Tea might have been tasted by an Indian in around 1040 AD while the British did it before 1662 AD, and in no time the British Tea Culture came about some three centuries ahead of India’s courtship with tea. Around 1040 AD when Atiśa Dīpaṃkara Śrījñāna, the great preacher of Buddhism, was in Tibet, the Dharma King made offerings to all lamas and served tea and victuals to monastic congregations. Atiśa being the King’s honoured guest must have enjoyed drinking tea that time. His experience with Tibetan cup of tea died with him in 1054 AD at Lhasa. By that time, according to the oral history of the Singphos, India must have started growing tea forest in the North-East.


Atiśa Dīpaṃkara Śrījñāna Buddhist Preacher in Tibet c.1054 AD

Singphos are the same people as those called the Kachin in Burma and the Jingpo in China – a colourful tribe of Mongolian origin. Singphos have a very rich heritage of oral folklore, leaving deep traces in history of Assam. They spoke of their ancestors migrated from somewhere in the highland of Mongolia in B.C. 600-300 to their abode in the hills of Singra-Boom in Tibet . From there they formed several groups among themselves. Of these groups one went to China, one to Myanmar and one of them migrated to the Indian hilly region. Around B.C.300– A.D.100 the Singpho entered Brahmaputra valley. They brought with them their linguistic traditions and culture, and their affinity to tea being an integrated part of their mode of living. They speak Jingpo language in Singpho dialect that shares a degree of similarity with Tibetan and serves as lingua franca among Kachins.
Singphos were the most powerful and influential tribes of Lushai mountain range in Mizoram. The John Company remained indebted to them for building its tea empire on the borrowed resources generously provided by the Singpho chief, Beesa Gam in 1883. Singpho people are believed to be among India’s first tea drinkers and traditionally engaged in tea cultivation. To this day, they continue to process tea by first heating the leaves in a metal pan until they brown, and then sun-drying them for a few days. When processed and brewed correctly, a cup of Singpho tea, which is had without milk or sugar, is a lovely golden-orange colour. The leaves can be reused to brew three or four cups, the flavour getting better with each infusion. Singphos also use white tea flowers, pan fried and served with rice. The traditional processing of tea, they believe, retains its medicinal value. [Sarita]
Not only in India, as the history reveals, tea has been introduced everywhere as a health drink. Taking tea as refreshment is a recent phenomenon comes in vogue before tea turns out to be a mode of socialization.

Because the term ‘tea’ often used to mean ‘herbal tea’, other than to a Camellia variety, we are not sure of the significance of some rare references to ‘tea’ (or ‘chay’) in Vedic literature found in Caraka Samhita’s ‘Pancha Karma’ prescribing heating pastes, teas, and keep them in warm chambers.’ [Charaka Samhita] There have been, however, some evidences of tea consumption found amongst the people of Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh.

They follow the ancient tradition of preparing beverages Thang by boiling Camellia/Taxus /Acacia in water like decoction, and the Ccha Chah, a salty tea, by adding dry walnut powder, black pepper, milk (optional), butter and salt. [Negi] I-tsing a 7th century Chinese Buddhist pilgrim who left behind an account of his ten-year sojourn (676-685) in Nalanda said to have noted semi medicinal use of tea brew in India. [Achaya]
Much later in 1638, in a curious account of Albert de Mandelslo, a young gentleman of Holstein who visited Seurat that time described how they took only thè (tea) “commonly used all over the Indies, not only among those of the country, but also among the Dutch and the English, who take it as a drug that cleanses the stomach, and digests the superfluous humours, by a temperate heat particular thereto.” [Wheeler]
Mandelslo’s tea account incidentally coincides with the initiation of Tea in England of King Charles II, discarding our notion that Britain discovers tea before India did all wrong. Moreover, contrary to the popular views, tea no more considered a foreign breed, but a native crop of India. If not in Vedic age, tea must have been here since the beginning of the Christian era when the Singphos crossed Brahmaputra and made India their home amidst the tea forests they grew as a part of their mode of living. The tea trees remain in the Singpho land hidden from modern civilization until the first quarter of the nineteenth century.

