitan Kolkata, which is separated by a distance of approximately 1445 km from my paternal ancestor’s house in Dibrugarh, I consider myself fortunate for having been blessed with the privilege of growing up in one of the world’s most outstanding tea city and fathom the raw, energising, eco-friendly life that the whole world is after, especially at a time when staycations/remote work locations are becoming the “new normal”!
Six months back, I had gone to Dibrugarh to attend the marriage ceremony of my cousin brother and memories of my childhood days flashed inside me. A lot has changed though – urbanization in particular and the mushrooming of high-rise apartments. Yet, this distinctive Assam town is unputdownable and it was good to experience tea tourism from a homegrown entity – Purvi Discovery, a brand which has carved a niche for themselves as one of North East India’s best tour operators specializing on tea tourism.
Being the pioneers of tea tourism, Purvi Discovery was the first tourism entity from the Northeast to convert their Victorian-era tea bungalows to the discerning world travellers. They have numerous tea estates spread across the Dibrugarh region and - Oh Boy! Aren’t they awesome!
Since I was in Dibrugarh for just a week, I concentrated my time at Mancotta and Chowkidinghee Tea Estates, both located within the town and the immersive experience was stellar, every bit rejuvenating, especially those horse riding trips across the tea estate and factory – one great way of recreating the typical colonial planter’s life, I guess!
Assam’s tea culture dates back to the 1800’s British era and most tea bungalows epitomise Victorian-style architecture – elevated wooden stilts, usually two-storied, spacious rooms with exclusive fireplace, bamboo & wooden decor, antique furnishings and large verandas. From the cozy confines of the bungalow, one can indulge in never-ending cups of the famed Assam Tea and relish the slow-paced tea life; the sight of women tea pluckers engaged in plucking two leaves and a bud and once the red molten ball dips across the far horizon, it is time for bonfires and tribal folk musicians to entertain – surreal stuff ain’t it?
In Assam, the British left behind a rich legacy – The Legacy of Tea Garden Life. Since the planters were mostly of British or Scottish descent, they tried to recreate the quintessential British lifestyle here in India and the best specimens of the Raj era are the outstanding tea bungalows - each one has a story to tell. And, there are as many as 765 tea estates in Assam that produces approximately 13 % of the world’s tea. That is how stupendous the tea tourism scenario in Assam is.
Consider for instance the Mancotta Tea Estate story. It used to be a British tea estate till 1970 and the last British Superintendent was Duncan Hayes. Their Tea Bungalow is considered to be an iconic one and the ingenuity of the British architect is very palpable. The standalone feature is the total absence of iron nails on the wooden floor. I was told by a staff of Mancotta that the wooden nails that have been used in flooring were of Chinese origin!
Purvi Discovery has another excellent tea bungalow property located bang in the heart of Dibrugarh town – The Chowkidinghee Tea Estate. I still remember going on Rickshaw (Indian three-wheel transportation) every day to Don Bosco school that would pass through the famed Chowkidinghee Tea Estate.
The Chowkidinghee Tea estate has been in existence for a long time and the pièce de resistance is the gracious bungalow, which has been catering to the high-end HNI visitors with a degree of sophistication which is hard to match. This heritage property has withstood the test of times – earthquakes, floods... and yet remains a sentinel of colonial hospitality. Be it the Victorian decor, the fireplace or the intricately done up “Jaali” verandas, you can rest assured of the finest colonial hospitality and a perfect recap of the vestiges of its rich virile past.
What makes Dibrugarh such a tea-friendly place? Well, my father who is an M.Sc in Agriculture and served in the Dept. of Agriculture, Govt. of Assam believes that Dibrugarh’s alluvial soil and of course the tropical weather – a pronounced monsoon and temperature range between 51 °F to 88 °F makes it ideal for tea crops to flourish.
Apart from being India’s tea town, Dibrugarh is also one of Assam’s largest urban agglomerations and together with the districts of Tinsukia and Sibsagar produces 50% of India's famed Assam tea variety whose trademark features are - full-bodied taste, strong aroma and its burgundy colour.
