Home Feature Bygone Doon: Between the Cup and the Lip – I

Bygone Doon: Between the Cup and the Lip – I

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By Pradeep Singh

The acquisition of the Doon Valley by the British as a result of the Anglo-Gorkha War of 1814-15 opened up a Pandora’s Box for them. They not only got possession of a region that was in many ways unsurpassed in natural charms with a climate that was salubrious and congenial to the European constitution, but also opportunities opened for a range of profitable ventures.

Of the many cultural preferences that the British had, for long enjoyed and also bequeathed as a pleasant legacy, was tea drinking – the virtues of which were extolled by Cooley Cibber, the poet:

“Tea! thou soft, thou sober, sage, and venerable liquid,… thou female tongue-running, smile-smoothing, heart-opening, wind-tippling cordial, to whose glorious insipidity I owe the happiest moment of my life, let me fall prostrate.”

Not surprising, the benefits of tea were lauded by the Chinese philosopher Lo Yu: “Tea tempers the spirits, harmonises, prevents drowsiness, lightens and refreshes the body and clears the perceptive faculties.”

Just two decades into their newly possessed Doon Valley, the Board of Directors of the East India Company, the epitome of entrepreneurship and perseverance, excitedly put on drawing boards plans to commercially cultivate tea in the Valley.

A rather distinguished group of British botanists and naturalists consisting of Sir Joseph Banks, Dr Govan, Dr Wallich, Dr Falconer and Dr Royle were vigorous in their efforts to bring the attention of the Board of Directors of the East India Company to the possibility of commercially cultivating tea in certain geographically suitable regions of India. It did not take long for the Company to seize the potential in this idea. Already, the East India Company was at a disadvantage in its Tea imports from monopolistic China over which Britain had no power, unlike India where it was virtual master over much of the land. Thus, in 1834, Lord William Bentinck, the Governor General, constituted a committee headed by Dr Wallich to investigate the prospects of successful introduction of commercial tea cultivation in India. These pioneers put their heads together to examine the prospects of tea plantations in Doon and that, too, with the vision to further expand to other areas of Garhwal and Kumaon that offered suitable conditions for propagation of tea plants and commercial production of processed tea.

Much of typical British enthusiasm and energy was spent in trying to surreptitiously import tea seeds, plants, equipment and also some Chinese tea workers so as to start nurseries for propagation of tea saplings to be further supplied to the proposed tea plantations. Some intrepid individuals managed to get this essential wherewithal from China in the late 1830s, when it was discovered that tea bushes indigenous to India were already happily available in Assam, Manipur and nearby areas of the north east of the sub-continent. A government tea nursery was established at Kaulagarh in the Doon Valley spread over 400 acres. This was under the supervision of Dr Jameson, who had succeeded Dr Falconer of the Saharanpur Botanical Gardens, and the forerunner for the idea of setting up such a nursery. – To be continued.

(Pradeep Singh is an historian and the author of “Sals of the Valley A Memorial to Dehra Dun”.)