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River Explorers

Assam: The Indian capital of tea and tigers

The world’s largest tea-growing region is also home to India’s ‘Big Five’.

By Jeannine Williamson

Britons are renowned as a nation of tea drinkers and if you love a cuppa you’ll feel right at home in Assam, the world’s largest tea-growing region. 

The northeastern Indian state became important after Robert Bruce of the East India Company discovered wild tea plants growing there in 1834, which led to commercial tea production on a grand scale.

But while India’s ‘Golden Triangle’ around the Taj Mahal needs little introduction, Assam is a long way off the regular tourist trail. Yet it still captures the very essence of India with temples filled with the heady scent of marigolds and incense, grand palaces, wandering sacred cows and teeming main streets filled with stalls selling all manner of colorful goods. Yet outside Kolkata, formerly Calcutta, and other large cities you’ll see few other western visitors.

Set against the dramatic backdrop of the Himalayas, a journey through Assam is an exciting world away from mass tourism. Similarly, the mighty Brahmaputra River that forms the liquid backbone of the state is not as well-known as the Ganges even though it is the world’s fastest river by volume, shaping both the landscape and the lives of the people who live alongside it.

Collecting nearly half of the annual Himalayan meltwater, it floods villages each spring but displaced locals know that when they return home after the waters recede their resigned tolerance will be rewarded with rich alluvial soil on which to grow their crops.

A tour following the course of the river provides an authentic insight into Assamese life. Knowledgeable guides act as interpreters if you want to stop and chat to someone. The interaction works both ways and at some places crowds of villagers rush out to say hello, with giggling children following in their wake and teenagers armed with phones asking for selfies.

Some of the most tranquil areas are the lush estates or, tea gardens, which are a trademark of the world’s largest tea-growing region. On visits – over a cup of tea, of course – learn about the history and production of tea, including the prized ‘second flush’ harvest that produces a more full-bodied taste.

Afterwards, walk among the plants, stopping to talk to pickers in jewel-bright saris who deftly pluck tips from the plants and carry them in baskets on their heads. Another day visit a tea factory to find out about the next stage of the process.

Aside from tea, Assam is home to the UNESCO-listed Kaziranga National Park which is the domain of India’s ‘Big Five’ – the greater one-horned rhinoceros, Asian elephant, wild water buffalo, Indian bison and the Royal Bengal tiger.

Around 100 of these magnificent and elusive tigers roam through the park and only the lucky few get to see them. A fresh paw print spotted by keen-eyed guides might be as close as you get, but a land and river safari is nevertheless a thrilling experience.

No visit to this part of India can be totally scripted, yet that is what makes the destination so enthralling. And even if the tiger doesn’t come to tea, you’ll still have plenty to talk about over your next brew.

Published 03.01.22