The most trying hours in life are between four o’clock and the evening meal. A cup of tea at this time adds a lot of comfort and happiness” – is a quote millions of Indians today would readily agree with. Tea, and its consumption, is an inexorable part of Indian life. However, this wasn’t always the case. Before the 1920s, it was a brew enjoyed only by anglicized Indians.

Although the Singpho tribe, which lives in the areas between Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, had been growing tea and steeping its leaves to procure a herbal drink for generations, it was only when the British East India Company annexed vast tracts of land in the region in the 19th century did tea began to be grown for commercial purposes.

Courtesy Assam Tourism
Plantation workers amongst tea bushes in Assam
Plantation workers amongst tea bushes in Assam

Large-scale production of tea began in the 1820s in an attempt to counter the Chinese monopoly on the trade. The British also introduced Chinese cultivation and plantation techniques; it is interesting to note that the attempt to grow the Chinese tea plant in India was met with failure. Charles Alexander Bruce, a subject of the East India Company, was the first to successfully grow the indigenous tea plant. The Company subsequently lured other Britons to India by offering them large expanses of land to grow tea for export.

Early British tea planters had no clue about its cultivation. They were hired purely for their knowledge of agriculture and sciences. These men came out to a strange land with their families and settled down to complete their tenures. They moved into comfortable bungalows, which were mostly built on stilts (and known as chang) to keep the interiors cool and as a preventive measure against flooding; and were provided with a retinue of servants. The first English tea garden was established in 1837 in Chabua, Upper Assam. Within a decade, tea became a major commercial industry in India, growing exponentially and consuming even more land as it marched its way towards dominating the tea trade worldwide. By the early 20th century, Assam was the largest tea-producing region in the world. Several tea gardens also came up in the adjacent Northeastern states such as Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura, Nagaland and Manipur.

Courtesy Purvi Discovery
A tea-leaf plucker busy at work
A tea-leaf plucker busy at work

Modern Tea Industry

Today India is one of the world’s largest producers of tea with 70 per cent of it being consumed within the country itself. The Northeast, with its hilly terrain, fertile soil and humid climatic conditions, is conducive for the growth of tea leaves. States such as Assam, Sikkim, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland have vast tea gardens that produce some of the finest quality tea in the country. Assam tea especially, with its rich amber colour and full-bodied cup, is world renowned. Grown in the lowlands of the state, it is procured from the plant Camellia Assamica. Its strong and malty flavour makes it a perfect breakfast tea.

The Temi Tea produced in the gardens of southern Sikkim is also popular wordwide and has become a brand of its own over the years. Its rich aroma and fine taste has many takers.

Tripura houses nearly 4,346 small estates that spread over an area of 6,000 hectares, making it one of the leading tea-producing states in the country. Many people residing in southern Arunachal Pradesh, bordering Assam, are involved in tea cultivation. In addition, there are more than 1,000 small gardens in Nagaland and the number has been increasing substantially as the farmers here consider tea to be a major cash crop. Meghalya and Manipur also have tea gardens in Sohryngkham and Talui.

Courtesy Purvi Discovery
Varieties of Tea
Varieties of Tea

The Tea Dictionary

Tea plucking happens twice a year, during early spring and during early summer or late spring. The mid-March picking is known as the first flush and has a gentle and mild flavour. The second flush is harvested in June and has a riper, more aromatic flavour, which the cognoscenti call muscatel. After picking, the leaves are left in the sun or placed in troughs and fanned such that they lose their moisture. This process is known as wilting or withering, and is a result of oxidation. After this, the leaves are rolled so that their sap is further exposed to the action of oxygen in the air. At every roll, the leaves are sifted and the finer leaves taken out. The rolled leaves are then placed on fermenting beds for three to four hours, after which they are fired in a drying machine. By this process, the leaves are slowly desiccated so that their moisture content is reduced further.

The next step is sorting, in which the leaves are passed over wire meshes,
so that they settle into various types such as whole leaf, broken leaf, fannings and dust. 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 globe. Worldwide, tea is available in four main varieties: black, green, white and oolong. The tea grown in the Dooars and the Darjeeling area is black tea.

