Waking up on a tea estate in the middle of northeastern India can only mean that you’ll be welcomed by the sight of rolling hills, a slight drizzle, a nip in the air, and the chatter of prancing monkeys on the roof.

It’s 7am and my next stop in Assam has brought me to the state border with Arunachal Pradesh. I am at the Koilamari tea estate, residing in an ancient room in an ancient colonial bungalow. There are wrought iron tables, wooden chests, crystal lampshades and I’m careful not to disturb them. There’s a dance of light and shadows across the wooden flooring as I step out to the courtyard. In the distance, a swing hangs lightly. Khyati Shah, whose father owns Koilamari and who’s with me for this leg of the trip, has organised a lavish breakfast spread. It’s an English breakfast, of course, with a cup of orthodox black tea from the plantation.

The tea pluckers belong to the Karbi or Dafla tribes who live across the border,
The tea pluckers mostly belong to the Karbi or Dafla tribes and live across the border in Arunachal Pradesh.

“The name ‘Koilamari,’ is from a local word ‘koyla’ for coal,” explains Khyati. The land, apparently, was abundant with coal in the earlier days, much before Khyati’s grandfather Mukundrai Kasturchand Shah took over in 1999.

When we finish breakfast, it’s still raining but that doesn’t stop us from going on a tour of the gardens. Koilamari’s teas make their way to Russia, Iran, Dubai, Germany and the UK and I am curious to see where it all comes from. “Earlier we used to specialise in manufacturing both CTC and Orthodox varieties, but at present we’re sticking to Orthodox only,” says Khyati. But I’m only just discovering the finer qualities of the whole leaf tea, and cannot fully appreciate this distinction. I’m also distracted by the changing scenery around me, and trying to capture all that I see.

Manufacturing orthodox tea is time consuming and that’s also because of the attention given to extract the flavors from every leaf.
Manufacturing orthodox tea is time consuming and that’s also because of the attention given to extract the flavors from every leaf.

Koilamari lies between Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. Some paths lead right into the forests of Arunachal, home to elephants, snakes, and spiders – a number of them can be spotted on almost every shade tree.

On the Koilamari estate
A quiet corner in one of the highest spots on the tea estate.

Enroute to the estate, we pass by Harmoti town, where on one side, the addresses read Assam and on the other, it says Arunachal Pradesh. Interestingly, the local hooch is sold on the Arunachal side. “Taxes,” says Khyati, cryptically, when I ask her.

Traditionally known as the ‘japi,’ the straw hats are made by the tea pluckers themselves. Used for protection from sun and rain.
Traditionally known as the ‘japi,’ the straw hats are made by the tea pluckers themselves. Used for protection from sun and rain.

As we drive along the plantation pathways, we stop to admire a rocky stream that also serves as a natural bridge towards the factory. Koilamari’s factory has a workforce of 2276 people including pluckers, tea tasters, and factory specialists.

This bottle is a constant companion if you are working on the estates. It holds a naturally-made concoction that’s rubbed on the feet to keep leeches away.
This bottle is a constant companion if you are working on the estates. It holds a naturally-made concoction that’s rubbed on the feet to keep leeches away.

Being an avid history buff, I find there are stories everywhere. On the drive back, we are on National Highway 52. Mr Chaliyah, a former estate manager who’s in the car with us points to an old building that’s now a police station. I ask about it and am offered another story, of a young and tremendously courageous girl, Kanaklata Barua. In 1930, during the civil disobedience movement against the British, that called for the freedom of India, 16-year-old Kanaklata chose to hoist the Indian flag on the roof of this building. She was fatally shot. Her statue now stands in the nearby town of Lakhimpur.

Conversations about tea and history take over most of our car ride. And, while a visit to the estate itself is a step into a verdant paradise, it also opened up a portal to the past.

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3 Comments

  1. I grew up at Koilamari…my father was Manager here in the early 90s….mystic place…serene yet wild…river ranga next door would be crossed on a small boat to go to the club at Dejoo on the western bank. What mwmories..

    • Aravinda Anantharaman

      Thank you for the name, Upamanyu. Appreciate it.