Eti kunhi duti paat
Kune nu singile
O kune nu singileDr. Bhupen Hazarika
Assam’s bard and music maestro Dr. Bhupen Hazarika was a poet of Nature, of the people and a revolutionary poet at the same time. His compositions reflect the true soul of Assam in all its glory. In this song he vividly creates the image of the tea garden workers of Assam plucking the tea leaves in the vast green estates which is a very common sight in Assam. Assam is one of the most prolific tea-producing regions in the world because of its ideal climatic conditions, long growing seasons and generous rainfall. The collective produce of the tea estates of Assam is approximately 680.5 million kg of tea.
Tea is a major industry in Assam apart from Agriculture, Petroleum and Natural Gas. Assam is the world’s largest tea growing region by production. Assam tea is a black tea manufactured specifically from the plant Camellia sinensis variant assamica. Assam tea is known to be brisk and malty with a bright color.
The history of tea in Assam dates back to the year 1823. Robert Bruce, a Scottish adventurer, discovered this species of plant wildly growing in the region. He was curious about the properties of the plant and in the process was introduced to the chief of the Singpho tribe, Bessa Gam by Maniram Dewan, a nobleman from Jorhat. The chief, in the meanwhile, had already discovered the “wild” plant which had medicinal benefits, and was brewing it to get this flavorful aromatic drink. Later the plant was tested in the laboratory of the Botanical Garden of Calcutta (Kolkata) and identified as a variety of tea. The East India Company then took on the task to develop commercial plantations of tea in Assam.
Maniram Dewan was the first Assamese to start commercial tea plantations in Jorhat and Sivasagar. He was a nobleman and an entrepreneur who worked as the Dewan of the Assam Tea Company. Having acquired the knowledge and experience about the techniques of cultivation, production and marketing of tea, he decided to develop his own tea Estates after resigning from the Company. Cinnamora Tea Estate of Jorhat is the first tea garden which was set up by Maniram Dewan in 1843 and which started functioning in 1850. The Estate is now owned by the Assam Tea Corporation Limited and the heritage bungalow has been turned into a boutique tea garden hotel called Chameli Memsaab Bungalow.
Assam Tea is generally harvested twice, in a “first flush” and a “second flush”. The first flush is picked during late March, and the second flush much later. The second flush is the prized “tippy tea” which is much sweeter and full-bodied and hence considered superior to the first flush. The two main types of Assam tea are CTC and orthodox. Orthodox Assam tea can further be divided into many categories depending on the leaf type. Orthodox tea is made using traditional methods and considered of superior quality than its counterpart. CTC or cut-tear-curl tea is a type of black tea where leaves are formed into small pellets. This is usually stronger, maltier, sharper and maybe astringent.
The Singpho tribe were the first in Assam to discover and brew the “wild” bush into tea. They produce and preserve tea in a very unique and unconventional way, and the final product is called the Phalap. The Singpho people generally cultivated their tea in their home-grown gardens without using pesticides or chemical fertilizers, but only vermicompost. The fine tender tea tips are plucked and then dry roasted in a pan. Then they stuff the tea leaves into a hollow bamboo and close the mouth tightly. This is then left to dry in a bamboo platform (in Assamese called dhuan chang) which is constructed above the traditional wood fired kitchen oven. The smoke from the fire oven dries the tea leaves in a period of around 3 months. The final product is like a cake because the tea leaves get compressed and stick together over time. This organic “handcrafted” tea has a smoky flavour and is very strong and unique.
Assam tea, or blends containing Assam tea are often sold as “breakfast” teas because of its strong, malty properties. Apart from black tea, Assam also produces green and white teas in small quantities. The younger generation of small tea growers in Assam are taking on the task to produce and process tea in an organic way. But this task is not easy since the available tea plants inherently contain pesticides. However, efforts are made to gradually evolve into a full fledged organic garden over the years. To achieve this, the tea growers use cow dung, vermicompost, oil cake etc. for controlling pests and ensuring healthy growth. Even the manufacturing process is done using locally available tools like dola, dheki etc. The final product is therefore much less in quantity because it is handmade.
Assam, at present, has about 830 large tea gardens with 529 tea factories and almost 66000 small tea growers producing around 1.5 million pounds of tea every year. Assam produces about 54% of India’s tea industry followed by Darjeeling and Kerala.
Assam tea industry has been hard hit by the pandemic and other issues over the last few years. Tea is Assam’s major industry with a large global market but several reasons like stagnant prices, low labour wages, deficit rainfall have made the industry suffer a lot. Small tea growers are struggling with production and sales too. The greatest blow was the lockdown and subsequent social distancing imposed to curb the spread of the virus. But with Govt intervention, revised wages and policies, and better market opportunities Assam Tea industry will definitely bounce back to retain its glory.
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