DID THE BRITISHERS BEGIN TEA CULTIVATION IN INDIA?
With their lack of expertise & little understanding of Indian terrain, how did they accomplish such a feat?
Search for the man behind the genesis of Indian tea took me to a remote corner of Assam.
Here’s the whole story:
The initial discovery of tea was in the lands of the Singpho people in Upper Assam’s forested areas.
The wild Assam tea was a boon, as the Chinese had stopped their tea trade with the Britishers.
At that point in time, each Singpho family owned their respective tea gardens.
Ningroola, was a powerful Singpho Chief of ‘Ningroo’ territory in the Buridehing river.
After the initial meeting of Bessa Gaum and Robert Bruce, he was sought by the Britishers to locate prime tea-growing regions.
And the long cherished tea-making process of the tribe.
Tea drinking was a part of the Singpho tribe’s life.
They planted in their gardens & collected wild tea from the forest.
They also possessed intimate knowledge of the grooming of tea plants- from cutting the branches to planting them under shade trees for fine leaves.
They also had their own method of preparing tea.
‘Phalap’, which is translated to simply mean ‘tea, is a process used by the tribe, that dates back to the 13th c.
They would create a complex organic tea that was known for its smokey, aromatic, and intrinsic taste.
The Singphos had tea forests, where the plant grew so tall, that the leaves would be collected on elephant backs.
Leaves were fried & sun-dried for optimum flavors.
Smoked in a bamboo cylinder the process helps with the long shelf life of tea and gets better with time.
The Britishers, were quick to realize not only the potential of the wild Assam tea & the tea forests but, also the technical know-how of the tribe.
Ningroola, with his well-honed genius and enterprising spirit, was a prime candidate to pioneer tea cultivation in the region.
Estimating the success of Ningroola, the British govt. began to offer financial assistance to Singpho Chiefs for tea cultivation.
However, it was to be done, ‘at their own risk’, and ‘in their respective Barees(garden).’
A rather lucrative deal.
As Ningroola had extensive knowledge of the indigenous practices of tea cultivation, he was given more responsibilities.
He was also asked to supervise the new experimental tea garden started by the East India Co.
The Britishers had begun to envisage a partnership.
Ningroola proved to be rather ingenious as a tea planter.
He manufactured 35 chests which were sold during the first tea auction by the EIC in Calcutta in March 1841 for an astounding £480.
An incredible feat for a hill chief of a remote area.
But this alliance was short-lived.
The Tea Committee’s scientific experts, like botanist Nathaniel Wallich, believed the tribal chiefs as incompetent to handle such rich resources.
Directing for a more hands-on colonial rule in the tea-growing regions.
The Singphos began to resent British intrusion.
Attempts to control the tea forests led to violence in 1843 with Singphos raising arms against the EIC, creating the perfect excuse to seize their lands.
Colonial history held only the Singphos responsible for the clash.￼
A Chief wrote to the EIC:
“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”
Ironically after seizing the tea forests, the Britishers quickly changed their mind.
Perceiving the difficult sentiment of the tribes, the remote location, and the possible labor difficulties, the British decided to move their tea production to the Ahom territory.
With their departure, the clans had a brief fallout.
While the Bessa Clan continued to stay in Upper Assam, the Ningroola clan shifted to Namsai in Arunachal Pradesh.
Today there are over 15 Singpho families in Namsai keeping the tradition of ‘phalap’ alive.
It is a fact, that remains true to this date, that Ningroola’s success in tea cultivation remains unknown.
Also, historians have long sidelined his work as an independent tea planter, in favor of Maniram Dewan, due to his collaboration with EIC.
Ningroola to be recognized as the first tea cultivator in India is important.
Not only to erase the whitewashed narrative but also to celebrate and highlight the depth and wisdom that had always existed in our Indian culture.