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The origin of India’s tea story

About 150 years ago, an ambitious and courageous man set out to create the first commercial tea estates in the country

The tea industry in India began to take shape in 1834. (Istockphoto)
The tea industry in India began to take shape in 1834. (Istockphoto)

In January, the North Eastern Tea Association launched an year-long celebration to commemorate 200 years of Assam tea. For this is where the story of India’s tea begins, with one man who features as a key player, and who, by virtue of being Indian and Assamese, allows us to claim our part in the story. Maniram Dutta Barua, a British East India company employee who eventually rebelled and is credited as India’s first commercial tea planter.

In 1823, Barua would have been a 17-year-old living in Bengal. Born into a family of Assamese aristocrats, his family had fled to Bengal following the Burmese invasion in 1817. Six years later, they returned home. The Anglo-Burmese war was on and the British won control of Assam. Some say Barua used his knowledge of the lay of the land to lead the British army into Guwahati.

Barua was decidedly pro-British initially. Around this time, the British empire was trying to break the Chinese monopoly over tea. In 1823, Robert Bruce, a Scottish naval officer, found himself in Assam, caught in the battles and affairs of the Ahom kings and the Burmese. Barua is thought to have told Bruce about plants that grew wild in parts of Assam, whose leaves were brewed by the Singpho people. Could this be tea?

Pradip Baruah, researcher at the Jorhat-based Tocklai Tea Research Institute, Asia’s largest, narrates the events in his book, Two Hundred Years Of Assam Tea. Bruce did meet Beesa Gam, the Singpho chief. After Bruce’s death in 1824, though, it fell to his brother, Charles, to pursue what his brother had started. Barua, meanwhile, was progressing in his career with the British East India Company. Historian Amalendu Guha describes him as a man “eager to avail of the economic opportunities created by the new regime; but at the same time he wanted to retain the aristocratic privileges of the old days”. In the 1930s, Barua served as chief minister for Rajah Purandar Singh, the last Ahom king, and his tributary kingdom.

Ten years after Bruce died, the wild plants of Assam were officially recognised as a species of Camellia sinensis by Nathaniel Wallich, superintendent of the Calcutta Botanic Gardens. A tea industry began to take shape. In 1839, the Assam Tea Company was formed; Barua was appointed dewan a year after the British dethroned Purandar Singh. He set up several gardens for the company but had his own ambitions. By the time he resigned in 1845, Maniram Barua owned two tea gardens, Cinnamara in Jorhat and Senglung in Sivasagar.

He was keen that the Ahom kingdom be restored, even if only in titular fashion. When that didn’t happen,he joined the protests that began with the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857. He was arrested and publicly hanged on 25 February 1858. His commercial success, it is said, became his undoing.

In the story of our tea, we remember Barua as the man who set out to create the first commercial tea plantation by an Indian, a man of ambition and enterprise, and fearless to boot.

Tea Nanny is a fortnightly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry.  @AravindaAnanth1 on Twitter. 

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