Assam and the Story of Tea

Romancing the Camellia Assamica

Assam is the largest tea-growing state in the world and is known for its highly distinctive, rich, strong, dark and refreshing quality teas. Located in Northeastern India, Assam is also the only place in the world, other than the Yunnan province in China, that boasts an indigenous variety of the tea plant - Camellia Assamica.

Camellia is an evergreen plant which has two distinct varieties: the small leaf variety, popularly known as Camellia Sinensis, thrives in the cool, high mountain regions of central China and Japan, and the broad leaf variety, known as Camellia Assamica, grows best in the moist, tropical climates found in Assam in India and in the Yunnan provinces of China. The term Camellia is supposedly given in honor of a Moravian Jesuit, Came, (Latin: Camellus), who wrote a seventeenth century treatise on Asian plants. This article is about the Camellia Assamica variety as the original tea plant over Camellia Sinensis and about the romance of modern tea industry that started in Assam.

The Origins:
The origins of tea drinking are lost in antiquity. Cha Pu was the first ancient Chinese writer who wrote expressly about tea. He alluded the reference of tea to some poems credited to Confucius who lived around 500 bce. Cha Pu states that Chinese public first became interested in tea in the third century ce. as a medicine only, and that it was not used as a beverage until sixth century ce. The famous eighth-century Tea Master Lu Yu, however, affirms that tea was discovered by Shen Nong, the Chinese emperor who lived in the third millennium bce. According to legend, the emperor had the habit of boiling water to purify it before drinking. It just so happened that while once on a journey, he boiled his water under a ‘thea’ tree and some leaves fell into the water. When he drank the infusion, he marveled at its refreshing taste and at once felt invigorated. That is how the fragrant, energizing and aesthetic drink “Cha,” referred to as “Tea” in the West, was invented or rather discovered.

However, there is an equally strong claim from the Indian side supported by popular Buddhist legends for its Indian origin. One of these legends spread throughout the Orient, traveling wherever Buddhism and tea went, and it gained a large following in Japan. This Buddhist legend attributes the discovery of tea to Bodhidharma, the devout Indian Buddhist monk, who founded the Chan (Sanskrit: Dhyan) Buddhism in China which later spread to Japan and became Zen Buddhism. The legend tells how in the fifth year of a seven-year sleepless contemplation Bodhidharma began to feel drowsy. He then plucked a few leaves from a nearby bush and chewed them, which dispelled his tiredness. The bush happened to be a wild tea plant. According to another version of the legend, misfortune befell on Bodhidharma when one day, overcome by fatigue, he fell into a deep sleep. Upon awakening he was so ashamed and angry that he tore off his eyelids and cast them on the ground. Miraculously they took root and from them suddenly sprouted a bush of shiny green tea leaves. Eating these leaves alleviated his weariness and so aided his meditation. Whichever legend you choose to accept, this Buddhist legend is stated to have formed the basis of the ritualistic tea ceremony which was later formalized as the meditative Zen Buddhist tea ceremony ‘Cha-No-Yu’ (the way of tea) that survives today.

Legends aside, until early nineteenth century, botanists believed that the tea plant was a native of China, and that its natural growth was confined to China only. Probably it was due to the fact that before the advent of the modern tea industry, tea was much more ingrained to the Chinese culture than to the Indian. It is unquestioned historical fact that tea was first cultivated in China. In India, it was mostly the Singphows and other tribes in Assam who used to drink tea. They used to brew the wild tea leaves without much conditioning and drink the liquor. The habit of tea drinking was also probably prevalent among the Assamese in the Brahmaputra valley at least as a medicine because we find a tenth century Sanskrit medical text from Assam called Nidana (the Science of Diagnosis) that mentions leaves called shamapatra from which shamapani is made. This is probably the first mention of tea in India. We also find a record of a Dutch traveler, Jan Huyghen van Linschoten, who noted in 1598 ce that the Indians ate the leaves as a vegetable with garlic and oil, and boiled the tree leaves to make a brew[2]. Montfort Chamney, a British tea planter and writer of Assam during the early days, states, “The tea plant is not indigenous to China and the seed from which it was first grown there is traditionally said to have been brought to China from Assam. Professor J. W. Gregory's recent volume ‘The Story of the Road’ shows that silk and other oriental merchandise were regularly conveyed between India and China by road or land track established prior to the period 2600 bce.” [2] Lu Yu, the eighth century Chinese master records in his classic, Ch’a Ching that “Tea is from a grand tree from the South.”[1] Moreover in recent years new evidence have led the scientists to revise their perception. The Camellia teas originated in the foothills of the Himalayas, in the region between Assam, Burma and Yunnan province where the first Homo Sapiens arrived some sixty to hundred thousand years ago. Today this region produces some of the finest teas in the world that are marketed as Assam teas and Yunnan teas.

