The tea industry in India may have been a creation of the British East India Company but tea itself was grown, plucked, steeped and drunk here much before their arrival. The Singpho, who live in parts of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, are considered the original tea drinkers in India.
Tea—now classified as the Camellia sinensis assamica varietal—used to grow here as a wild bush, as much as 10ft in height. Some say people had to go on elephant back to pluck leaves. One of the most fascinating, and lesser told, stories from the world of Indian tea is about Robert Bruce, a Scottish soldier, who arrived in Assam in the early 1800s. He seems to have been some sort of an adventurer. While the details of his life are sketchy, what is known is that in 1823, he was introduced by Maniram Dutta Baruah, a local nobleman (and India’s first commercial tea planter), to Beesa Gam, a Singpho chief.
And Beesa Gam served Bruce some tea.
Bruce was aware that the British had been trying to bring tea saplings to India. He realised that the Singpho beverage was made from a plant that was the same, or similar. It could be a turning point for the Company. Within a year, however, Bruce died. It was his brother Charles, a navy man, who would eventually ship the samples to England.
The Assam plants were confirmed as a tea subspecies. But the Singpho contribution didn’t end there. Pradip Baruah, tea scientist and author of History Of Tea—The Beginning And Development Of Indian Tea, tells the story of Ningroo la, a Singpho chief of the Ningroo clan who is considered to be the first Indian tea planter. Ningroo la, he says, was not only encouraged by the British to cultivate tea, but even taught how to make it in the Chinese style. They also bought his tea and sent it to auction.
By 1840, Ningroo la had brought a lot of land under tea cultivation. Charles Alexander Bruce, often referred to as the Father of Indian Tea, had become the superintendent of the northern division of the newly formed Assam Company .
Charles may have earned the title, but let’s not forget the Singpho—their tea heritage, after all, is older and richer.
The traditional Singpho tea is the falap, made by frying, drying and stuffing the tea leaves (from unpruned bushes growing wild or even in the backyard) in bamboo and leaving it to smoke above the stove. Today, there is an effort to revive it. Among those committed to it is Rajesh Singpho, who runs the Singpho Agro Products cooperative in Assam.
The falap is often called the Indian pu-erh, because it’s a fermented tea that ages well. In its bamboo casing, it can be preserved for up to five years, says Rajesh. It’s a smoky black tea, a bit of an acquired taste. But that’s tea for you, an armchair ride to hitherto undiscovered places.
TEA TAKES: To contact Rajesh Singpho, email email@example.com. You can choose from a loose-leaf falap or bamboo falap (ndum falap), which will come in its original bamboo container. Aged falap is available with The Tea Leaf Theory.
Tea Nanny is a weekly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry.