Assam Ki Chai – Bungalows, Bonfires & Beyond

2
203
The Mancotta Heritage Chang Bungalow in Dibrugarh, a well-known hotel that offers access to some of Assam's sprawling tea estates.

Text by Subhasish Chakraborty
Images from Purvi Discovery

“Tea is always a good idea”. “We are like tea, we don’t know our own strength until we’re in hot water”. “Where there’s tea there’s hope.” Indeed, each of these quotes eulogise the wonder drink that is tea.

Ever imagined how it actually feels to visit a tea estate? How tea is manufactured? The environs surrounding tea estates / gardens? And last but not the least – what does a planter’s life entail and the actual ambience of life inside a tea plantation site that the whole world seems to be raving about – more so during this 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 North East is undoubtedly the world’s largest tea producing region that produces around 400 million kgs of tea annually; it is where approximately 2,16,2000 hectares of land is used for tea cultivation. The  “crown jewel” of the 200 billion dollar 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 cities, and being able to fathom the raw, energising, eco-friendly life that the whole world is after – especially at a time when staycathons/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 unmissable, and it felt good to experience tea tourism from a home grown entity – Purvi Discovery (www.purvidiscovery.com), 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 North East to convert their Victorian era tea bungalows to the discerning world travellers, and currently have numerous tea estates spread across Dibrugarh.

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 cosy 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 leaves and buds. Once the red molten ball dips across the far horizon, it is time for bonfires and tribal folk musicians to entertain. Surreal, isn’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. The best specimens of the Raj era are the outstanding tea bungalows, with each one having a story to tell. 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, with the ingenuity of the British architect being very palpable. The standalone feature being the total absence of iron nails in the wooden floor. I was told by a staff of Mancotta that the wooden nails that have been used in the flooring were of Chinese origin!

The Mancotta Heritage Chang Bungalow in Dibrugarh
The tea plantation at the Mancotta Heritage Chang Bungalow

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 Heritage Chang Bungalow in Dibrugarh
Meal time at the Chowkidinghee Heritage Chang Bungalow

The Chowkidinghee Tea estate has been in existence for a long time and the piece 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 to the vestiges of its rich virile past.

What makes Dibrugarh such a tea-friendly place? Well, my father who is an MSc in Agriculture and served in the Dept. of Agriculture, Govt. of Assam believes that Dibrugarh’s alluvial soil and off 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 North Eastern 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 are 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 Halmari 22K gold tea, which was gifted to me by my first cousin who resides in Moran and lives in close proximity to Halmari Tea Estate.

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 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 machineries  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 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 at par with global cities, the Govt. of India through the Ministry of DONER, as well as the Ministry of Ports, Shipping and Inland Waterways have 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 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 has been producing connoisseur category tea for more than a century. This region could be an ideal aspirant for the UNESCO World Heritage Site (Natural) list. This would not only confer a prestigious crown in 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 needs to be revamped as well. 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 are 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 of the country. The opportunities provided by PM Shri Narendra Modi in developing the NW 2 (Brahmaputra) and NW 16 (Barak) is 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!

 

For further information on tea holidays in Assam, please feel free to get in touch with Purvi Discovery.

Post Office Jalannagar, Dibrugarh 786 005, Assam, India.
Phone : +91 373 2301120, 2300035
Mobile No. : +91 9435130014
Email : purvidiscovery@purvidiscovery.com
Fax : +91 373 2301944

_________________________________________________________________________

About Subhasish Chakraborty

Subhasish ChakrabortySubhasish Chakraborty has been working as a travel journalist for the past two decades and has been editorially involved with numerous international in-flight magazines of renowned airlines like Cathay Pacific, Dragon Air, Bhutan Airlines, Air Asia, Airport Authority of India and many more. He was also involved with the UNWTO (World Tourism Organization) as a consultant.

 

For more captivating stories like this one, subscribe to Asian Geographic Magazine here.

2 COMMENTS

  1. The narration is exciting. I’m very much in love with entire NE. It’s lalnd, people, culture & cuisine which I experienced always forced me to tell my friends to visit NE rather than foreign trips. I wish my next life dawn in NE.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.