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Maniram Dewan: India’s First Tea Planter & a Freedom Fighter During the 1857 War

While most of us know that India is a tapestry of diverse teas like masala, green, lemon, ginger, elaichi, etc, few may be aware of the immense contributions of legendary figures like Maniram Dewan who pioneered tea plantations in India.

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With 1,400 kilos of tea leaves grown every year, India is the undisputed nation of chai lovers. The ubiquitous cup of chai is an unofficial and underappreciated symbol of bonding. 

Don’t believe me? Walk over to any tea stall in the bylanes of India and you will find two strangers bonding endlessly over the piping hot cup of tea. 

Chai is probably the most common beverage offered every time a guest comes over. It also makes for a handy antidote to all our problems — from sleepiness, headaches to stress. 

Being a chai lover myself, I can go on and on about this humble drink and its different preparation processes in different parts of India.

India is a tapestry of diverse teas like masala, green, lemon, ginger, elaichi, etc. But do you know about the immense contributions of legendary figures who pioneered the tea plantations in India? 

The credit for popularising the tea surely goes to the British East India Company but one man that deserves credit for introducing tea to the British, who were till then relying on China, is Maniram Datta Barua, aka Maniram Dewan. 

The First Tea Planter

Born in 1806 in Assam’s Jorhat district, Maniram introduced the tea produced by the Singhpo tribe to British officer Robert Bruce. Robert was an agent of Ahom king, Purandar Singha, who was looking for an alternative to Chinese tea in the 1820s. 

Maniram became India’s first tea planter and later turned against the colonists upon releasing their malicious plans to exploit and torture the tea growers of Assam. He resigned from the post of Dewan and set up two estates in Senglung and Cinnamara in the 1840s.

He was eventually hanged by the British on grounds of treason on 26 February, 1858 in Jorhat. 

It is fascinating to note how a man who introduced a cash crop to his loyal invaders did not hesitate to use the same crop as a weapon to cripple their financial revenues. 

“Assam produced in Dewan a martyr to the cause of freedom of the country whose exploits are perhaps not yet well-known throughout India as they should be,” former Assam Chief Minister Bishnuram Medhi wrote in the introductory section of K N Dutt’s book ‘Landmarks of the Freedom Struggle in Assam’.

A Tea Martyr 

Maniram’s family migrated to Assam in the 16th century from Kannauj. His family members held significant posts in the Ahom kingdom. However, between 1817 and 1826, the family took asylum in Bengal during the Burmese invasion. 

Ahom kingdom, which later went to the Burmese rulers, was captured by the British at the end of the Anglo-Burmese war. During this period, Maniram and his family became close confidantes of the British. 

At 22, he was appointed as the Tehsildar of Rangpur under David Scott. His intelligence, vast network among locals and a knack for business cemented a place in the East India Company (EIC). He became a point of contact for internal administration matters of the region. 

When he realised that the British were tired of smuggling tea from China due to the mid-19th century Opium wars, Maniram decided to break the tea monopoly they had. 

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During one of his field visits, he came across the Singhpo tribe of Upper Assam. They were considered to be the first tea drinkers of India who plucked wild plant leaves to make tea. 

According to the legend, tribe chief Bessam Gam demonstrated the brewing process by hand to Robert in his bamboo hut in 1823. He removed the sun-dried leaves that were heated in a metal pan a few days ago, from a bamboo pack. He cut a small part of the pack and brewed it in hot water until it turned golden-orange.

Robert sent a sample of the leaves with seeds to Calcutta (now Kolkata) for examination. Once they were approved, a Tea Committee was set up in 1834 to begin commercial planting. Four years later, Maniram was appointed as the Dewan of the tea estate in Nazira, Subsagar. 

This historic development in 1830 made Assam India’s biggest tea manufacturer with more than 50 per cent of the country’s total tea production in 2019.

But it all went kaput a decade later after Maniram resigned from his post. He didn’t agree with the exploitative methods of processing tea, including the unfair taxes and land grabbing. 

Between 1843 and 1844, Maniram banked upon his experience and vast network of tea growers to establish a tea garden at Chenimore in Jorhat. 

However, the EIC did not welcome his growing influence on the Assamese and other tea planters. The more they viewed him as a roadblock, the more patriotic he became. 

Maniram tried to sustain his activities over the years and he deemed the 1857 uprising as the perfect nail to the coffin. He mobilised Ahom rulers and Assam Light Infantry sepoys to plan to rebel against the Britishers. 

In August that year, the then-leader of Ahom tribe, Kanderpeswar promised financial benefits to sepoys, if they helped him attain his region back. However, he was caught by the British and imprisoned in Calcutta’s Alipore Jail. 

As the British learned of the motives of the Ahom tribe, they immediately captured Maniram and hanged him a year later.

Maniram’s tremendous contributions to India’s freedom struggle has not gone unnoticed. From the Maniram Dewan Trade Center that hosts International tea festivals to making a national-award-winning film on Maniram ‘Maniram Dewan’ in 1963, the tea connoisseur-cum-martyr will forever be remembered.

Featured image source: Wikipedia

Edited by Yoshita Rao

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