Tea Tourism in the Land of Lahe! Lahe!

A silent revolution

Bihu Festival in Assam
Bihu Festival in Assam
19 MAY 2015
by

A silent revolution is taking place in the North East of India, not through terrorism but through Tea Tourism and the state of Assam is playing a decisive role. In complete reversal to the usual tourist trail of Assam covering the capital city of Guwahati with its list of must visit sites like the holy Kamakshya Temple, Umananda Temple, Nabagraha temple, Srimanta Sankardeva Kalakshetra followed by an epigrammatic visit to Manas National Park, we embarked on a week long trip to Assam organized by the professionally run River Journeys & Bungalows of India Pvt. Ltd. (RJBI). Gone were the days of “hotel-sightseeing & back-to-the-hotel” stuff that I and my family were so used to. Instead of being guests of centrally located star hotels, we embraced for the first time in our lives the sheer fascination of being guests of a colonial tea garden bungalow in one of the remotest tea garden (Addabarie, Balipara) of Assam.

The Air India flight from Calcutta was on time and after reaching Guwahati we drove straight to Balipara. We covered the distance in 6 hours with halts at several places on the way. As our coach entered the garden premises, the sight of a beautifully appointed colonial bungalow caught our attention. This was to be our home away from home for the next 2 days. The staff of RJBI informed us that this century’s old bungalow –“The Wild Mahseer Bungalow” has been thoroughly renovated in order to cater to the exacting demands of the discerning world traveler. The rooms were impeccably furnished with colonial style architecture and matching décor. The quintessential wooden floors, high ceilings and spacious verandahs all rekindled with the nostalgia of the British Raj. In all there are five exclusive colonial bungalows spread over an area of 22 lush green acres. The Wild Mahseer Bungalow is the principal property that has been catering to the discerning guests from Europe as well as from mainland India.

The best part of being a guest of Wild Mahseer is the fact that apart from educational tours to the surrounding Tea gardens, one can also indulge in activities like fishing and river rafting in the swift flowing Bhorelli River. For the wildlife enthusiasts, a visit to Nameri National Park can be a very rewarding experience. All adventure activities are arranged by a group of professionals from RJBI. Most of the Bungalows run by RJBI, which are well spread out throughout Assam are situated in close proximity to the river Brahmaputra, thereby adding to the spirit of adventure.

The Bhorelli River, which is located in close proximity to the RJBI Bungalow, is ideal for fishing. The “Barbus Tor”, popularly called the Mahseer is one of the largest freshwater fish and one of the greatest fighting fish in the world. I personally found angling for Mahseer a huge adventure. Every cast could be a potential strike. Once the fish strikes, yards of line are tugged and you could snap your rod or be pulled in yourself. The fish is a fighter till the very end; hence even landing a tired Mahseer is not simple. Angling equipments can be hired from the Bungalow.

The genesis of launching Tea Tourism by converting the Victorian style Manager’s Bungalows into heritage properties was the brainchild of Ranjit Barthakur who is the CEO of River Journeys and Bungalows of India Pvt. Ltd. According to Mr. Barthakur – “Tourists here can experience the joy of staying in the luxurious colonial ambience of the Raj era and savor the hospitality that was previously the prerogative of the British tea garden managers”. An eternal optimist that Mr. Barthakur is, he has visualized the creation of 1000 top-end colonial heritage rooms in Assam, North Bengal and Dooars in the coming years. The entire Tea industry of Assam, North Bengal and Dooars region have woken up to the prospect of introducing Tea Tourism. We were informed by the RJBI management that renowned companies like Tata Tea, McLeod Russel, Glenburn Tea estates and whole lot more have shown tremendous interest in this novel Tourism project and some have even started their tourism operations.