The Tea Land of Singphos

The modern history of Indian tea begins in 1823 when the tribal chieftain Beesa Gaum graciously handed two tea plants to Captain Robert Bruce in exchange of a musical snuffbox – a gift from Bruce. This exchange of friendly gifts took place because of the initiatives of two protagonists of native tea, Captain Bruce and Dewan Maniram.

Maniram Dewan (1806-1858)
Maniram Dutta Baruah, was a nobleman domiciled Assamese from Kannauj ever remembered for his lifelong commitment to native tea plantation, besides his activism. In the year 1839, Maniram joined Assam Tea Company at Nazira as Dewan but quitted the job next year to try his hand in tea cultivation

independently. Finally in 1845 he developed Chinnamara and Toklai Tea Gardens, the first plantations owned by any native Indian, much to the dislike of his rival European tea planters who, according to some, by instigating the Company administration against Maniram for his alleged anti-British role succeeded in getting Maniram’s tea estates confiscated and illegally auctioned to one Mr. George Williamson at a very nominal price. Maniram was sent to gallows on 26th February, 1858 on the plea of his involvement in Assam uprising, otherwise called India’s First War of Independence. Maniram Dewan became a martyr, the first Tea Martyr of India. There is yet another assumption that Maniram, once a loyal ally of the British East India Company, wanted to take the opportunity in 1857 mutiny to uproot British rule in favour of Ahom rule; and he did that particularly to avenge the interference of the white with his tea business. [Ghosal]

Captain Robert Bruce (1789-1824)
Captain Robert Bruce (1789-1824), born in Edinburgh, joined the army and eventually found himself involved in establishing opium plantations for the East India Company. Sometimes he was described as ‘a soldier of fortune’. [Bruce] It was presumably on the advice of the East India Company he arrived at Rongpur in 1823 to contact Maniram Dutta Baruah who had informed them earlier of the existence of indigenous tea in Assam. Captain Robert Bruce (1789-1824) died in 1824 just a year after he met Maniram, leaving his younger brother Charles to take up his lead.

Charles Alexander Bruce (1793-1871)
Charles Alexander Bruce approached the Singpho chieftain Beesa Gaum once again and obtained a canoe full of wild tea plants and seeds that he dispatched to officials in Assam and Calcutta, particularly to Captain David Scott, first Commissioner of Assam, and the rest he distributed liberally to all whom he thought might take interest. With the exception of one ‘army officer in Lucknow’ [Johnson] none of the recipients had an inkling of wild Assam tea. Captain Scott having realized its huge possibilities himself wrote to Wallich, the Empire’s arbiter on botanical matters, at Calcutta, for their cognizance and actions without any reference to Charles Bruce as his source. Nathaniel Wolff Wallich (1786- 1854), an FRCS surgeon and botanist of Danish origin, was however never serious about indigenous tea as he staunchly believed that true tea grew nowhere but in China. Moreover, as it seems, the samples consisting of mere tea leaves and seeds might not have been sufficient for identifying the species. The lots that Scott sent to Wallich in 1825, 1826 and then again in 1827, all reckoned as Camellia drupifera and not ‘true tea’. The Company authorities remained nonchalant so far Assam tea was concerned. They neither believed nor had any interest in India breed tea. Assam tea had to wait seven years more for getting recognized and finally certified through a zealous effort of an adventurous Lieutenant Andrew Charlton.

Lieutenant Andrew Charlton (≥1800- >1840)
Charlton was appointed in May 1826 to command the military post at Sadiya (Assamese সাদিয়া )in Upper Assam – he was there to serve as the official channel of communication with the Singpho and Khamti Chiefs, as well as exercising criminal jurisdiction over the tribes and promoting commercial relations etc. [Appointment Record. BL] In 1831 while working in the Assam Light Infantry, Charlton found tea growing in eastern Assam in the hill tracts around Sadiya . He had learnt to recognize tea trees during his sojourn in the Dutch East Indies. With the help of his resourceful gardener he acquired some tips about tea growing and some young tea plants that he cultivated in his own garden in Jorhat. Charlton sent four young tea trees to Dr. John Tytler in Calcutta, who planted them in the Botanic Garden, where they withered and died before they could be botanically investigated. [Driem]
When in October 1831 he came to Calcutta, Charlton brought with him a few plants which he presented to the Agricultural and Horticultural Society that was ignored by the Society as the sample size found too small. Next time, in November 1834 he sent tea plants with fruits to Wallich, which was found on examination convincing and finally declared that ‘Assam tea was as real as the tea of China’. Wallich wrote to the just established Tea Committee of Lieut. Charlton’s discovery of Assam tea on 6 December 1834.

