Sound of old tea factory machinery (funny imitation!)

Alan Lane, my dear friend and a retired tea veteran of Assam fondly remembers the start-up sound of the Lister diesel tea machinery of bygone days. Here is an amazing and ingenious imitation by two little Indian kids.  Please turn up your sound to enjoy. You won’t believe it! Thank you Alan, for sharing this lovely video.

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Ghosts of the East and West

Namdang Factory Bungalow: courtesy Larry Brown. Larry says, “I lived here for a number of years and it had a resident ghost. I thought that I had exorcised him but he came back to annoy others. The ghost was that of a 23 year old who worked on the outgarden of Namtok in the early 1900’s He contracted Blackwater Fever and died in the factory bungalow.

Tea garden bungalows come equipped with a retinue of servants and often a resident spook (no extra charge!). Invariably the spook is a boga-sahib (white master): an old British tea planter who died on the job and who is buried somewhere in the tea garden. The bungalows themselves are creepy: drafty with echoing rooms, weak-wattage bulbs, creaky wooden floors and rattling rafters. Many are located within deep forests and surrounded by bamboobaris (FYI the spooks love bamboo as much as pandas!).  Add to that the blackest, deepest nights of Assam, lots of melancholy rain and vapors steaming off the jungle floor and voila! you have a phantom’s paradise.

John E. Bartlett, a pioneer tea planter arrived in Assam on December 30, 1866. He fell from the river steamer at Dhunseri Mookh on October 2, 1885 and drowned. His body was recovered on October 5 and buried at Numalighur on October 7, 1885. (Courtesy KOIHAI.COM)

Folks died easily back in the old days of tea. Tea gardens were far-flung and remote, the roads bad, communication poor and medical help often too little, too late. Malaria, black water fever, typhoid, tetanus, wild animals, accidental drowning, gunshot wounds…all claimed planters lives.  As a child I believed the dead turned into backward-footed entities that prowled the bamboobari shrieking their heads off. I always made it a point to check out people’s feet, just in case.

Many young Europeans fell victim to accident and disease, never to see the shores of their homeland again. Some took their own lives in desperation. There are hundreds of moss-covered graves scattered across tea plantations in Assam, mostly in wooded areas, tangled in vegetation and overrun by creepers. Many are unmarked but some have carved inscriptions that speak of the short, precarious lives of these young men in Assam.

Assam (which grows the finest tea – click the red link if you want to learn more about Assam Tea) is riddled with ghosts. Over 60 different ghosts and evil spirits have been identified in the state of Assam – that’s enough to fill a whole bus (imagine what a jolly ride that would be!) Assamese spooks have their own personality and agenda. Check out some of these  heavy-hitters:

Bura Dangoria (the old one) A good spirit dressed in white clothes and a white turban, often seen on a white horse who guards Namghars, the community places of worship where the sacred Bhagavad Gita is kept.
 
Baak A malevolent ugly creature that sometimes kills a person and takes on the corpse’s appearance. Often seen hanging around isolated ponds and lakes.
 
Ghoda Paak Has the hooves of a horse, but is otherwise human looking. Some stories show it as helpful, while others call it so deadly that you can die if it looks at you.
 
Bira (Poltergeist) Like all poltergeist of the world, usually believed to be unleashed on a family by an enemy to eliminate and torture them.
 
Bamboo Ghost This one lurks in the bamboo grove and bends down a bamboo on your path. If you try to step over it, it’ll snap back the bamboo and kill you.
 
Jokhini A female demon like creature that often tries to lure males and kill them.
 
 Bordoisila (the storm goddess) She’s the storm in April who throws a tantrum because she has to return to her husband’s house after visiting her mother for the Assamese new year which is around that time.
 
Puwali Bhoot (tiny ghosts) These are mischievous ghosts the size of small children who steal rice and sweets from the kitchen
 
Khoba-khubi  A pair of evil spirits who haunt a newly wedded couples and can be scared away by reading the hara-gauri (Shiva-Parvati) mantra on the third day of marriage
 
Khetar A local evil spirit that is said to harm little children
 
Churini Bira A female evil spirit that steals items from the house and kitchen
 
FYI this is a ghostly sampling of just one tiny state in India. India has 28 states so if you do the maths you will realize, we far outweigh the western world in both spirits and spirituality. The western world sure pales (pun intended) in comparison, besides Indian ghosts are more rowdy and fun.
 
Brown Lady of Raynham Hall ghost photograph, Captain Hubert C. Provand. First published in Country Life Magazine,  Dec 1936 issue.
Western ghosts are tame and well-behaved compared to the Indian hoolie-ghoolies. They are polite lurkers and don’t like to create a ruckus. Here are some ghostly facts courtesy of Midlands Ghost Hunters, Britain’s leading spook experts: (comments in red are mine: no disrespect intended)
 
  • Ghosts want to be noticed
  • Ghosts have no sense of passing time
  • Often, they do not know that they are dead
  • Ghosts can smell things and love the smell of lemons (ha ha! It’s the opposite in India people actually string up lemons–limes actually–to ward off evil spirits. Go figure!)
  • Ghosts have a sense of humor and love to hear humans laugh (maybe I should stop laughing so much –  oh hell!)
  • Sometimes ghosts get bored with their surroundings (that’s why they come snooping around)
  • Most ghosts are happy, but some still cling to an emotional pain
  • They can appear to the living in dreams
  • They can leave behind certain scents, such as perfume (or apple pie *)
  • They can make sounds that are audible
  • They use their energies and ours to move things
  • They are pranksters
  • They usually appear as intense balls of light called orbs
  • Ghosts favor night due to the decrease in daytime energy use
  • Ghosts may appear as mists or vapors
  • Ghosts can read your thoughts
  • Ghosts retain all the memories and emotions of their lives
  • Sometimes ghosts are trapped and need to be released
  • Noisy, troublesome ghosts are known as poltergeist
  • Ghosts tend to be very temperamental
  • Ghosts hang out in cliques with other ghosts
  • Ghosts make friends with other ghosts from different eras
  • Ghosts do not sleep
  • Ghosts like to climb up and down stairs at night (especially creaky ones)
  • Most ghosts can’t or won’t hurt you
  • When a ghost enters a room, the room usually gets cold
  • Animal ghosts exist and have been sighted
  • Ghosts who lived hundreds of years ago keep up with the trends (not clear about this one – like fashion? That does not sound right. Imagine a castle ghost in a tank top and Jimmy Choos!)
  • Children perceive ghosts as imaginary friends (that I know for fact)

Read my mom’s famous *APPLE PIE GHOST STORY HERE!!

If you like tea, ghosts and stories you may like my upcoming novel Teatime for the Firefly soon to be published by Mira Books in October 2013.  Check out the synopsis and first chapter HERE.  

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.