Tea Junction


By Niladri Gupta
Tocklai Tea Research Institute

Chai, Garam Chai (Tea, Hot Tea) is a commonly heard welcome call when a train chugs into any railway station in India. The hot cup of tea gives a refreshing feel especially in the early mornings after a night’s journey. Tea and Indian Railways (the largest railway network in Asia and second largest in the world under one management) have closely been associated with each other ever since railways became the main mode of transport in India after its inception during the colonial past.

Journey of the Indian Railways
The railway system in India especially for passenger traffic made its first journey on 16th April, 1853 from Bombay (Mumbai) to Thane. The train comprised of 14 carriages hauled by 3 locomotives named Sindh, Sultan and Sahib (which came from Great Britain by ship) and was part of the The Great Indian Peninsular Railway. The proposal to set up a railway system in India was initiated in Great Britain in 1843 by Lord Dalhousie (who later became the Governor General of India) who realised the interest amongst bankers, traders and shipping companies in Great Britain as well as India in train travel. The railways were set up by private companies which received a guaranteed 5% return annually on investment from the British East India Company. Railways in India actually started in western part of the country because a few freak accidents led to the delay of Calcutta, the capital of the British East India Company during that period, receiving the first railways in India. A story of perilous travel on the world’s great oceans: HMS Godwin the ship carrying the locomotive for the East India Railway from Great Britain was misdirected and ended up in Australia, while the ship carrying the railway coaches capsized at the sandheads in Bay of Bengal before entering the Hooghly River. Finally, the East India Railway saw the light of the day on 15th August 1854. Now, Indian Railways is one of the largest railway networks in the world with 64000 km of track covering 7000 stations and catering to 23 million passengers and 2.68 million tonnes of freight daily. Thus the tag line for the Indian Railways: Lifeline to the Nation.

An old locomotive on display

An old locomotive on display

The Tea Connection
Tea was discovered in India by Scottish explorer Robert Bruce in the Upper Brahmaputra Valley, Assam in 1823 being brewed by the local Singhpho tribe much before the railways came in India. The first tea produced in Assam (a consignment of 12 chests) was sent to England for public sale in 1838. With the advent of tea trade in Assam, north eastern India was connected to the port of Kolkata from Dibrugarh (Upper Assam) by the Brahmaputra navigation channel and from Silchar (Cachar) by the Barak-Surma-Meghna navigation channel. The Railways came to Assam in 1881 with the construction of the railway line between Dibrugarh and Makum collieries to transport tea and coal to Dibrugarh. Similarly, the Chittagong port (presently in Bangladesh) was also connected to Assam via Barak Valley in 1903 to transport tea, though the railway fell into obscurity after the partition of the country in 1947. The Indian section of the route is currently being connected to the rest of the country and is likely to be opened by April, 2015.  A railway journey through the tea landscape of Assam from Lumding to Dibrugarh is a memorable experience as the train passes through vast stretches of the tea estates in south bank and upper Assam (the largest single tea growing region in the world) and through national parks of the region. Though the railways were introduced to transport tea to the ports (directly or indirectly) for export, the Indian railways presently do not carry much tea as part of its freight which declined by 59% in the 1990s due to increase in road network in the country¹, but the livelihood of a large number of vendors selling tea are dependent on the Indian Railways passenger traffic.

A train passing through a Tea Estate in South bank region, Assam, India

A train passing through a Tea Estate in South bank region, Assam, India

The Chai Wallahs
From my childhood days I had a fascination for railway journeys and the thing that hasn’t changed much over the years are the tea vendors (chai wallahs as they are commonly called in India) with a kettle and a bucket of cups getting on, moment a passenger train enters a station and in some cases they are on the train even before the train has come to a halt. Incidentally, they are the last person to get down after collecting their dues when the train has already picked up enough speed. I always wondered why they risked their life so much for selling just a cup of tea. No statistical figures exist of the number of tea vendors who earn their livelihood by selling tea in the Indian railway network but it accounts for a major livelihood source for a considerable section of the population. In accordance, Indian Railways have also given importance to the tea vendors by introduction of licensed tea stalls at all railway stations and automatic vending machines in some stations keeping in mind that tea is one of the most consumed beverages of the country. The vendors have also brought in innovations in the way tea is prepared and served to the passengers in form of masala chai, lemon tea or ginger tea. The tea industry of Assam, North Bengal and South India caters to the 23 million passengers that Indian Railways carry everyday through a few thousands tea vendors, thus critical in supporting their livelihoods. Trains and tea are two very important flag bearers of the Indian economy; jointly promoting the most consumed beverage in the world.

Chai wallah at Mariani Jn, Assam, India

Chai wallah at Mariani Jn, Assam, India


¹Vaidya B.C. (2003) Geography of the transport development in India. Concept Publishing Co. New Delhi; pp 10-11

Tea and the British Empire


By Ellie Biggs
University of Southampton

Being a Brit I find it quite fascinating how Britain once ruled almost a quarter of the world’s total land area. I remember having a discussion with a fellow postgraduate when I was a student as to why territories of the empire were always coloured pink on world maps – answer’s here. But, regardless of the colour, I have always been amazed at the far-reaching global domination of the then ‘Great’ Britain. Despite trips to several nations of the commonwealth – Canada, Australia, New Zealand – I have never really felt the influence of a colonial past until setting foot in India (actually, you could count the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia – Tudor buildings selling cream teas is certainly quintessentially English!). So on my first visit to northeast India under our UKIERI research project I was genuinely awestruck by the grandeur of Kolkata’s imperial buildings (formerly Calcutta under British rule) and the vast extent of the colonial tea establishments in Assam.