Probably tea as a drink was originally discovered in the prehistoric Paleolithic age, when taking their cue from the monkeys, the early tribesmen in this region began chewing tea and found it to be relaxing to the body and mind. Over the years, tea became popular among some tribes of the region. Gradually, thousands of years ago, tea was brought outside the region by the tribal people for trade and eventually spread to the Chinese mainland. The first book on tea "Ch'a Ching" (The Classic of Tea), was written by the Chinese author Lu Yu around 780 ce. It comprises three parts and covers tea from its growth through to its making and drinking along with a historical summary. Probably it was Lu Yu who has elevated tea as a drink of the sophisticated Chinese class through his writing.

Tea and Cha: The modern term "tea" derives from early Chinese dialect words, such as Tchai, Cha, Thea and Tay, used to describe both the beverage and the leaf. In his work "Curiosities of Literature", Mr. Isaac Disraeli, the literary historian tells us, "The word Tcha is the Portuguese term for tea, retained to this day, which they borrowed from the Japanese, while our intercourse with the Chinese made us, no doubt, adopt their term Thea, now prevalent throughout Europe, with the exception of the Portuguese."[2] From this, it looks like, in India, the common words ‘Chai’ or ‘Chah’ for tea came to India through the Portuguese.

Tea has been rightly called the mirror of Chinese soul. In China, tea became so popular that “the Taoists claimed that it was an important ingredient in the elixir of immortality."[1] In fact, according to Lu Yu, the use of tea became so extensive in China that it was taxed in the eighth century. The practice of tea drinking in China is also known from Arab sources. In China, gradually “a huge trade in ‘bricks of tea’ grew along the Silk Road and through many other roads, crisscrossing from southwest China to Siberia, and from China as far as the Islamic civilization of the Middle east.”[3] From China it spread to Japan at one time. “By about the twelfth century, the ‘tea bricks’ were so ubiquitous that they became the preferred currency in many parts of Central Asia.”[3] The use of tea spread slowly from its Asian homeland and reached Europe around 1560 ce. by way of Venice. It was the Portuguese and Dutch traders who first imported tea to Europe by 1610 ce. with regular shipments. By the end of eighteenth-century tea drinking has influenced a greater part of the world. England was a latecomer to the tea culture and the tea trade. The English however quickly developed an almost unquenchable thirst for the drink as well as for the trade, and began searching for ways to get tea without having to buy it solely from China

Modern Tea Industry: In India, with the advent of modern tea industry, tea gradually became an important part on the Indian mainstream culture, especially of the Assamese as well as the Bengalis. In case of the Assamese, today, tea may be said to be the mirror of the culture along with rice and betel nut. Today, an Assamese cannot think of starting his day without a cup of tea; an Assamese villager cannot think of going to the rice field without taking a bowlful (e-bati) of red tea. Tea goes very well with the easy going Assamese lifestyle where any time of the day or night may be said to be ‘tea time’. Traditional Assamese hospitality is such that even if a stranger comes to one’s house, a cup or a ban-bati of tea is generally offered before questioning his motive. From Assam, tea also spread into the mainstream Indian culture and economy. G.P Baroowah writes, “In India tea cuts across barriers of class. It is a passion with all sections of society-Maharajas, Noblemen, and Industrialists and at the same time with daily wage earners. Tea has emerged as the greatest social leveler.”[4]