Courtesy Sikkim Tourism
Temi Tea Gardens in Ravangla, Sikkim
Temi Tea Gardens in Ravangla, Sikkim

Organic Tea

India is the second largest producer and the fourth largest exporter of tea in the world. The sale and marketing of tea is a multi-billion dollar market, both in the country and overseas. 

In such a scenario, it is obvious that there would be pressure on companies to produce ever-higher yields; for some, this has meant a greater dependence on chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Recent studies carried out by independent NGOs have, in fact, shown the presence of pesticides in popular brands of teas – not a comforting thought at all.

Enter organic tea. As is the case with other organic produce, organic tea is also grown using environment friendly methods, without harmful chemicals that affect the soil, environment, workers, and of course, the end consumer. A growing number of estates are turning to organic methods of cultivation since the product is better, and organic tea is far more acceptable in foreign markets, eventually making for better profits.

Organic farms use sustainable techniques, eschewing harsh, harmful chemicals, and going back to ancient agricultural practices. These include using cow dung as a natural fertiliser and cow urine as an insect repellent; and planting neem trees, which have medicinal properties and keep insects away. Reptiles such as geckos and garden snakes along with worms are also important at an organic farm, as are birds, all of which keep insects away.

Most shops and tea boutiques  have organic teas for sale. If visiting Guwahati, head to Hathikuli Tea Shoppe on GS Road. All their tea is organic. You can also visit  assamicaagro.in. Assamicaagro works with small, independent organic tea estates, ensuring ethical treatment of workers and sustainable methods of farming. The Naga Royale Tea Estate, in Nagaland, produces good quality organic green tea. The Temi Tea Gardens in Ravangla, Sikkim also carries out production in the organic way and several types of tea can be bought from their estate.

Charles Alexander Bruce (1793–1871)
Charles Alexander Bruce (1793–1871)

Charles Alexander Bruce (1793–1871)

A man who donned many hats, Charles Alexander is best known as the ‘father’ of the tea industry in India. Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, Charles joined the Royal Navy and fought in the Napoleonic Wars. After resigning from the navy, he began working for the British East India Company and subsequently fought in the First Anglo-Burmese War. Charles’ older brother Robert was already in Assam by that time and it is highly likely that the younger Bruce got involved in his brother’s ‘dealings’ in the region.

Robert is believed to have discovered the indigenous tea plant, Camellia Assamica, with help of the local Singpho chieftain and told Charles of his discovery on his deathbed. (It is interesting to note here that the Singpho tribe had been brewing the leaves of the tea plant and drinking the herbal decoction for generations before either Robert or Charles set foot in India.) In the mid-19th century China dominated the tea trade and the British, seething from being ousted from the lucrative trade, sought to break that monopoly. Their attempt at introducing the Chinese tea plant in India failed, at which point Charles took it upon himself to cultivate the Assamese variety. He first sent samples of the indigenous product to the Tea Committee in 1836 for further investigation. The samples were deemed to be of good quality and Charles was given the go ahead to begin mass production. After that there was no looking back, and he was eventually responsible for establishing a number of tea gardens in the region.

Charles and his wife Elizabeth spent their retirement years in Tezpur, helping the poor people of the region through Christian missionary work. Their gravestones can still be seen in the Christian graveyard of the city.

Organic farms use sustainable techniques, eschewing harsh, harmful chemicals, and going back to ancient agricultural practices. These include using cow dung as a natural fertiliser and cow urine as an insect repellent; and planting neem trees, which have medicinal properties and keep insects away. Reptiles such as geckos and garden snakes along with worms are also important at an organic farm, as are birds, all of which keep insects away.

Most shops and tea boutiques  have organic teas for sale. If visiting Guwahati, head to Hathikuli Tea Shoppe on GS Road. All their tea is organic. You can also visit  assamicaagro.in. Assamicaagro works with small, independent organic tea estates, ensuring ethical treatment of workers and sustainable methods of farming.

The Naga Royale Tea Estate, in Nagaland, produces good quality organic green tea. The Temi Tea Gardens in Ravangla, Sikkim also carries out production in the organic way and several types of tea can be bought from their estate.