When there is talk of tea estates, people think chiefly of Assam or Darjeeling. Most people have heard of Darjeeling, but not of the Dooars. When I married my husband, twenty years ago, I hadn’t either. I’d had visions of living on the slopes of Darjeeling with thrilling chilly mists swirling around our little red roofed habitation in the best manner of Hindi films. That image went ‘ping!’ when he drove me out into the hot and humid plains to Birpara Tea Garden, after we arrived at New Jalpaiguri Railway Station.
The Dooars is a world that abounds in natural beauty, with its forests, rivers and mountains. There are more than two hundred tea gardens here. We call them gardens and not estates. It makes the place sound idyllic, maybe like a Garden of Eden, and in some respects that isn’t too far off the mark. Many people who have seen the Dooars have described it as Paradise.
The gardens themselves are really beautiful, with acres of tea bushes forming a sort of velvet tableland dotted with occasional trees. A short drive can take one into the heart of the Darjeeling or Bhutan hills, or to a picturesque forest or riverbed. We can see the majestic Kanchenjunga from most parts of the Dooars.
Dooars is an old name for the long neck of land that is a part of present day North Bengal. To its east lie Assam and the other North Eastern states. It has international borders with Bhutan in the North and Bangladesh in the South. All along the North run the Himalayas. To the south of the tea growing areas lie fertile river fed fields of paddy, date, jute and areca plantations, and much further south is the huge gangetic delta of Bangladesh. The Teesta River originates in the Sikkim Himalayas and its many tributaries merge with it in the Dooars before it eventually flows into the Ganga-Brahmaputra confluence in Bangladesh.
The Dooars, or Duars as it was spelt about a hundred years ago, belonged to the ancient kingdom of Kamarupa before it became a part of Bhutan. The Dooars was a typical terai region, thickly forested, with a few pockets of bustis where the Kathambs, Totos and Mechis lived. Bhotias, Lepchas, Koches and Rajbongshis were the other ethnic groups who made up the then tiny and scattered population.
Dooars was and still is an area of entry points into the mountains. There were eighteen of them and hence the name Athara (eighteen) Duar (doorways). I can’t swear that I know the names of all of these entry points. Some names have changed, and I cant be sure which or how many of the original duars are now here and how many in Assam. I know of Lankapara,Bagrakote, Dalingkote and Chamurchi for sure, and I've made many trips into the hills through the last two.
The forests were vast hunting grounds for the King of Bhutan. The British fought the King’s armies in the Duars Wars and annexed the area in 1864. They divided it into two. The Eastern half was made a part of Goalpara District, which is in Assam. The Western half became a new district named Western Dooars,and it was renamed Jalpaiguri in 1869.
The British soon cleared and planted out these newly acquired lands into tea gardens. With tea gardens came British planters and their way of life. Colonial bungalows, clubs, airfields and roads came up. Jalpaiguri town, the district headquarters, became a fashionable town with its huge bungalows on the banks of the Teesta. A good lifestyle remains a part of tea garden life to this day. ‘Work hard, play hard’ was the motto of those original planters.
The British were great at establishing ‘dastoors’ or ‘the way things are done’ and Indians are great at carrying on with tradition, and also at adapting and modifying things as required.
Even now, we don’t have any problems carrying on with some of the traditions the British established, as we neither hate nor venerate them. In any case, our generation has no nostalgia for a past in which the British were present. Our ‘good old days’ are definitely post Independence. In tea, we have known and lived with an entire generation of planters who worked for and with the British. Clubs still resound with anecdotes of Burra Saabs of old with names like Sandy, Jimmy or Ginger. The last of the expatriates stayed on in tea until almost thirty years after Independence -- not all that long ago!
The early British planters brought with them thousands of migrant Aadivasi labourers from the neighbouring Chhotta Nagpur region. They also brought Nepali workers from the hills. The original inhabitants of the area were gradually outnumbered. With tea gardens and the trade they generated came a large number of Marwari traders from Rajasthan. Biharis came in considerable numbers. Most gardens had a small migrant Chinese population whose speciality was carpentry. In the early part of the last century, a number of Sikh families from Punjab moved in to find work in the tea gardens as mechanics, fitters and carpenters.
North Bengal began to grow into the multi ethnic region it has become today. Most people speak Hindi, Bengali, Nepalese and three or four aadivasi dialects like Oraon, Munda and Saadri with ease. For non linguists, it is enough to know Hindi. Anyone from any part of India can come here to live and soon start feeling at home. The provision shop in the town nearby will start supplying him with a magazine in his language and some foodstuff or other which is a specialty of his region!
Where I now live, the nearest town is just two kilometers away. National Highway 31, as well as the second broad gauge line from Guwahati to Delhi, runs less than one kilometere away from my house. I can watch the traffic, sitting in my verandah, when I have nothing better to do. There are gardens in the interior too, from where a ride to the nearest town could take an hour's drive over riverbeds or through dark and frightening forests full of wild animals. We even have wild elephants, snakes and leopards that very often make their way into our bungalow compound!
There are many worlds that coexist here. There are bearers and evening teas, darwans and dastoors, mobile phones and dak-wallahs who carry handwritten notes from one bungalow to another!
Since 1992, we’ve had satellite television, and since 1999 we’ve had Internet connections. We didn’t have a phone line that could connect us to family in Delhi until 1996, though! We wrote letters and waited for weeks for replies to reach us.
Life is an amazing and curious mix of old and new, civilization and wilderness, natural beauty and cultivated plantations. Maybe none of this would have been here if the British had left the Bhutan Raja to his hunting!