The Port of Kolkata

The city of Kolkata lies on the Hooghly River, a branch of the mighty Ganges in the state of West Bengal. Driving into the city from the airport it is clear the city is still very much expanding, with a wide sprawl of construction; everything from new top end hotels to executive office blocks, and even entire new satellite towns such as ‘Salt Lake City’ (the city’s IT hub) which are driving social and economic expansion. The metro line is being extended in multiple directions with an expected completion date of ‘when it’s finished’. Old Calcutta still presides at the heart of the city with grand European-influenced architecture dominating the landscape. The General Post Office building is particularly impressive, as is the Victoria Memorial, Town Hall and High Court. Unfortunately many of the elaborate buildings have fallen into disrepair due to dereliction and a lack of maintenance. However, the park areas of the city are generally beautifully landscaped and the the city is much greener than I expected. The infrastructure is also impressive with the Second Hooghly Bridge (the longest cable–stayed bridge in India) towering over the Hooghly a few kilometres downstream of the iconic Howrah Bridge (the busiest cantilever bridge in the world; an engineering marvel of its time). Many English named roads weave their way through the city’s grandeur. What is slightly disturbing is that all roadside rails, fences and bollards are being painted sky blue and white under orders of the chief minister of West Bengal; there’s even a tax rebate on offer for those who paint their house the favourite colours of the minister.

served as the capital of India until 1911 (when it shifted to Delhi). The Port of Kolkata is India’s oldest operating port and in 1690 the infamous East India Company (Est. 1600 by The Royal Charter granted by Queen Elizabeth I) was granted a trading licence and the port was developed into a fortified mercantile centre. The company established the beginnings of the British Empire in India and Calcutta was one of the trading through-routes of the world with a full waiver granted by the emperor of Bengal on customs duties; an anchor location for the British company to exert its influence on 50% of world trade during its peak trade domination. The East India Company was one of the most successful companies ever to exist, with employees acting as explorers, traders and innovators, transporting highly valuable merchandise – including silk, saltpetre, cotton, opium and tea – around the world.

The Rise of the Tea Trade

So a brief history of tea in India, intertwined with the fate of the corporation that changed the world… In the 1820s, most tea imports to Britain were purchased by the East India Company from China using money raised by illegal trading of Indian-grown opium with the Chinese. Tea from China monopolised global trade. In an attempt to break this monopoly on tea, the East India Company began large-scale production of tea in Assam, offering free land to European settlers who agreed to cultivate tea for export. Meanwhile, China tried to prevent ongoing opium smuggling which resulted in two ensuing opium wars. The outcome? Opening up of the opium trade and an increase of opium production in China. Consequently, the lucrative product no longer held its profit for Indian exports and a subsequent diversification of the East India Company’s export goods was required.


The East India Company’s global reach (Source: Robins, 2012)*

Tea consumption spread following a campaign by the Tea Board and from 1840 the Assam Tea Company began commercial production of tea in the region. Expansion of the industry ensued with vast tracts of land consumed for tea cultivation. In the 1850s a rebellion occurred across India challenging the power and control of the East India Company which resulted in the nationalisation of the company – depriving the company of its Indian trade monopoly, except its trade with China and trade in tea – and a subsequent nine decades of British colonial rule (the British Raj). The Company continued to manage the tea trade on behalf of the British government until it was dissolved in the 1874. The Tea Board of India (HQ Calcutta, Est. 1953) now promotes the cultivation, processing and trade of Indian tea. And that’s the history in a nutshell.

Onto the Rural Lands of Assam

After a couple of days exploring Kolkata’s heritage I journeyed onto the city of Jorhat in Assam. Here the pace of life changes drastically from the city. Life is slower and people share their land with plentiful livestock, wildlife and many a sacred cow. The rural landscape surrounds central Jorhat, with endless expanses of tea plantations, many of which were developed in the mid-19th century. Tea bungalows remain on some estates, again, remnants of the British Raj. We visited two such ‘bungalows’ (rather large compared to your average size bungalow you’d find in Britain) – Banyan Grove and Burrah Sahib’s Bungalow (the Kaziranga Golf Resort) – both situated on land of the Gatonga tea estate owned by B&A Ltd. The architecture of these former homes of tea factory managers is certainly very British, with elaborate rooms and ornately crafted furniture, both of which are over 100 years old.

Most of my stay in Assam was based at the Tocklai Tea Research Institute (Est. 1911), the oldest and largest tea research station in the world. Again, buildings housing this organisation are also relics of British influence, particularly the guesthouse where I stayed; parts of which I’m sure had not changed since it was built (some of the furniture included!). The train track runs alongside the Institute connecting Jorhat to the mainline which weaves through other Assam stations to Kolkata. The construction of the train network is another marvel of the British Raj, providing an overland trade route into the heart of Assam (critical in transporting tea to the city auction houses). The incessant tooting of these trains starting from 3am each day interrupted my sleep, but I assume the locals must become accustomed to the noise.

Overall, I very much enjoyed my first visit to India. The city streets were much less populated than I was expecting given my demographic knowledge of the nation. A pleasant surprise. And Kolkata was much greener than I ever imagined an Indian metropolis to be. The historical colonial reach of the British and their great corporate globalisation certainly added an unexpected feeling to the place. But India has a rich heritage and the tea trade forms an important part of the country’s history, as well its present economy. The intrinsic value attached to tea only highlights the relevance of our research; to ensure the Assamese tea trade can continue viably and sustainably into the future.


*For a fascinating read on the East India Company read ‘The Corporation that Changed the World’ by Nick Robins