Tea Committee
The little attempts earlier made to cultivate tea in India and that too half-hearted. As long as the Company’s monopoly over China tea lasted, Calcutta, including its science establishment, closed their eyes to the possibility of tea in Assam. When the monopoly was broken by the 1833 Charter, the Company had nothing to hold on but to the prospect of new-found Assam tea or to cultivating imported tea plants on Indian soil. A 12-member Committee of Tea Culture was set up by Lord William Bentinck in 1834 to explore the possibility of a tea industry in India, with George James Gordon (Secretary), James Pattle (Chairman), J. W. Grant, R. D. Mangles, J. R. Colvin. Charles E. Trevelyan. C. K. Robison, Robert Wilkinson, R. D. Colquhoun, Dr. N. Wallich, C. Macsween. G. J. Gordon, Radakant Deb, and Ram Comul Sen.

Francis Jenkins (1793-1866)
The Committee sent out a circular asking for reports of areas where tea could be grown. The circular was responded almost immediately by one Captain Francis Jenkins. Jenkins joined the East India Company and sailed from England in 1810. He was deputed by the Company to undertake a survey of Assam, including Cachar and Manipur, during October 1832-April 1833, following its annexation by the British. Early 1833, Bruce told Jenkins privately and wrote him publicly that ‘the tea plants were growing wild all over the country’ [Kochhar]. Jennings must have been convinced also by the findings of Lt. Charlton of Assam Light Brigade under his jurisdiction. Jenkins reported the Committee of Tea Culture recommending strongly for Assam tea. Based on his report an experimental nursery was set up at Sadiya. Excellent tea was soon being produced. With help from Jenkins, commercial production rapidly developed, and by 1859, more than 7,500 acres in the region were devoted to tea cultivation. Jenkins reluctantly retired from service in 1861 but remained in Assam, dying at Guwahati in August 1866. A set of Jenkins’ journals and letters dating from 1810 to 1860s were brought to auction at Sotheby’s in 2009. The genus Jenkinsia Hook. (Lomariopsidaceae) was named for him. [JSTOR]

Gardening Assam Tea replacing Wild Tea Forest
On 11 February 1835, the Committee appointed Charles Bruce as the in-charge of nurseries to be developed in Upper Assam, at Sadiya and other places. Two years after, Bruce was designated Superintendent of Tea Plantations. It was Charles who pioneered the use of the term ’tea garden’, a meaningful linguistic shift from ‘tea forest’ signifying the way tea produced in colonial environment, employing semi-mechanized systems . Charles Bruce, regarded as the Father of Indian Tea. [Sharma]
Upon the whole, there seems little reason to doubt that Assam then was physically capable of producing that important article, on which eight or nine millions of money was annually spent in the United Kingdom. Eight chests of Assam teas were auctioned in London in January 1839. This was the beginning of the end of Chinese domination of the tea market that had lasted a century and a half. [Gazetteer for Scottland]

Assam Tea Companies
The same year Prince Dwarkanath had formed the Bengal Tea Association in Calcutta – the first Indian enterprise to start tea cultivation [ Majumdar],  and a Joint Stock Company was formed in London. These two companies got combined and formed the first Indian Tea Company called the ‘Assam Company’ – the first Joint Stock Company in India. Tea Plantation spreads beyond Assam across Indian landscape.