Leaving behind the Raj era ambience of Balipara Tea garden, we set off for Guwahati, the capital of Assam. The drive to Guwahati was beautiful as we came across quaint Assamese hamlets as well as green rolling tea estates. Embracing the shores of the turbulent Brahmaputra, Guwahati is the gateway to the Northeast. Guwahati is at its festive best during the month of April in time for the all important “Rongali Bihu” festival. This is the most popular festival of the people of Assam and we were indeed fortunate to observe the colorful Bihu dance at the Srimanta Sankardeva Kalakshetra. The beating of the Drums and the melodious tunes of the “Pepa” reverberated the air. The sight of beautiful Assamese women in their traditional “Mekhela Chader” was absolutely gorgeous. The Rongali Bihu is a tribute to Mother Nature and all the Bihu songs are basically love songs.

No visit to Guwahati is ever complete without a visit to the holy Kamakshya Temple perched atop the Nilachal Hills. For the quintessential Tantrik believers, this temple is the ultimate. After offering Puja at the sanctum sanatorium of the temple, one can bask in the uninterrupted vistas of the city of Guwahati, which appears like a multi hued carpet. The ethereal sight of the mighty Brahmaputra River ceaselessly flowing through the city of Guwahati makes for a kaleidoscopic vignette. As the gateway city of the North East, Guwahati has indeed come of age. Trendy multi cuisine restaurants, neon lit bars, deluxe hotels and a youth brigade which is constantly evolving to the demands of the new age are characteristic features of the city. For shopping, Guwahati has numerous centrally located markets like the Fancy Bazaar, Paltan Bazaar, Ulubari, Ganeshguri and GNB Road. A popular haunt of the tourists to Guwahati is the Assam State Emporium. Bamboo and cane products are extremely popular along with shawls, wall hangings and fancy Assamese hats. Assamese silk is world famous and a must buy item for the new age woman is the quintessential Assamese “Mekhela Chader”.

After our brief rendezvous at Guwahati, we proceeded to the world famous Kaziranga National Park. It was a 6-hour journey and on the way we came across undulating hills and lush green tea gardens. Since we had our rooms booked well in advance at the hugely popular Wild Grass Lodge (a sister concern of RJBI), we were given a traditional Assamese welcome by our host. The Wild Grass Lodge is ideally located in close proximity to the National Park. The architecture is ethnic and designed in an eco-friendly manner so as to blend harmoniously with the surroundings. Within the lodge’s premises there are a variety of endangered tree species and well over 200 species of miscellaneous flora. The multi cuisine restaurant offers delectable Indian, Chinese and Continental fare. Try out the traditional Assamese cuisine like the Kamrupi Biriyani, Thekera Dia Maasor Tenga, Masor Jhool and Xoriohor Maasor Jhool all of which are perennial favorite with the visitors. Assamese food is predominantly cooked in wood fire, thereby imparting an exceptional flavor.

The biggest advantage of being a guest of the Wild Grass Lodge is that all jungle activities like safaris, elephant rides inside the park, bird watching and visits to the neighboring Tea Estates are arranged by a team of professional naturalists who have years of experience under their belt. Early morning Elephant ride is one great way of exploring the varied charms of Kaziranga. Here you are in Rhino Land. Kaziranga is the last bastion of the rare and elusive One-horned Rhinoceros. Apart from Rhinos, as many as 35 species of mammals have been spotted at Kaziranga and there are at least 15 species that are on the verge of extinction. As we traversed deeper inside the forest, we spotted varied species like the Hollock Gibbons, Capped Langurs (they are cute), Bristly Hare, Sloth Bears, the Swamp Deer, Sambhar and Barasingha. If luck is on your side, you might even spot the elusive Gangetic Dolphins that are a treat to watch. As far as the big cats are concerned, a few exist here but then it is very difficult to spot them, as they are few in numbers.

The beauty of Kaziranga lies in the fact that it is covered with tall grassland and there are small streams and reservoirs (bheels) spread throughout the contours of the park. The Savannah woodland, deciduous forest, marshy water bodies and swamps only add to the beauty of the National Park. A visit to Kaziranga is not only about wildlife viewing. There are numerous Tea gardens located in close proximity to Kaziranga National Park and a visit to a nearby tea garden can be a very rewarding experience. As we were guests of Riverside Journeys and Bungalows of India Pvt. Ltd. (RJBI), they had made elaborate arrangements for us in co-operation with a local tea garden Manager. We undertook an early morning trek along the border of Hathikuli tea estate, which belongs to Tata Tea accompanied by a naturalist from RJBI and the Manager of the garden - Mr. Joydeep Singh. The breathtaking sight of hundreds of tribal women plucking tealeaves on to their cane baskets at the back was straight out of the “Garden of Eden”.

