On my ongoing North-East trip I had driven through lots of tea gardens in Darjeeling, Sikkim and Assam. Dibrugarh was the last tea town and I had the urge to see for myself the whole process of tea making before leaving for Arunachal Pradesh. I’m an avid tea drinker; not just the murky Chai normally had with milk- but the purest form of tea; be it green tea or black tea (Preferably without sugar for green tea).
I brought few packets of both black and green tea at one of Darjeeling’s finest tea stalls called Golden Tips. The black tea was one of the finest I have had. There are no standout teas associated with Dibrugarh or Jorhat, but that doesn't mean they don’t produce good tea. In fact the best teas are either exported outside or processed by bigger tea companies.
Tea was one of the first things the British built their fortune on. In Dibrugarh tea gardens are just on the outskirts of the city. Jalannagar Tea Estate is one of the older ones and was established in 1959.
I landed at Jalannagar Tea Estate around 9am in the morning. Most tea estates also provide some of the best guest houses amid lush tea gardens. The ambience of waking up to the beauty of the tea garden and the experience of drinking fine tea from the same garden was tempting. Jalannagar Tea Estate also has a nice guest house amidst the beautiful tea garden, but it is only for official guest and not commercial purposes. But there are other tea gardens that offer food and lodging facilities.
A little further from Jalannagar after an almost 10-15 minutes drive I landed at Khanikar Tea Estate. Here the leaves glint in the sun and the tea plants grew more compact. There were hordes of tea pickers raking tea leaves like an organized machine. They are raked in a certain way, though I presumed it might have nothing to do with the taste, more than to help plants sprout more quickly.
Most tea pickers are Bangladeshi immigrants. The influx of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh to the north east states, especially Assam and Tripura has been the reason of discontentment, resulting in severe communal riots. One such ugly episode surfaced in 2012 at Kokrajhar between Bodos and Bangladeshi Muslims. It resulted in many killings and many people being displaced.
I picked up an easy conversation with some tea pickers who were extremely nice to me. We talked about our lives, about religion and a place I understood as heaven. Their simple philosophy of life and their connections with the tea garden in which they worked most of their life touched me. The garden and tea plants have far more deeper meaning than we can imagine. An old woman in her early 60’s reminiscence while raking tea plants, ‘The tea plants have become old just like us. Their tips are a lot harder to rake than when they were younger. They don’t produce as much tea leaves as before.’ They talked about these plants as if they were human. Here I also had the pleasure of peeking into the world of tea making, but it ended in disappointment as the tea making machine works only in the early mornings. Young laborers were laying out raked leaves to be dried before the fermentation process. The process looked a lot more sophisticated than the finished products.
A little further from Khanikar at the fringes of Jokai Botanical garden, I came upon the Sessa Tea Estate, perhaps the youngest and the best looking tea garden in the nearby areas. These young tea gardens are soon replacing the older ones while keeping the traditions alive.