In spite of the incredible agronomical and commercial success of Assam tea, there remained a large section in East India Company unconvinced about its worth in comparison to the Chinese camellia. They were more eager to avail the Chinese saplings for domestication because of their qualitative supremacy over the wild Assam. To report on the earlier amateurish findings, a scientific delegation, headed by Wallich, the celebrated Danish-born botanist geologist, including the surgeon-naturalist John McClelland, and another celebrated botanist William Griffith, was sent to Assam in July 1835. Dr. Wallich maintained that since the native plants were actually tea, there was no need to import seeds from China.
The ‘young Turk’ Griffith, however, had completely a different view and pronounced emphatically that only by importing ‘Chinese seeds of unexceptionable quality’ could the ‘savage’ Assam plant be reclaimed as fine tea. As this wisdom was unquestioningly accepted, a young botanist, Robert Fortune working in the Edinburgh Botanic Gardens. Alongside, G. J. Gordon was instructed by the Calcutta Botanic Gardens to “smuggle tea seeds out of China.” [Ukers]  A deputation, consisting of Messrs. Gordon and Karl Friedrich Gutzlaff, was then sent to the coasts of China to obtain tea seeds. They succeeded in obtaining seeds from southern China that arrived in Calcutta in January 1835, and being sown, vegetated and produced numerous plants. In the beginning of 1836 about 1326 saplings sent to North-East. The tea nurseries were formed at Kumaon and Gurhwal in the Himalayas, and immediately began to grow with all that vigor aided by a small band of Chinese tea-makers whom Dr. Wallich recruited for them in April 1842.
In January 1843, the first sample of Himalayan tea was received at the tea table of the British Chamber of Commerce and reportedly pronounced by the members that the fine kind of tea – Oolong Souchong, “flavored and strong, equal to the superior black tea generally sent as presents, and better for the most part than the China tea imported for mercantile purposes.” [Carey]

Robert Fortune, (1813 -1880)
Fortune was commissioned to undertake a three year plant collection expedition to southern China in 1842, and in 1848. Finally, it was on behalf of the East India Company, he went to remote Wuyi Mountains in Fujian Province and in mid-February 1851 Fortune brought tea-filled especially designed ‘Wardian’ cases consisting of no fewer than 12,838 plants, 8 illegally immigrated Chinese tea-workers and tools of trade to Calcutta port via Hong Kong. Dr. Hugh Falconer, who had recently taken over from Wallich as superintendent of the Botanic Garden, received Fortune at Shibpore ferry ghat to take the sprouting tea-plants smuggled from China under his care. The tea plants then dispatched to Saharanpur, formerly a Mughal garden, at the lower foothill, and from there distributed to various Himalayan plantations. Some of that exceptional stock nurtured in Kumaon plantation made its way to Darjeeling, where it would eventually produce the world’s finest and most expensive teas. [Ukers]

Coming of tea to Darjeeling was something almost accidental. It was never considered as a place good for planting tea. Even Sir Joseph Hooker (1817-1911),

founder of geographical botany and Charles Darwin’s closest friend, thought of Darjeeling as a place too high with too little sun and too much moisture to grow tea. Dr. Archibald Campbell proved it all wrong within two years of his arrival at Darjeeling as the newly appointed Superintendent in 1839. Previously, when he was in Kathmandu working under renowned ethnologist and naturalist Brian Houghton Hodgson (1800-1894), Campbell was inspired by him to care the native flora and fauna with love. Among other plants in his home garden at the height of 7,000 feet, Campbell in 1841 sowed tea with stock that came from the nurseries in the western Himalayan foothills. The trees came to bear in the second half of that decade, and the Company inspector reported in 1853 that both Chinese and Assam varieties were doing well in Campbell’s garden.
Campbell established government sponsored tea nurseries in Darjeeling and Kurseong. While both types of leaf varieties were planted, Chinese ones were unexpectedly, successful. Plants from stock Fortune had smuggled out of China thrived in Darjeeling’s misty, high-elevation climate. The Company opening up land and clearing plots for tea gardens began to circulate plants for individuals and small companies. [Bengal District Gazetteers]
The commercial cultivation of tea was started in 1852-53 in Darjeeling with the Chinese variety of tea bushes. Today tea is grown in forty-five countries around the world, summer-flush Darjeeling has always been the best choice of the global connoisseurs, and the most expensive as well. [Koehler]

About 10 million kilograms of Darjeeling tea are grown every year spread over 17,500 hectares of land. [Marketing Analysts] India on an average produced 1233.14 million kilograms of tea between 2011 and 2016. North India produces nearly 5 times more than South; and West Bengal produces 329.60 million kg, which is little more than half of Assam. Darjeeling tea seems quantitatively too insignificant but qualitatively the highest among the best teas of the world. [IBEF]

In a nutshell this is the story of Indian Tea, which the Britishers discovered, harvested, industrialized and monetized to secure their sovereignty, and left the tea legacy to India when they lost it. This over two hundred year long story tells us how the India’s own wild tea forests turned into tea gardens, and how the smuggled China tea was Indianize imbibing the essence of the mystic Himalayan, Western Ghats, Kanan Devan’s biodiversity.

