Romancing the tea garden
1st January, 2007
Have you been there and done that! Here is an experience for the jaded palate. A little nostalgia for the British Raj helps along with stories of the Koi hai days of the old tea planters. Reinforcing the Raj experience with a difference is the antiquate Land Rover, the GI jeep, the horse-driven carriage. Macleod Russel India Limited (MRIL) chairman Brij Mohan Khaitan is almost the last Brit standing in Assam and his 'agency-style' tea gardens have retained some of the best flavours of the old planting life.
Now MRIL has teamed up with River Journeys & Bungalows of India Pvt Ltd (RJBI), run by entrepreneur Ranjit Barthakur to market this lifestyle to the public. Barthakur already owns Wildgrass Resort, the best accommodation around Kaziranga National Park in Assam.
The new venture heritage property is on the northern bank of the river Brahmaputra at Balipara division of Adabari tea estate in Assam. A half-an-hour drive from the Tezpur airport and three hours from Guwahati, retains the unhurried setting of the tea planting cycle in the spacious wooden floored bungalows of the tea estate. The biggest one is called Wild Mahseer, named after the legendary fish made famous by hunter and conservationist Jim Corbett. Set in 22 acres of premium tea bush, it comprises of 12 suites in a sylvan avenue of four ISO-year old tea bungalows. The biggest bungalow was the visiting agent's home, another one called Charduar was the doctor's bungalow, the Balipara Camp is the group accountant's bungalow and the Basha was the visiting agent's office.
MRIL is the largest bulk tea producer in the world with 54 tea estates in Assam and West Bengal. "It's not our main line of activity but it is a rather nice way of making use of idle assets," says MRIL director Rajiv Takru.
'Two & a Bud' is an old police barrack converted into a modern conference room with seating arrangements for 30 people. 'The First Flush' is the tea bar for tea tasting and for casual sit out. In future, different types of beverages and desserts from tea leaves will be served. While the food on offer includes the usual spread, there is a wonderful Anglo-Indian cuisine at the dining room. The veggies are organic and grown at the backyard. Even the toiletries are hand-made and carry the aroma of tea. There are cosy wood fires for chilly days and pamper yourself with liveried orderly always at your service.
Restoration work was done keeping in mind of the colonial era. Tremendous effort has been made on adornment and all the period furniture artefacts are collected from across the world.
"We are providing a lifestyle", product in the midst of nature and wilderness." says Barthakur. All these luxuries cost about Rs7,000 to Rs18,000 a day for a couple.
There are interesting diversions during the day: visits to the tea factory, tea picking, rafting, angling or just a full-service picnic lunch on the bank of the Brahamaputra. The Wild Mahseer is a good jump off point for a safari to world heritage site Kaziranga National Park, famous for its one horn rhinos or for a trip to Orang wild life sanctuary. Wild Mahseer is also a good base to visit Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh which has l7th century Buddhist monastery oldest in the Asia.
"Guests can even join in the plucking if they wish to," Takru informs. Another 15 suites and a full range of spas will be ready by 2008. Best of all the estate has its own private airstrip. Khaitans and Barthakur are working out the logistics to use the company's small planes on time share basis to fly, guests directly to the garden from Guwahati airport. Among its tourists 80 per cent are foreigners. The dry cool winter months from September to February are the best time to visit. Widely travelled architect Sanjiv Sinha, who drove down from Guwahati with his wife and friends to spend the weekend at Wild Mahseer says, "Staying here is a dream experience for us. It's like going back to the colonial era."
"The place is booked till end January. Beside normal tourists, we get lot of bookings for holding conference which is a common practice among private banks and multinational Companies," says, Durgadas Sarkar, farm and estate manager.
"Tea tourism is not new in the industry but most offer only a couple of rooms to the tourists and this is the first full-scale and serious effort to open the area up for tourists. There are now plans to replicate this model in our gardens in Dooars in We" Bengal," says Takru.