The story of modern tea industry is as fascinating as the legends associated with the origin and culture of tea itself. Like the expansion of the British Empire with its colonialism, the growth of the modern tea industry itself is an outcome of the Western concept of perpetual economic growth by exploitation of nature by man, a concept quite foreign to the Eastern culture till the other day. As an economic benefit, it has contributed immensely to the wealth of many nations. Several historical events led to the establishment of the modern industry. By the early nineteenth century, the British were heavily trading tea from China. However, under growing trade restrictions, they were trying to find an alternate source of tea in the Himalayan foothills. This led Robert Bruce, an officer of the British East India Company to visit Assam in 1823 on a trading mission when Assam was under the Burmese control. In Gargaon, the then capital of Assam, he met Dewan Maniram Datta Baruah, who was a minister to the last Ahom king. Maniram Dewan informed Bruce of the tea plants growing wild in hills nearby. Thus, it is Maniram Dewan who should rightly be credited with the discovery (or re-discovery) of tea plant in Assam. The Singphow chief Bisa-Gam, presented Bruce with a sapling of a tea plant that the Singphow people revered as being both medicinal and spiritually beneficial. Even though Bruce presented this plant to the botanical laboratory in Calcutta, the British didn't realize they had discovered tea bushes growing wild outside of Chinese control till about a decade later. In the meantime, on some pretext, the British launched war against the Burmese, and Robert Bruce also died in the same year before he had a chance of collecting more tea plants from Assam.

By 1830s the British East India Company also had organized the first and most likely the biggest drug cartel in the world. They were supplying the Chinese marketplace with ships laden with opium which they commercially cultivated in India, in exchange for teas that they were exporting to Europe. By 1839, however, the Royal Chinese government started intercepting and destroying English vessels laden with opium, and by June 1840 there was a full-fledged war between Chinese and the British.

Waking up to the realities of the need for finding alternate profitable source of tea, Charles Bruce, brother of Robert Bruce, was given the task of establishing the first nurseries. Because they were still not sure that the tea plant discovered in Assam really was indigenous, they imported about 80,000 tea seeds from China. The seeds were planted in the Botanical Gardens in Calcutta and nurtured until they were sturdy enough to travel 1000 miles to Assam. Meanwhile, up in Assam, Charles Bruce and his team of pioneers were busy clearing suitable areas of land near Sadiya, the eastern-most town of Brahmaputra valley, to develop plantations, pruning existing tea trees to encourage new growth, and experimenting with the freshly plucked leaves from the native bushes to manufacture black tea. The Singphow Chief supplied Bruce some tea plants and seeds, most of which was planted in Bruce’s garden at Sadiya and some were sent to Commissioner Jenkins in Guwahati and some to the Botanical Gardens in Calcutta. Bruce also recruited some skilled tea makers from China, and with their help, he steadily learnt the secrets of successful tea production.

The conditions were incredibly harsh, the area was remote and hostile, cold in winter and humid and hot in summer. Tigers, elephants, wolves and snakes constantly threatened the lives of the workers. The primitive settlements of the tea workers were also subject to regular raids by local hill tribes. In this new game of tea exploration in Assam, in fact, the locals as well as the British, all were learners. But eventually they persevered, and gradually the jungle was opened up, the best tea tracts cultivated under the light shade of surrounding trees.

When the fog of exploration cleared, Camellia Assamica stood its indigenous ground; the local plants flourished, while the Chinese seedlings, i.e the Camellia Sinensis, struggled to survive in the intense Assam humidity. It was then decided to make subsequent plantings with seedlings from the indigenous Camellia Assamica tea bush. Eventually, in the year 1838, the first twelve chests of tea of Camellia Assamica, commercially cultivated and manufactured in Assam, made its way for sale in London auction. The East India Company promptly sent feedback to Assam that the teas had been well received by some "houses of character"; and there was a similar response to the next shipment, some buyers declaring it "excellent".
Having established a successful industry in Assam's Brahmaputra valley, with factories and housing settlements, the Assam Tea Company began to expand into other districts of northeast India. Cultivation started around the town of Darjeeling in the foothills of the Himalayas in the mid-1850s. The company gradually pushed on into other areas such as Terai and Duwars and even into the remote Kongra valley, 800 miles west of Darjeeling.

Taking export as a yardstick, we find on records that in 1853, India exported 183.4 tons of tea, by 1870, that figure had increased to 6,700 tons, by 1885 to 35,274 tons, and by 2000 to 200,000 tons. Today, India is not only the world's largest producers of tea (about 800,000 tons annually) with its more than 13,000 gardens and a workforce of about 2 million people, but India also is the largest consumer of tea (about 600,000 tons annually). However, new players into the market are making the export market more and more competitive for India.

