Assam Tea

I first went to Silchar in 1987 in connection with my job posting there. It is a border district of Assam with Bangladesh. It is in the Barak valley and very poorly connected to rest of India. Most of outside people who go there are from Defense, Government employees and tea garden managers who are entitled to airfare from Kolkata.

Air journey reduces the tiring circuitous journey by train through upper Assam which takes at least 2 days. It takes about an hour and for most of its flight, airplane flies over Bangladesh.

I boarded a flight from Kolkata which was the sole flight in a day. The airports in Assam are make shift structures built at the time of world war by the British for sending the military personnel and arms to the front to confront the Japanese forces. There is no facility for night landing and in the foggy days during winter.

Anyway the plane landed safely after circling over paddy fields and lush green bamboo groves and tea gardens. The airport is about 28 kilometers away from the Silchar town.

I took a taxi which soon was running on the sinuous road amidst the hilly slopes. It was a beautiful sight to behold. All around were tea bushes on the slopes of hillocks. There were teak trees interspersed in the gardens. The womenfolk were picking up the selected leaves and putting them into the baskets hanging on there shoulders. We north Indians have only heard about these things but this was before my eyes as I was amidst this. This was my first encounter with the tea gardens.

During my 4 years sojourn there, it was almost a daily routine to go to far off oil rigs and roads ran almost throughout the lush green paddy fields, along the river on which there were boats in which fishermen caught the iconic Illish (Tenualosa ilisha) fish which is considered as the most delicious fish and Bengali folks are crazy for it and never ending tea plantations.

In fact our oil rig was located in the tea gardens itself. So these were the plants whose leaves are sent all over the world. Most people in the world drink tea.

My second encounter with tea gardens was in the upper Assam. Again there were tea gardens running along the roads for miles and miles and never seem to be coming to an end. The area where we were located was called Sibsagar which, once upon a time was the capital of Ahom Kings who reached the valley from the south eastern side, most probably from Thailand. On the way to Jorhat from Sibsagar one encountered the Tea Research Institute at a place called Toklai. It is learnt that experiments are on to create a tea variety which will combine famed aroma teas of Darjeeling and rich brew teas of Assam.

British knew the potential of area for growing teas. As such the wild tea plants in Assam, India, do not produce a palatable brew. The credit goes to the British whose commercial interests led to the identification of local bushes which tasted like Chinese tea and the local people were drinking it although they did not know the present name. It all changed in the 19th century when the cultivation of tea began in the planned manner. Sir Joseph Banks was among observers of tea plants growing wild in the hills of Nepal in 1788.

In 1815 it was noticed that the people of Assam drank a tea from locally growing plants, but identification of these as tea plants proved inconclusive. In 1823, a Major by the name of Robert Bruce had also learnt of the existence of tea in Assam and sent samples to the East India Company’s Botanic Gardens at Calcutta, who declined to confirm that the samples were tea. Lieutenant Charlton, who was on service in Assam in 1831, sent plants to the Agricultural and Horticultural Society in Calcutta with the observation that the leaves were drunk as an infusion in Assam, and that they tasted of Chinese tea when dried. Charlton’s plants were also denied official recognition.

Official recognition

It was not until Christmas Eve of 1834, when Charles Alexander Bruce, Robert Bruce’s brother, sent samples to Calcutta, that the true identity of the plant was finally confirmed to be tea, or more accurately, Assam tea. It is now known botanically as Camellia sinensis var. assamica. Subsequently there was huge controversy between Charlton and Charles Alexander Bruce as to which of them was the first to ‘discover’ the tea in India.

It was found that tea could be manufactured from Assam tea shrub leaves which was in some ways superior to China tea. Tea planting became popular and there was great demand for land and seed. Thus seed gardens were established with whatever seed was available in many cases. Some were pure China, some pure Assam and some were deliberately inter-planted with both types. Thus Indian hybrid tea was formed, which has great variability and vigour. This was undoubtedly the most important event in the evolution of the commercial tea plant.

Benefits of tea

Tea is good for health as contains many anti oxidant molecules.The latest research into how we live our modern lives often shows how things like pollution or too much sun can be harmful to us. Intermediates that arise naturally during chemical process, called free radicals, can challenge our normal healthy state. Free radical damage has been implicated in diseases such as heart disease, stroke and cancers.

It is thought that by regularly consuming foods and drinks that are rich in substances called antioxidants that act to ‘soak up’ these free radicals we can help ensure we have sufficient resources. As well as fruit and vegetables that are  good sources of these substances, you can help increase your daily antioxidant intake by drinking tea. That’s because tea is widely known to be rich in a particular group of antioxidants called flavonoids.

For example, there is about eight times the amount of ‘anti-oxidant power’ in three cups of tea than there is in one apple, and every time you brew up in a cup or a pot for up to one minute you about get 140 mg of flavonoids. Who’d have thought something that tastes that good can help maintain your health!

In some districts of West Bengal, India, arsenic is found in the unacceptable levels making the water unfit for drinking. It has been shown that both black and green tea reduced the elevated levels of lipid peroxides and protein carbonyl seen with arsenite poisoning. Both teas showed protection against the decline in antioxidants, including catalase, glutathiones, and superoxide dismutase (SOD), as well as against genotoxicity (Sinha D et al, Antioxidant potential of tea reduces arsenite induced oxidative stress in Swiss albino mice, Food Chem Toxicol, January 2010). For full article click here.

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