Half a century ago, life in Assam’s tea gardens was full of adventure and delight. The Britishers left no stone unturned to create similar environs as their homeland amid the lush green estates surrounded by hills, jungles and rivers.
Assam was known for its humid climate, annual floods, earthquakes and its abundance of dense jungles. However, none of these deterred the Britishers from setting up tea plantations in Assam. The kind of troubles the early planters faced, while setting up these gardens, can only be imagined. Despite the odds, Assam tea acquired worldwide acclaim by the late 1800s. It had also successfully done away with Chinese monopoly over the tea trade.
Assam had become a terra incognita of sorts
In 1908, the adjoining areas of the greater Deupahar forest range and those bordering the Dhunseri river, were cleared. Labourers were brought in from far off places like Orissa and Andhra Pradesh. And even elephants were enlisted to clear the thickets. On top of the hostilities presented, there was also the added threat of poisonous snakes.
In a gist, this was how Behora Tea Estate–now owned by McLeod Russel India Ltd–came into being. It had a wooden factory and shipment of teas was carried out through the steamer depot located on the Dhunseri’s banks. The Karbi Hills are a beautiful natural backdrop. Behora today falls in the Golaghat district — one associated with Assam’s premium teas.
A name to reckon with in the planting community
Behora has maintained an excellent reputation in the Golaghat belt for producing fine teas. The current factory was built in 1935 along with the bungalows and offices. An air strip was also laid out to facilitate easy and quick travel of senior company officials from Calcutta. Aviation enthusiasts will be delighted to learn that McLeod Russell owned a few aircraft in those days and continue to own one now. These airfields are usually no longer than 2000-2500 ft and are grass topped. They are, therefore, only suited for short-takeoff-and-landing or STOL planes, such as McLeod Russell’s Cessna.
The air strip at Behora
The present manager’s bungalow was built in the mid 1930’s. Its pristine surroundings are home to oriental pied hornbills. They often make an appearance in the early mornings! Elephants are frequent visitors too. At times, it seems as though they come for a leisurely stroll to admire the bungalow’s colonial era beauty. The pachyderms mostly leave the place without causing any disruption. There have been exceptions though.
One often recounted incident is that of an elephant entering the bungalow compound and heading straight to the porch. It then reportedly made itself comfortable on the bonnet of the parked car.
The Behora burra bungalow has hosted a few luminaries. Bhupen Hazarika stayed there in 1982. Later, it also hosted a governor of Assam who stayed a night at the bungalow when visiting nearby Kaziranga. This was quite an unusual visit since government officials’ travels adhere to strict protocols. But then, this was the Behora burra bungalow after all! It still retains all of its old-world charm and the governor probably couldn’t resist staying there.
The planters worked hard and partied harder
Apart from managing the day to day running of the estate, a planters mostly enjoyed an active social life. They had ample opportunities to sample adventure too. It was not uncommon to hear seniors advising new assistants to keep a loaded revolver under their pillow, just in case they needed to deal with surprises at night!
Evenings were often spent at one of the several clubs in the area. In Behora’s case, the Dhunseri Polo Club was closest, which was a major sporting and social hub.
Life in the gardens are no longer similar to the days of yore. Get togethers and socialising seem to find less takers now. Moreover, with the advent of video streaming platforms, tea planters now would rather spend their time in front of the idiot box than unwind with friends at the club. The fact that several clubs have been shuttered for good is a tell tale sign of the times.
Hopefully, the tides can be turned and age-old legacies can be revived, even if only in part. As for Behora, we wish for its legacy to continue and its heritage, only taken to greater heights.