East India Company tea heritage trail to go on display

Darjeeling Tea Garden

The exhibition, is planned by the National Archives of India (NAI), could weave a story about the history of the beverage around which an empire was once built.

An exhibition that will immortalise the rich heritage of India’s Colonial-era tea plantations is being planned, with possible records from the now-revived East India Company (EIC). The exhibition, is planned by the National Archives of India (NAI), could weave a story about the history of the beverage around which an empire was once built.

Work on the exhibition, likely to be held in Darjeeling or in Guwahati, is underway. There are several valuable records in the possession of the records body. For instance, anthropological records dating to 1884 studying the tea culture in Assam in 1883, or government records about “collisions” between tea garden managers and coolies in the gardens of Assam in 1937, or customs papers about the export of tea from Persia and Afghanistan to Amritsar, or a study of “the suitability of Ceylon for tea cultivation.”

The records body has also reached out to Sanjiv Mehta, an Indian businessman who brought the EIC in 2004 after the company shut shop in 1857. Mehta restarted the company a few years ago, and has likely possession of records that details the evolution of tea around the globe centred on the trade in India. EIC’s first ship set sail for Surat in 1608 to trade in spices, when Mughal ruler Jahangir ruled India. The ship, that arrived in India as an emissary of King James I in 1615, obtained a right from the Mughals to establish a factory in Surat. The tea business took off under the EIC much later, and beverages owe a lot to the EIC for its success across the globe. EIC shut down in 1857 after a reign of over four centuries. What is also helpful for the NIA, perhaps, is that chief Raghvendra Singh, who had served as the principal secretary of tourism to the West Bengal government, had himself built a tea museum in Darjeeling in 2011.

“I went around to all the plantations at the Dooars and Darjeeling, asking them to lend me matter to build a story around the tea trade. The museum, however, was a small one and it lacked the gravitas of the one we are planning now. The NAI has in its possession has several records and photographs that will build compelling story around the beverage,” said Singh, adding that the exhibition will likely start sometime this year.

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