After China, it is India’s Northeastern state of Assam where some of the finest varieties of tea is produced, and that too in huge quantities. An hour’s drive from Dibrugarh to the world-famous Halmari Tea Estate could be a revelation. Since my childhood, I have been a regular visitor to this awe-inspiring Tea Estate and I still have my extended family who is residents of Moran, which is where Halmari is located.
Spread over 374 hectares of land and blessed with a century’s old tea legacy, Halmari Tea holds the distinction of being the highest-priced Indian tea. The estate produces some of the finest varieties of CTC and Orthodox teas. Needless to say, you will find Halmari teas in some of the world’s finest hotels and in places like Harrods! I will never forget that first sip of the “Halmari 22K Gold Tea” packet gifted to me by my first cousin who resides in Moran and lives in close proximity to Halmari Tea Estate. Wow. Sip!
In fact, earning accolades has become a habit with Halmari Estate - the best factory in the world award, as well as the proud recipient of the Global Tea Championship Award consecutively from 2015 to 2019, speaks volumes about this tea estate’s rendezvous with all things good and excellent. In the words of Krishan Katyal Chairman of J Thomas and Co. and one of the world’s largest tea auctioneers – “Halmari has chosen not to sit on its laurels. They have been working to improve and it is paying now. It is no more a tea brand, it is a prized possession”.
As one of Harrods best 9 garden fresh tea producers, a visit to Halmari is an education in itself – the manner in which the estate maintains the ethos of sustainability, their CSR initiatives as well as their state-of-the-art machinery is exemplary, to say the least.
This riverside town of Dibrugarh bore the brunt of the devastating earthquake of 1950 that measured 8.6 on the Richter scale and altered the course of the River Brahmaputra. Old-timers of the town vouch for the fact that more than 3/4ths of the town is still buried under water. Ever since then, Dibrugarh rose like a phoenix out of the debris of the earthquake and has positioned itself as India’s tea capital.
To further elevate the commercial status of this quaint Assamese town and bring it to par with global cities, the Govt. of India through the Ministry of Doner as well as the Ministry of Ports, Shipping and Inland Waterways has earmarked Dibrugarh for accelerated infrastructure developments.
Although Tea tourism as a recreational concept is rather immersive, not many have opened up their estates to visitors, the primary reason being a paucity of funds. A mechanism has to be found out and liberal financial assistance to small tea growers could prove to be very beneficial as there are close to 1,44,222 covering all of 80,948 hectares who play a pivotal role in the tea-driven economy.
The tea estates surrounding Dibrugarh have been producing connoisseur category tea for more than a century and this region could be an ideal aspirant for the UNESCO World Heritage Site (Natural) list. This would not only confer a prestigious crown on the cap of India’s Tea industry but also give a further boost to the industry by luring the discerning visitors to come and savour tea holidays in this part of the world.
As the tourism industry keeps on evolving and increasingly gets closer to nature, it is expected of all the stakeholders like the government as well as the big players of the tea industry to design and curate holidays that are quintessentially tea-centric.
The aspect of connectivity too needs to be revamped. Although rail, road and air connectivity has witnessed rapid growth, the maritime sector is in deep regress, in spite of the fact that one of the world’s most turbulent rivers – the legendary River Brahmaputra flows through the entire length and breadth of Assam.
However, now with India’s Minister of Shipping – Shri Sarbananda Sonowal who is the son of the soil from Dibrugarh and one of the most dynamic leaders at the national level, a slew of infrastructure developments is ready to take off – particularly multimodal connectivity in the form of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s PM Gati Shakti – National Master Plan that envisions seamless connectivity in the North East.
The importance he attaches to his hometown can be gauged by his recent press bytes at the Waterways Conclave-2022: “Dibrugarh was an important contributor to India's economic growth. Steps are being taken to once again make Dibrugarh a major river port in the country. The opportunities provided by PM Shri Narendra Modi in developing the NW 2(Brahmaputra) and NW 16(Barak) are leveraging our connectivity with Bangladesh and giving us the route to reach markets of the world”.
If tea didn’t exist, Assam would have perished! Where there is tea, there is hope!