It is only appropriate that I start with the original tea aficionados, the Singphou Tribe, in particular the Bissa Gamm, in Assam India. Little is written or known about the Bissa Gamm and even less about the exact date when tea was found growing wild in Assam. The 1800s are mentioned as an approximation. While the British were unsuccessfully attempting to grow the chinese seeds, the Singphou tribe was plucking tea growing wild and drinking it as green tea. They were also cooking with the tea leaves!
I wondered if the Singphou still existed and if they did, were they still growing tea or had left for greener pastures.
My quest led me to the home of the current Chief of Bissa Gamm who lives in a village ahead, off the Pengri Margharita Road in Assam. This is also coal country. The soil is black with coal and covered by verdant green tea fields. The jeep hurtled on a very bumpy road unhinging every joint in my body.
Thankfully, after a few hours we entered a gate and I saw a house on wooden stilts with tea shrubs growing around. Standing on the steps was the chief of Bessa Gaum, Ram Kumar Bissa Nong Singphou, also addressed as the Raja or King. Dressed in a resplendent fine blue silk robe with a cap he welcomed us to his home. We were led up the staircase, down a balcony and into a large room whose walls were adorned with photographs of his ancestors and celebrities.
The chief’s family comprises of three wives and eleven children and not all live in the same house or village. Some of the extended family members have devoted themselves to preserving the arts, crafts and culture of the Singphou tribe. Although the descendants have a legacy in tea, employment in the tea industry is a challenge without a formal education, a cause of great angst.
The Bissa Gamm Singhpou tribe in the 1800s lived on both sides of the Brahmaputra river and harvested the wild tea growing in the forests. Today, they continue to grow their own tea and each morning the women of the house pluck, hand roll and steam the tea leaves. I was served green tea made from leaves plucked in the morning. The tea had a fresh grassy aroma, a medium dark greenish brown color and a very tiny tinge of a bitter taste.
The chief’s great great ( I lost count!) grandfather, the then Bissa Gamm chief, sold tea to an officer of the East India Company. The British eventually started to grow their own tea plants from the saplings provided to them by the Singphou. On several occasions payments were delayed. One such time, the chief hacked all the tea shrubs in anger destroying the tea. The hacked tea shrubs proliferated and tea leaves grew back in abundance! Thus the practice of pruning came into existence. Till today, that area is known as Bessakopi – or hacked by Bissa. To appease the angry Singphou chief the British offered a pistol. Wrapped in a cloth bundle it looked like an old toy with age marks. Maps, yellow with age showed the Singphou territory along the Brahmaputra where the Bissa Gamm lived. The change in the course of the Brahmaputra tributary was noticeable, the original Bessakopi tea estate had thus vanished partly.
The Singphou Bissa Gamm are the original Tea Aficionados who unknowingly, brought into being the practice of pruning tea shrubs. They can also be considered to be the first who initiated the proliferation of tea estates beyond their territory, thus sowing the initial seeds for the globalisation of tea. They continue to preserve and nourish the legacy of their ancestors in their method of making green tea and cooking with tea leaves.