In the region, a network of small tea growers with farms of 1-5 hectares are working on tea projects with Rajen as their consultant. One group of growers is situated in the mountains south of Assam, bordering Burma, where tea growers have begun to plant seeds from wild tea bushes in the jungle.
This is very rare in India, as most tea plants are modified clones for commodity tea production, given by the government organizations. These plants have been selected naturally from the environment, and are a key natural resource for Arunachal growers. Lush jungles of wild banana trees and native flowers blanket the hills, and are home to wildlife like elephants and Bengal tigers. We are reminded of Yunnan in China, the birthplace of tea, just 40KM away.
Before Rajen got involved, the growers just wanted to cultivate as much tea as possible to sell raw leaf to the factories, but prices are terribly low and unsustainable. Over the past year, he has helped the growers start their own commodity tea factory for CTC teas, as well as a specialty tea production unit so that they can become independent growers.
Back down in the foothills of the mountains, we visited a small village near the Tamook Tea Estate. There, the people were happy to hear about our insights on the project in the mountains. We arrived just after the village leader's wedding, so the people were very energetic, and wanted to show us some of their tea traditions that have been passed down from their ancestors.
To start, tea leaves are harvested from wild tea trees in the surrounding jungle, and withered in the sun. The withered leaves are pan-fired then rested outdoors, before they are packed into fresh bamboo. The tea is packed tightly into the bamboo with a stick, and banana leaves are used to wrap everything together for the fire cooking step.
A small group of men set up a fire outside, to roast the tea. The tea-filled bamboo is placed directly on the flames to heat, and rotated regularly to create an even char. After cooking, a machete is used to strip the bamboo, making it as thin as possible for additional wrapping. Finally, the package is heated using steam, for sweetness, or smoke, for a more roasty flavor. The tea is allowed to rest for at least 6 months in its bamboo casing to balance the flavor of the tea, and bring out more of the sweetness.
In another part of Arunachal, we visited the village of Seren, part of Nari in East Siang. The only way to reach this part of the country is to travel by ferry across the Brahmaputra River, the largest in India.
On that rainy day, we were extra worried since another SUV had fallen off the ferry and got stuck in the river! Luckily, our car and team made it safely across to Seren Village.
Here, a community of 1000 people from the Galo Tribe reside. They have started to explore tea cultivation. The leader of the tea project in the village, Rekar Doye, explained that they began planting tea in the hills outside the village just four years ago, when a large tea manufacturing company visited the village and expressed interest in building a factory.
The company never built the factory, which has created doubt in the village for the tea gardens, but it is a blessing in disguise. In a position of desperation, they reached out to Rajen with his quality expertise, and they are on their path to realize their true potential independently.
The people of Arunachal are proud of their traditional tea processing, but have so far only made tea for consumption within the villages. Many trace their lineage to Mongolia and think that the tea seeds and traditions more than likely passed down from there via China. However, they have only known the industry through the commercialized market of Assam. They are surprised to learn that, just across the border in Yunnan, growers with wild tea seeds just like theirs are making puerh, to great market demand.
Now, they are realizing that they have the potential to make very high quality tea with the wild tea plants that have become a part of their heritage, in their beautifully biodiverse, high-altitude lands, and with the traditions that have been passed down to them for generations.
With the support of the tea community and industry, with people like Rajen and Rekar Doye, Arunachal can begin to share their tea heritage to the world outside the villages.