Tea history, you might have already sensed, is highly illustrative for appreciating the process of cultural shifts leading to acculturation that took place in colonial India, Bengal Presidency in particular being the playground of both the Assam and the Darjeeling teas. Allow me to elaborate in my next post a few elements of the tea history for you to connect the ideas of acculturation I discussed earlier.
Happy New Year

  1. Achaya, K. T. (1997). Indian Food: A Historical Companion. Oxford: UP. https://books.google.co.in/books/about/Indian_Food.html?id=CKIJAAAACAA
  2. Bengal District Gazetteers: Darjeeling ; Ed.by Arthur Jules Dash. (1947). Calcutta: G.P.Press. https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.150149
  3. Bruce, Charles. (1840) The First story is an 1838 Account of the Manufacture of Black Tea as practiced at Suddeya in Upper Assam. In: Koi-Hai. December 6, 2011. https://web.archive.org/web/20061220204732/http://livn-an.com/tearoom/bruce/
  4. Carey, William H. (1964 ). The good old days of Honorable John Company; being curious reminiscences during the rule of the East India Company from 1600-1858, complied from newspapers and other publications. Calcutta: Quins. https://www.google.com/search?client=firefox-b-d&q=Good+Old+Days+Of+Honorable+John+Company+From+1800+To+1858%3B+W.+Carey
  1. Charaka Samhita; Edited by Gabriel van Loon. (2003). Handbook on Ayurveda; Volume I.  Durham: Center for Ayurveda. https://archive.org/details/GabrielVanLoonCharakaSamhitaVol1Eng/page/n1
  2. Driem, George L. van . (2019).The Tale of Tea: A Comprehensive History of Tea from Prehistoric Times to the present time. Leiden: BRILL. https://books.google.co.in/books?id=Z6WODwAAQBAJ&pg=PA625&lpg=PA625&dq=Lieutenant+andrew+charlton+tea+Assam&source=bl&ots=baf_hPx8hM&sig=ACfU3U0t3UX-zqmLIVkXUuoXF3VXwdFEvQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjfpf2KuLTlAhXQbn0KHa9mAHwQ6AEwBHoECAgQAQ#v=onepage&q=Lieutenant%20andrew%20charlton%20tea%20Assam&f=false
  1. Gazetteer for Scottland. (2017). Robert Bruce (1789–1824). In: Gazetteer for Scottland. Edinburgh: University. https://www.scottish-places.info/people/famousfirst3224.html
  2. Ghosal, Ranjan Kumar (2019), Indian history buff. Quora July1, 2019. https://www.quora.com/What-was-the-role-of-Maniram-Dewan-in-the-Revolt-of-1857
  3. Griffith, William. (1847). Journals of travels in Assam, Burma, Bootan, Afghanistan and the
    neighbouring countries. Calcutta: Bishop’s College. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/15171/15171-h/15171-h.htm
  4. (2018). Tea Industry and Exports in India. In: India Brnad Equity Foundation – Portal. Last Updated: December, 2018. https://www.ibef.org/
  5. Johnson, George W. (1843). Stranger in India; or, Three years in Calcutta; v.1. London: Golburn. https://ia902702.us.archive.org/22/items/strangerinindia00johngoog/strangerinindia00johngoog.pdf
  6. Global Plant Resource. [Search Engine] https://plants.jstor.org/login?redirectUri=%2Fstable%2F10.5555%2Fal.ap.person.bm000329174%3fsaveItem=true%5D
  7. Kochhar, Rajesh. (2013). Natural history in India during the 18th and 19th centuries. in Journal of Biosciences 38(2) June 2013. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/236674827_Natural_history_in_India_during_the_18th_and_19th_centuries
  8. Koehler, Jeff. (2015). Darjeeling: a history of the world’s greatest tea. London: Bloomsbury. https://www.goodreads.com/user/new?remember=true
  9. Majumdar, Sumit K. (2012) India’s Late, Late Industrial Revolution: Democratizing Entrepreneurship. Cambridge: Univ. Pres.
  10. Negi, Vineeta, and ors. (2018). Tea Kinnauri, Thang & Namkeen chai: an Ayurvedic In: World Journal of Pharmaceutical Research. Volume 7, Issue 18, 638-649. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/328802003_Tea_Kinnauri_Thang_and_Namkeen_Chai_an_Ayurvedic_Perspective_A_review
  11. Santoshini, Sarita. (2016). Singpho Tea Party. In: Traveller India, Natgeo, february 22, 2016  http://www.natgeotraveller.in/singpho-tea-party-the-story-behind-the-brew/
  12. Sharma, Jayeeta (2011). Empire’s Garden: Assam and the Making of India. London: Duke University. https://books.google.com/books?id=W2dtxgZba6MC&pg=PA40&lpg=PA40&dq=a+significant+linguistic+shift,+from+%E2%80%9Ctea+forests%E2%80%9D+to+%E2%80%9Ctea+gardens&source=bl&ots=3_FfCbYj0-&sig=ACfU3U03VGNWmyb4pgp4UskXlr7w-ZBkZQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiI5a62mKvlAhXyxlkKHV9wA3oQ6AEwAHoECAcQAQ#v=onepage&q=a%20significant%20linguistic%20shift%2C%20from%20%E2%80%9Ctea%20forests%E2%80%9D%20to%20%E2%80%9Ctea%20gardens&f=false
  13. Wheeler, J Talboys (1878). Early Recods of British India: A history of the English settlements in India. Calcutta: Newman. https://ia800208.us.archive.org/17/items/earlyrecordsofbr00wheeuoft/earlyrecordsofbr00wheeuoft.pdf
  14. William Ukers. (1935). All about tea; v.1. New York: Tea & Coffee Association Trade Journal Company. https://archive.org/details/AllAboutTeaV1/page/n9

