Singphos: The original tea people of Assam
Robert Bruce is the Englishman who is credited with discovery of tea in Assam in the year 1823. But the Singphos, who were the major tribe of Upper Burma and their territory once extended from Arunachal into Assam, beyond Jorhat, and covered large tracts in northern Burma, smirk at this statement.
They contend that they had been drinking and using the tea plants in the food seven centuries earlier than 1823. Griffith also noticed that tea leaves were eaten as a vegetable food prepared in mustard oil and garlic.
A similar salad recipe in Burma, called ‘Letpet’, promised marital bliss. Here the leaves were boiled for several months for fermentation. The resuscitated leaves were chopped and mixed with oil, garlic, fried shrimps, fruits and dried coconut and served to newly wed.
British East India Company tried to plant the seeds brought from China in Assam since 1774. But this did not succeed. They have to resort to the local tea bush which Singphos already grew.
Robert Bruce met Singpho king Bisa Gam to discover tea. As usual, the very Bisa Gaum who helped them grow the exceedingly profitable shrub of tea was charged with taking part in 1857 rebellion against them and was jailed for life and sent to Andaman.
When the East India Company, by the treaty of Yandabo, 1826, annexed Upper Burma to Assam, the Company made a similar treaty with the tribal chiefs of the different clans; at Sadiya When tea cultivation started on Singpho land the East India Company paid a land rent to the Chief.
Irritated over a delay in receiving payment Bessa Gaum hacked off some newly planted tea, little realizing that his destructive act actually helped the industry. The cut plants resurrected and put on vigorous growth, this initiated pruning. To this day the estate where Bessa Gaum cut the plants bears the name “Bessakopie-hacked by Bessa”.
Singphos processed the tea leaves in a special manner. They half roasted it and then dried it for 3 days in the Sun. During roasting, leaves are hand twisted the leaves. After this, tea leaves were stuffed into the bamboo and hung over hearths where other eatables like fish were also hanged. This imparted the tea a smoky flavor. It was called “dhooan chang technique”. It was somewhere between green and oolong teas. It needs some time getting used to.