The modern tea industry had contributed immensely to the growth of economy of many individuals and companies and especially to the growth of the British Empire itself. But these growths in wealth and economy were achieved at a price to many others. Tea industry, like coffee and sugarcane, had its conflicts and victims. If every success story has a dark side, the growth of tea industry in Assam has also has its dark side. The tea industry had mixed effect on the local people of Assam who were exposed to the benefits of the Western culture on one hand but on the other hand, they lost their most valuable thing, their political independence, because of it.

In spite of the huge growth of the industry in Assam and the great upheaval of local culture, there are not too many books written on the history of the industry with its full effect in its true perspective. Sir Edward Gait lamented back in early nineteenth century, “In spite of the fact that Assam owes its rapid development entirely to its numerous tea gardens and that tea is also extensively cultivated in various other parts of India, and also in Ceylon, comparatively little has been written on the subject. Amongst the few who have written, moreover, so far as I am aware, only one who was himself a tea planter, the late Sir James Buckingham of Amguri, who for some time represented the Province in the Indian Legislative Council.” [2] Today there are many books published on modern tea industry, but there are very few books telling the whole story depicting both the sides. Young Assamese writer, Arup Kumar Dutta’s book, ‘Cha Garam’ is probably the first comprehensive book on the subject. The Assamese poet-writer, G.P Baroowah’s recent book, ‘Tea: Legend, Life and Livelihood’ is a grand colorful book depicting the equally colorful and glamorous journey of tea in India in poetic language. Recently while traveling in Europe, I happened to bump into, by a stroke of luck, one unique book which I think tries to capture whole story with proper sensitiveness and authenticity. It is the ‘Green Gold: The Empire of Tea’. -By Alan and Iris MacFarlane, published now both in the UK and the USA.[3] It tells the story of Assam and the tea industry in general remarkably well.

Tea Industry and the History of Assam: The growth of the modern tea industry is intricately intertwined with the history and culture of the Assamese people during the British colonialism in the nineteenth and the twentieth century. On the negative side, it may be very well argued that it is for tea industry that the people of Assam not only lost their independence but also are fast losing their cultural identity. To understand this sad and sensitive story, one will have to live in Assam and while trying to understand the tea industry must also try to understand the Assamese society from inside. And that is what Mrs. MacFarlane and her son, the co-authors of the book did. Mrs. Iris MacFarlane’s husband was a tea planter in Assam, and while spending their lives in tea gardens in Assam, Mrs. McFarlane chose to encounter the Assamese culture closely.

MacFarlane reflects the history of annexation of Assam by the British in its true perspective, “On March 13, 1824 the British marched slowly up from Calcutta, guns mounted on elephants, to take Assam…… The newly appointed Commissioner David Scott was reassuring, ‘We are not forced into your country by the thirst of conquest but are forced in our defense.’”[3] Today, almost two hundred years later, it sounds almost like the American soldiers marching to take Iraq in ‘defense’ of America. And that was the beginning of the end of Assam’s political independence. The British were good administrators, and they took it upon themselves to replace the old Assamese style of lazy tax collection system of community service by their own ‘scientific’ modern method. “The relaxed Ahom methods of tax collection in service or produce was replaced by an army of revenue ‘farmers’ tramping the country bearing demand papers totally incomprehensible to the illiterate peasantry”.… ”The Marwaries, the merchant moneylenders of Rajasthan, saw their chance to fish in troubled waters”.….”There was general exodus (of Assamese) into Bhutan and Bengal”... “The situation was such that Maniram Dewan, one of the few rich entrepreneurs of Assam, had to describe the situation as ‘living in the belly of a tiger’. He was one who first supported the British but later was completely disillusioned when he found himself being excluded from generous land deals offered to the Europeans.”[3] The British, it seems, wanted both to have and eat the cake at the same time, and have succeeded. “Nobody, according to the company, owned the forest which it designated as Waste Lands. The British were prepared to rent out the rainforest at very low rates, but only in blocks of a hundred acres, and no Assamese peasants could take up their generous offers”. … “The puppet king, Purandor Xingho never had a chance. When tea plant was discovered in upper Assam, the British found that they had in fact given him the wrong bit of the country, the region where tea grew.”[3] The rest is history. Shrewd administrator as they were, the British took the Upper Assam from king Purandar Xingho without further ado simply declaring him a ‘rapacious miser’ because he defaulted in paying the annual tribute of Rs.50000 (equivalent to about US$ 1000). With that, Assam lost its political independence forever. However, that was not all.