Following the trek, we were invited to the Factory where the finished tea is manufactured. We saw the entire manufacturing process and to further enlighten us on the characteristic features of Assam Tea, the Manager took pains to explain us that the first flush has a very rich aroma while the second flush is ideally suited for the famed "Tippy Teas." Tippy Teas we were told refers to the Black Tea with its quintessential golden tips. Back at the Manager’s Bungalow, Mr. Joydeep Singh had made elaborate arrangements for our luncheon. We were ushered in to the regal dining room. It was spacious no doubt and the high ceilings, Victorian style architecture and ornate wooden décor made the entire room fit for a “Maharaja”. Even the cutlery sets and tableware were distinctly regal and reflecting the Raj era ambience.

True to their promise to offer an Assam we never knew existed, the RJBI team at Kaziranga Wild Grass Lodge insisted us to go on a tribal tour of a neighboring Karbi village. We hopped in to our 4 Wheel Drive Scorpio and in half-an-hour we reached a tiny Karbi village. The Karbis are a colorful lot. The traditional Karbis live with a belief that there is King of their own and they are awaiting his return on earth. The hill Karbis live in traditional huts and the floors are raised several feet above the ground. Apart from their melodious songs and rhythmic dances, the Karbis are very hospitable as we were to discover. Each of us were offered one gourd of liquor (Hor), which we were told is the greatest respect shown to a guest in the house of a Karbi. The manner in which the liquor was served to me was humbleness personified with the right hand of my host stretched out and the left hand held the elbow of his right hand in a salute to me, which I had to reciprocate back. At the time of drinking, it is customary to throw some liquor on the ground in the name of “Hemphu” the greatest god of the Karbis.

We were amazed to find the womenfolk working on their traditional looms. They do the weaving on rude wooden looms, one end of which is tied to the middle part of the body of the weaver while the other end is stretched by their legs. They are known to dye their threads with Indigo (Sibu). For our souvenirs we bought an intricately designed Karbi Shawl much to the delight of the Karbi household. The Ministry of Tourism has already made an assessment of the British era Bungalows strewn across the entire North Eastern belt including the Dooars region and is in the process of marketing the Tea Tourism product as a niche segment in the competitive International market. The River Journeys & Bungalows of India Ltd. under the astute leadership of Ranjit Barthakur has made an impressive beginning in the domain of Tea Tourism. In the coming years there is going to be a lot of expansions covering Bungalows spread not only in the state of Assam but will also include Bungalows located in North Bengal and Dooars region like Darjeeling, Kurseong etc, which means more colonial properties and more choice for tourists in terms of locale, sight seeing and tribal culture.

Till then cheers to Assam tea!

Traveler’s Fact File

Getting There:

Guwahati the capital of the state of Assam is well connected by air, rail and road to the rest of India. Air India offers regular flights to Guwahati from Delhi and Kolkata.
Guwahati is also well connected by Rail and is linked to Delhi by Rajdhani Express, North East Express etc. There is also a direct Express Train linking Guwahati to Mumbai vis-à-vis the Dadar Express, to Chennai by Coromandal Express, to Calcutta by Kamrup Express and Saraighat Express.

Accommodation:

In Assam there are as many as 600 Tea gardens spread throughout the state. But only a few offer Bungalow accommodation to tourists. To book your exclusive Tea Tourism holidays in Assam, please don’t hesitate to contact –
Wild Mahseer
Balipara, Assam, India
Property Owner: McLeod Russel India Limited
Contact: Mr. Durgadas Sarcar
Balipara Division, Addabarie Tea Estate, P.O. Lokra,
Sonitpur, Assam -784102, India
Tel: +91-3714-234354 / 234379 Mobile : +91 9435197650
wildmahseer@yahoo.com / wildmahseer@gmail.com