Elephants in Tea

A herd of wild elephants stray into a tea plantation and cause irreparable damage. Photo courtesy: Ambereen Yousuf. Here is an interesting tidbit from veteran tea planter Davey Lamont: “In the early years , tea bushes were planted in triangular patches, creating a zigzag path instead of rows. This allowed tea pluckers to escape from elephants!”

Assam is prime elephant country. It’s a land of big rivers, dense bamboo groves, rain forests with long, drooping moss and startling orchids. In the jungle clearings, elephant grass shoots up to over 10-feet to shelter a teeming wildlife. Assam Tea–the finest tea on earth– chooses to grow in this wild terrain and nowhere else. Not surprisingly “elephant trouble” a frequent complaint in the tea plantations.

Tea garden elephant with company logo

Every tea planter has a plethora of elephant stories and I have a few of my own. When I seven, a semi-domesticated elephant grabbed me by the ankle and almost got me but luckily I was yanked back by a nearby adult. I still have bad dreams about that one! Another time a baby elephant came floating down the flooded Koilapani River. For two weeks he lived in the taro patch behind our bungalow and played peek-a-boo with a hen before he was shunted off to Calcutta zoo, much to our heartbreak.

Elephant pulling car out of monsoon mire (1920’s). Photo courtesy: Fettes Falconer

Along with owning their tractors, trucks and trailers, most tea gardens own an elephant or two. Domesticated elephants are invaluable to the tea industry.  They are trained by special elephant trainers called mahouts. Elephants render a multitude of services that range from forest logging to rescue missions for tea garden residents stranded in the flood. Assam is the wettest place on earth. The monsoons hit with a fury each year; rivers overflow, bridges collapse and tea plantations are marooned for weeks without power or supplies. Elephants are called to the rescue when river currents get too strong for a boat.  My favorite story is about my Aunt Baruna who dropped her high-heeled slipper in the  floodwaters when she crossing on elephant back to get to the gala at the Planter’s Club. All evening she hobbled  on one shoe while standing tiptoe on the other foot and nobody could tell anything was amiss under her long saree!

Tea garden kids get a joy ride outside their bungalow. Historical photo: source – koihai.com

Tea garden kids are the envy of their friends. Town kids have puppies and kittens but guess what we had as pets? Monkeys, elephants and the occasional leopard cub! On birthdays and special occasions the garden elephant made a grand appearance to give us  kiddies fun rides. Old Jumbo also showed up all tinsel-decked at the Club Christmas party with (an often slightly inebriated) Santa perched on top.

Elephants help to rebuild the Mariani Planters Club after it was destroyed by the fire of 1960. Historical photo courtesy: Alan Leonard. Alan says although the club burnt down the original teak wood floor which was “tongued and grooved” was still intact. It was lifted very carefully, nail by nail, refitted and relaid in the new building. Amazingly it was as good as new.”
Logging elephant in tea garden. Courtesy Davey Lamont.

Elephants are useful during shikar (hunting) to track down game, mostly man-eating leopards and tigers that prowl the tea plantations to prey on humans.

Elephants in herds are usually harmless but they can create plenty of damage. A herd of elephants  often invaded the sugarcane patch behind our bungalow and  had to be chased out with lighted torches and the beating of tin cans. I still remember the sound of their wild trumpeting in the night: it is the most eerie, bone-rattling sound on earth!

A bull elephant in “musth” is a very dangerous animal and can sometimes attack without provocation.

Encountering a rogue elephant in the wild is very bad news. Rogue elephants can destroy everything in their path with mindless fury. There is the horrific incident of a local postman who was cycling through the jungle road to a tea garden when he came face-to-face with a rogue. The elephant picked him by the feet and smashed him into a tree and (this is really gross) the poor man had to picked off the bark like putty. That is the fury of a rogue.

With increasing deforestation in Assam, elephant problems in the tea gardens continue to be on the rise. Here is a National Geographic article about Elephant problems in Assam. Please share your elephant story, if you have one. Thanks and cheers!

Other related articles: The Story of the Elephant Boy of Tea

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Teatime for the Firefly is Shona Patel’s debut novel. It is a love story set in a remote tea plantation in Assam, India. You can read the SYNOPSIS and the FIRST CHAPTER by clicking on the red links. Shona Patel is represented by April Eberhardt Literary.

Old tea garden bungalows

Manager's bungalow: Ducklingia Tea Estate, Assam, India. I was born and raised here.

This was my childhood home. Yes, we lived in a mansion. British colonial lifestyle, liveried servants, big game hunting, fancy formal dinners -the works. Strange to think of it because these palatial residences were built in the middle of nowhere. Assam. One of the most rain-locked, deeply forested and inaccessible regions of North-east India. Early colonial planters braved the malaria-ridden jungles, dangerous wild game and head-hunting tribes to set up the tea industry in Assam and grow the finest tea on earth. Check the map here if you want to know more about Assam and Assam tea. 

This historic photo of the Digulturrung Tea Estate Bungalow was shared with me by Davey Lamont. I used it as my picture reference for my novel "Teatime for the Firefly". This bungalow has has a fascinating history. To read the intriguing true-life story of "The Elephant Boy of Tea" (reprinted courtesy of Koi-Hai.com) CLICK HERE.
Mancotta Tea Estate (Courtesy Larry Brown)

While researching “Teatime for the Firefly” I started collecting information about tea garden bungalows in Assam. I discovered each one had its unique architecture, charm and even RESIDENT GHOST!Tea garden bungalows come in a baffling array of styles. Here is an except from my research notes:

“In the early days of tea, Managers had plenty of say in the design of their personal residences. It was one of the ego-perks allowed by the Company to entice capable men to join tea. As a result, tea garden bungalows were a startling medley of styles, reminiscent of the dreams and aspirations of their first owners.

Some managers tried to replicate the English-style manor houses of their home country, but the result was a confused mish mash of western architecture using Indian materials, incongruous but fanciful nonetheless.

The Hunwal Tea Estate Bungalow where my best friend Kumi Baruah lived. I spent a lot of time here. This bungalow has one of the most magnificent and ancient Acacia tree, hundreds of years old as seen in this photograph.

I am attaching photos to showcase these wonderful bungalows from Assam tea gardens– most of them have mysterious and quirky names. These photos have been shared with me from tea planters from all over the world. (Planters! I need captions for Bungalows marked “unknown”. If a you have any information of these featured here please send me a message. ) 

Many thanks to the members of the KOI-HAI.COM community for help your loving support.

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If you are an Assam Tea planter and would like to share a photo of a bungalow, please send me a message HERE I will give you my direct email where you can upload the photo. Don’t forget to include the name of the tea garden and the year the photo was taken. Many thanks 
 
I have started a separate photo gallery to showcase tea garden bungalows and will be adding to to this from time to time. Please click PHOTO GALLERY OF ASSAM TEA GARDEN BUNGALOWS here to see what I have so far.
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Teatime for the Firefly is my debut novel. It is a love story set in a remote tea plantation in Assam, India. You can read the SYNOPSIS and the FIRST CHAPTER by clicking on the red links. I am represented by April Eberhardt Literary.