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A tour of the Tocklai Tea Research Institute

‘Tea,’ and ‘Assam’ are synonymous with one another. So it isn’t a surprise that Asia’s largest and oldest tea research institute is located in Jorhat, in Assam. In 1891, a joint committee of the Indian Tea Association (ITA) and the Agricultural and Horticultural Society of Bengal appointed a chemist, M. Kelway Bamber, to investigate tea’s growth in the country. And in 1911, the Tocklai Experimental Station came up where all aspects of tea cultivation and processing are carried out.

As I walk across the manufacturing units, chemical labs, and tea tasting rooms of the Institute, I’m accompanied by senior scientist Dr. M. Goswami who tells me about how Tocklai plays adviser to over 1,076 tea estates across India. Both old and new tea plantations are guided by the development and manufacturing techniques developed by the Institute. It’s now seen as the head parliament for promising cultivars development of integrated nutrients, pest and disease management, and improvement of crop quality

Back in the day, senior officers from Tocklai were drafted into service during WW 2 since British citizens were expected to serve their time in the army. Another stalwart associated with Tocklai and Jorhat is Maniram Dewan, India’s first commercial tea planter who worked here. He was later hanged by the British under the pretext of being a part of the civil disobedience movement, but at Tocklai they believe it had more to do with the competition his tea estates posed to the British crop.

Evening walks around the property involved passing through the Institute’s tea estate, and lotus ponds scattered in between the biochemistry, entomology, biotechnology, physiology and breeding buildings.

The passion and drive of the scientists towards the crop is quite contagious. There were moments when I was a mere onlooker, listening to the conversation go on to polyphenols and amino acids. But the occasional trivia and the wealth of stories always drew me back.

My companion on the trip, Teabox’s R&D Head, Nagendranath Chiluvuru, waxed lyrical about the chemical components of tea while I basked in the Institute’s rather get-away kind of vibe. Even though it’s situated in the city of Jorhat itself, once you enter the gates of Tocklai, you’re in a world where you only eat, sleep, and – very literally – drink tea. As Dr Goswami said,  “When you’ve had a cup of tea, you should feel like you’ve had a cup of tea. That’s what the creation of Assam tea is all about.”

On my first afternoon at Tocklai, I learnt the art of sipping tea in the tea-tasting room. Only when you slurp loudly do you awaken those tastebuds. There go my manners, I thought.

On my first afternoon at Tocklai, I learnt the art of sipping tea in the tea-tasting room. Only when you slurp loudly do you awaken those tastebuds. There go my manners, I thought.

Workers at the Institute sift out the tea leaves from the withering trough to move into the next process of rolling. The tea leaves are obtained from the institute gardens itself and are not used for commercial reselling. While larger companies have more elaborate factories, Tocklai’s tiny space is bustling with 3-4 workers making it all the more apparent that its focus is solely scientific and has little to do with commercial profit.

Workers at the Institute sift out the tea leaves from the withering trough to move into the next process of rolling. The tea leaves are obtained from the institute gardens itself and are not used for commercial reselling. While larger companies have more elaborate factories, Tocklai’s tiny space is bustling with 3-4 workers making it all the more apparent that its focus is solely scientific and has little to do with commercial profit.

An overview of the factory. Withering, rolling, fermenting, drying, grading, cleaning, and packing done here.

An overview of the factory. Withering, rolling, fermenting, drying, grading, cleaning, and packing done here. 

School children often visit Tocklai for their dose of ‘tea-knowledge.’ Because of its proximity to the city’s schools, it's included as one of the field-trips planned for their students. Almost every week, there’s a group visiting Tocklai and the scientists happily show them around. As I photographed them from a staircase above, I heard loud gasps of ‘oooo’s’ and ‘aaaah’s’ as senior scientists showed them how tea was made. Still too young to be allowed to drink tea, it’s a lesson they are unlikely to forget anytime soon.

School children often visit Tocklai for their dose of ‘tea-knowledge.’ Because of its proximity to the city’s schools, it’s included as one of the field-trips planned for their students. Almost every week, there’s a group visiting Tocklai and the scientists happily show them around. As I photographed them from a staircase above, I heard loud gasps of ‘oooo’s’ and ‘aaaah’s’ as senior scientists showed them how tea was made. Still too young to be allowed to drink tea, it’s a lesson they are unlikely to forget anytime soon.

The mother plant of the first cloned crop is present at this location at the institute. Developed in 1949, the plant, which is an Assam-China hybrid was raised from seeds collected from the Cinnamara Tea Estate owned by Maniram Dewan. Scientist Devajit Borthakur, who specializes in plant breeding, tells us that the the clones are suitable to develop the best kind of black tea (CTC/orthodox).

The mother plant of the first cloned crop still grows here at Tocklai. Developed in 1949, the plant, an Assam-China hybrid was raised from seeds collected from the Cinnamara Tea Estate owned by Maniram Dewan. Scientist Devajit Borthakur, who specializes in plant breeding, tells us that the the clones are best suited for both CTC and Orthodox black tea..

Behind Tocklai, across the tracks, lies Cinnamara Tea Estate, once home to Maniram Dewan. Some say he’s buried here but that could well just be another story.

Behind Tocklai, across the railway tracks, lies Cinnamara Tea Estate, once home to Maniram Dewan. Some say he’s buried here but that could well just be another story.

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  • Zahra Amiruddin
    Zahra Amiruddin began her career as a writer, and found her solace in merging the two mediums of words and photography. She completed her journalism degree with a Bachelor’s of Mass Media from the Sophia College for Women in Mumbai and specialised in photography and creative writing at the Aegean Centre for the Fine Arts, Paros. Being an avid traveller and curious for all things new, her lens serves as a window to a world she finds more interesting through a viewfinder. She has worked with the Conde Nast Traveller (India), the National Geographic Traveller (India), Time Out India, GQ (India), Verve, and The Hindu.
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