MacFarlane write, “The people of Assam were not consulted and it might seem strange that none of them objected to the selling of their country to foreigners, to seeing their forests disappear under thousands of acres of spiky green tea bushes, the profits of which went to Calcutta and London.[3] They had to do that because as MacFarlane put it, “The strength of the Assamese was also their weakness when it came to putting up resistance to the newly arrived rulers. Unlike the rest of Indians, they had no strong caste allegiances …There were no outcastes, no women in purdah, there was no mechanism for corporate bargaining or setting up solid resistance to what was happening. Relatively crime free, caste free, self-sufficient in basics of life, the Assamese saw themselves being pushed aside as Europeans, Bengalis, Marwaris, Sikhs poured in. There was little they could do, but for doing that little they were always described as spineless and lazy. From the administration point of view this was fine, from the tea planter’s point of view this was irritating.”[3][

The British learned a great bit about tea garden economy from wealthy Assamese entrepreneur like Maniram Dewan. However, when his service was no longer required, he was isolated. It was not only the Assamese in the valley that were adversely affected. The Singphows through whom the British ‘discovered’ tea plants, had to revolt in 1843 against losing their own territories. Sometime before the uprising, the Singphow chief Bisa-Gam wrote a letter to the British agent lamenting “now it is said that where the tea grows, that is yours; but when we make sacrifices we require tea for our funerals; we therefore perceive that you have taken all the country, and we, the old and respectable, cannot get tea to drink”.[9] History silently records how the Singphow uprising was crushed cruelly. In case of Assam, Maniram Dewan was later hanged in a hastily conducted court on charge of ‘treason’ during the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857. And with that Assam lost its entrepreneurial spirit.

Since the days of Sepoy Mutiny, the tea industry and Assam itself have come a long way. The British colonialism was over when India won independence in 1947, and Assam joined India as one of its states supposedly as equal partners. Today Assam produces about 20% of world tea which has been an enormous boon for many countries. However, Assam’s problems of cultural subjugation and economic deprivation are not over. Even after more than half a century of India’s independence, things actually have not improved much in favor of Assam.

Conclusion: It has been said with truth that with the exception of water tea is the cheapest drink in the world, and like water itself, it invigorates the human life. It is estimated that today about 3.5 billion cups of tea are consumed in the world every day. The preface of the modern English translation of the 8th Century Chinese classic, ‘Ch’a Ching’ correctly remarks, “Tea may be the oldest, as it is surely the most constantly congenial, reminder of the West’s debt to the East”[1). In this exploration of tea in our human civilization, Assam contributed immensely not only being an originator of the tea plant, Camellia Assamica, but also offering her prime land as the launching base to start the modern tea industry for the benefit of the world.


[1] Ch’a Chung (The Classic of Tea) – Lu Yu
[2] The Story of the Tea Leaf - Montfort Chamney.
[3] Green Gold: The Empire of Tea. - Alan and Iris MacFarlane.
[4] Tea – Legend, Life and Livelihood of India – G.P. Baroowah
[5] A Time for Tea – Jason Goodwin
[6] The Story of the Road – J.W. Gregory
[7] A History of Assam-by Sir Edward Albert Gait
[8] Tea technology – Gokul Sharma
[9] The Empire’s Garden: Assam and the Making of India - Jayeeta Sharma
[10] The Tale of Tea - George L. Van Driem
[11] A History of the Assam Tea Company - 1893-1953 - H.A. Antrobus
[12] History of the Indian Tea Industry- P. C. Griffiths
[13] Tea-Leaf to Cup- Clifford Little

Images (c) istock.com


More by :  Dr. Rajen Barua

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Views: 3663      Comments: 1

Comment Excellent article, with facts and figures included with references. This is a very informative article that covers tea planting not only from the perspectives of its history, but also how it evolved and grew in an organized manner in Assam to a global presence. It covers the key points including Maniram Dewan how the political system of British rule evolved and controlled the destiny of the native folks.

Hope the article finds a much wider audience to educate others.

Binoy K. Bordoloi, Ph.D.
09-Mar-2021 11:46 AM

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