Botanical Garden, Shibpore, Calcutta, 1944

BotanicalGardens-Beatyful-Glenn-1944শিবপুর বোটানিকাল গার্ডেন বাগানের পরিবেশ, c১৯৪৪
Here is a view of the Botanical Garden of Shibpur as it was in 1944. Established in 1787 by Lieutenant Colonel Robert Kyd, this garden is situated on the west bank of the river Hooghly (Ganga). The credit for the foundation of the Garden is generally given to Colonel Robert Kyd (1746-1793), a Secretary to the Board in the Military Department of Fort William who was also an amateur botanist. The official name of the Garden during the Company’s rule was ‘The Hon’ble Company’s Botanic Garden, Calcutta’, subsequently, it was renamed ‘The Royal Botanic Garden, Calcutta’ in the early 1860s. This amazing garden is laid out on a sprawling 272 acres of lush greenery on the outskirts of the city of joy. Over 12,000 trees and shrubs belonging to 1400 species together with thousands of herbaceous plants are in cultivation in the open in 25 Divisions, Glass houses, Green Houses and conservatories. The best-known landmark of the garden is The Great Banyan, an enormous banyan tree (Ficus benghalensis) that is reckoned to be the largest tree in the world, at more than 330 metres in circumference. They are also famous for their enormous collections of orchids, bamboos, palms, and plants of the screw pine genus (Pandanus). More ..
The photograph was taken by Glenn S. Hensley in 1944.

Banyan Tree, Botanical Garden, Shibpore, Calcutta, 1860

মহীরুহ বনস্পতি, শিবপুর বোটানিকাল গার্ডেন, c১৮৬০
The best-known landmark of the Botanical Garden is The Great Banyan, an enormous banyan tree (Ficus benghalensis) that is reckoned to be the largest tree in the world, at more than 330 metres in circumference. The garden is situated on the west bank of the river Hooghly (Ganga). The credit for the foundation of the Garden is generally given to Colonel Robert Kyd (1746-1793) who established it in 1787. The official name of the Garden during the Company’s rule was ‘The Hon’ble Company’s Botanic Garden, Calcutta’, subsequently, it was renamed ‘The Royal Botanic Garden, Calcutta’ in the early 1860s.