Tea Cultivation in Garhwal and the Chowfin family -Devendra Kumar Budakoti

Devendra Budakoti

While the tea plant was growing wild in the jungles of Assam in north east India and used by the local tribal’s, its commercial

book The Chowfins of Garhwal
The Chowfins of Garhwal book

production started only in the late 1830s, by the East India Company. It was Robert Bruce and his brother Charles, an employee of the East India Company which reported that the tea plant was a native of the Assam area. Earlier China was the main source of Tea procurement. When the East India Company lost its monopoly in tea trade from China, it saw India as alternative place to have tea gardens. In 1833, Charles Bruce was given the task of establishing the first nurseries, and sent off to China to collect tea seeds. This was done as some company officials were not sure that the tea plant really was indigenous to India and insisted on importing the Chinese variety. Charles Bruce and the other pioneers cleared suitable areas of land on which to develop plantations, pruning existing tea trees to encourage new growth, and experimenting with the freshly plucked leaves from the native bushes to manufacture black tea. Bruce had recruited two tea makers from China and with their assistance steadily learnt the secrets of successful tea production.

Interestingly the native plants flourished, while the Chinese seedlings struggled to survive in the prevailing climatic conditions and it was eventually decided to make subsequent plantings with seedlings from the native tea bush. Meanwhile the Assam Tea Company began to expand into other districts of north east India. Cultivation started around the town of Darjeeling in the foothills of the Himalayas in the mid 1850s. Around 1857, tea cultivations were also tried in other Himalayan regions. As mentioned earlier tea cultivation was first introduced into India by the British, in an attempt to break the Chinese monopoly on tea. Using the Chinese planting and cultivation techniques, the British launched a tea industry by offering land in Assam to any European who agreed to cultivate tea for export. In 1848, Robert Fortune, a Scottish botanist successfully smuggled tea plants and Chinese tea experts to India to develop technologies and oversee production to optimize the profits from Black Tea. After many failed attempts, Camellia sinensis was able to grow there but eventually, production of the native Camellia assamica plant was found to be far more lucrative. For many years China tea seed was imported regularly into India and from these seeds, nurseries were raised in the government Botanical Gardens in Calcutta and the plants were sent to Upper Assam, Uttarakhand and the Nilgiri hills in south India.

In the Himalayan region, tea seedlings were planted near Bhimtal and Almora. Later on, experimental gardens were successfully established with China plants in Kumaon, Garhwal and Kangra districts on the Himalayan foothills. Tea plantations in Dehradun, first started by Britons in 1863 are still operational although many of Dehradun’s tea pockets like Banjarawala and Kargi have been converted into residential colonies.

Gadoli Church and school near Pauri town Garhwal
Gadoli Church and school near Pauri town Garhwal

The first Chinese tea expert who came to Garhwal was Asi Wong around 1850s at the invitation of East India company. Asi Wong was a Buddhist by birth and married a Hindu lady in Garhwal. His family got the surname of Chowfin after his sons got baptized. His grandson Harry Ensign Chowfin has written a family history, with the title, ‘The Chowfins of Garhwal”, which has been printed by his daughter Doreen Chowfin Choudhry and edited and given creative direction by his grand daughter Madhupriya.  About the book, Ms. Doreen writes, “April 2013 saw the publication of a manuscript that had been written almost fifty years ago, The Chowfins of Garhwal by Mr Harry Ensign Chowfin. The book is a family archive and a memoir of the Chowfin family, the first member of whom came around the mutiny of 1857 with the East India Company as a tea expert to the Garhwal region to plant tea gardens. What follows is a fascinating journey of the family to become preachers, teachers and military men in and around Uttrakhand region.

The book records the life and times of the family but also of close friends, associates, missionaries in Garhwal, the Messmore Intercollege, the Gadoli school and vignettes of life in Garhwal between 1898 and 1970 seep into the book. Read about how the children in Gadoli school used wooden takhtis to write on and got lessons under pear trees. Peep into the classrooms of Messmore in the 1920’s and see how high the standards of education were. Learn about the first Christian graduate of Ewing Christian College and share the concerns of teachers in Lucknow Christian College in the 1970’s. Meet the first awardee of the Kumaon Centenary Scholarship and read about the first fighter pilot from Garhwal in this account. The author joined the British Army in 1917. He was a record keeper and his profession became his lifelong habit and hobby. Mr H E Chowfin collected family records, certificates, telegrams, newspaper cuttings, photographs and articles. In the book you can see photographs as old as 1898 and handwritten notes, letters and poems from 1902 onwards. The history of Garhwal is woven closely into the history of the Chowfin family and this book offers an insight into a time gone by.”

What I missed in the book was about Asi Wong  family background and how he was motivated to come to India, besides to know social and economic life in his native place and how he made his journey to India.

However, I had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Doreen the great grand daughter of Asi Wong and the daughter of the writer Mr Harry Ensign Chowfin in New Delhi and she was kind enough to give a copy of the book. She can be contacted at orient.productions@gmail.com for the copy of the book.

 he author is a development consultant

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