Baradighi Tea Estate, a world in itself
Baradighi is home to a fascinatingly diverse array of people. Differing in their origins, cultures, work and lifestyles, these people unite and live in harmony under the banner of the Baradighi Tea Estate. Life at Baradighi is driven by deep-rooted religious, cultural, practical and community customs, and by the demands of the climate and status. But the overarching umbrella of purpose and unending work at the estates, and the many cultures on it, blend in the wok that Baradighi is, in its timelessness, and its youthfully energetic daily routines.
The nearest post office to us is Matelli. The heritage tea house is sandwiched between three villages, the nearest village, the Baradighi village, right across the river, and Disco Bazaar village. The first British settlers at the estate brought in workers from the neighbouring villages in the old Unified Greater Bengal, and now Jharkhand. The cheapest labour was found amongst the adivasi, or tribal clans, of southern Jharkhand, and that’s how the estate got its first guests, in the 1890s.
Years since, the descendants of the original workers have maintained their ancestral love for the land, and 90% of the few thousands of workers on estate are Adivasis, or tribals.
The original Adivasis were (and those in Jharkhand remain) hunter-gatherers. Over the years, as hunting became illegal, they switched to sustaining on poultry and farm meat, and a healthy crop of farm animals sustain the current families. They are particularly distinct in their diet of wild roots and plants, their main food. From the estate and surrounding forest areas, they gather leafy vegetables including both those known to urban dwellers, and some unknown ones. Locally known as jungle saag, or wild vegetable, plants like kulekhaada are commonly found, and children right from the ages of 9 or 10 are trained in the art of collecting their food from the natural neighbourhood.
Ningro, another plant indigenous to the area, is found in increasing numbers as one drives up the slopes to the hill station at Darjeeling, and the elevation of a tea estate determines the amount of Ningro representation in the natives’ diets.
The Baradighi natives drink a heady and strong form of liquor, closest in composition to rice beer. It is made locally and stored in dekchis, or boxes and is known for its quick fermentation and mass distribution. Drinking as merriment, custom and on holidays is an indispensable part of the social life.
Particularly skilled in the art of collecting wild mushrooms, a major part of their dinner plates are mushroom dishes. A keen eye and years of conditioned observation lets the Baradighi native differentiate edible mushrooms from non-edible or poisonous ones. They also consume some mildly or semi-poisonous mushrooms, which their years of conditioning to consume it makes them partly immune to. Perhaps harmful to visitors, to natives, it results in non-fatal and at times deliberate intoxication.
Adivasis are nature-worshippers, and believe in animal sacrifice. Like all faith, their customs relate to the nuances of their immediate environment, and the prayers for rain, crop, safety and prosperity, along with popular state-wide festival celebrations, dot the calendar. In what is perhaps their most important time of the year, every monsoon-end, they pray to the karam tree.
The Karam puja (worship)
Origins of this legend remain unclear. While some claim it began while the current dwellers’ ancestors were escaping their British tormentors, landlords or slave-masters in recent centuries, others claim it dates back to the time tribals were driven out of their forest dwellings to be labourers for the Mughal Empire. But they agree on the significance of the prayers. In times when they had to escape enemies, the tribals hid, en masse, in the hollow barks of the massive karam trees, found in large numbers in the nearby forests. Once safe, they would celebrate their escape and developed reverence for the tree. It resulted in periodic prayers to the tree by the refuge-seekers. They would pass down this tradition to their descendants, and up to this day, the dwellers celebrate the tree’s presence pompously, with the tree being decorated like an idol, people dressed in finery, elaborate religious ceremonies, offerings and general merriment.
The tree is still regarded as a metaphorical protector of the natives, and is prayed to in times of crisis and as a problem-solver. The natives are majorly Christian, but mix such popular beliefs with organized religion to lend it an ingenuity of their own.
Based on their language evolution, the Adivasis are divided into two segments- the Mundas and Oraons.
Generally, the local populace speaks Sadhri, a slightly difficult tongue for even Indian guests to the estate. Further complexities to the basic language appear due to dialectic divisions. The Mundas, living right behind the heritage tea Bungalow, speak Minder, an older tongue, while the Oraons speak a more recent tongue called Inderminder.
They provide for themselves with locally found equipment, or clever craftsmanship of local resources. They live in temporary or permanent single storey structures, with clusters, called ‘lines’, that were 100-year old demarcations based on the area of the estate the people from a particular family originally worked in. Housing was provided such that it had high proximity to the part of Baradighi that a family worked in. Social relations remain community-oriented, based on their ‘lines’, but inter-line cultural practices, events and schooling and welfare systems thrive. Clubs, places of worship and a common hospital make lifestyle common, and socially active.
The quintessential Indian roadside market, with its antiquity, has stayed on at Baradighi.
In recent years, the haat, or local market, has seen much traction, and sellers come from afar. Baradighi is home to 3 haats or markets, where utensils, household equipment, school utilities, work utilities and individual-need products abound. The nearest village, Disco Bazaar, hosts a market every day in its ready-made stone marketplace structures and is a buzz with activity on Sundays with the sellers displaying their wares on the pavements, and buyers coming in droves….negotiating, checking quality and buying in bulk. The Sunday market is a popular draw in the area.
The Mangalbari haat is open on Thursdays, while Baradighi’s own haat is organized on the day of wage disbursement. Savings form a small part of the planning considerations, and sellers sync calendars to ensure their presence in the area at the time of wage disbursement at the estate. All commodities are sold by weight, including utensils– where the individual units do not carry any value in the shops.
Another clan existing on the heritage tea house estate is the Gorkhas, the natives of hill states and of Nepal, famed as both warriors and agriculturists. While they have world-renowned, deeply researched and elaborate cultures of their own, they form a small part of the population on estate. They are both Hindus and Buddhists, but prefer a loud form of worship including chants and elaborate ceremonies. Their diet of meat and vegetables, and comparatively more financially planned lifestyle, well-made and well-purchased home equipment and ability to blend in have made them an important part of the village here.
Baradighi hosts a significant population of the Kumhars and Majhis, residents of Bihar mainland and brought here for work as assistants in plumbing, cleaning and civilian jobs in first decade of the 1900s. Small populations of Mohammedans, and a single, warm, Chinese family, known and loved for the diverse practices they bring to the culture of the estate, form the remnant of the family here.
Like with our Chinese residents, now in their second generation in Baradighi, our natives are descendants of workers brought to work here by past managers on estate, and having loved the hospitality, opportunity, or both, of Baradighi and its people, have chosen to stay here for generations, having gradually become part of the family. Baradighi is a wok of these diverse cultures.
That aptly represents the warmth of Baradighi. Every visit is the beginning to a story. Those who come knocking are quick to call it home and add their own flavour to it.
The Curious Fishermen
The residents of the 120-years old Rungamattee line in Baradighi have developed a curious method of fishing. The line has been close to the river, and has thus depended on it as a primary source of food. But poverty has prevented them from using elaborate techniques or equipment to capture their fish.
Starting from the banks of the river, 10-15 men move in a line, each with his shoulders on the others’ arms, and feet tightly together, wading through the river very slowly. The aim is to catch bottom dweller fishes that rest close to the sediment beds on the shallow banks. Catfish and Loches are common prey. As the men move ahead slowly, these fishes, obstructed or hit by the feet of one person, try escaping by swimming to either side, but are still met with human feet, for a long distance. Those who feel the fish under their feet tell their neighbours, and try and keep it locked there, while those to the left or right bend down, capture the fish with bare hands, and throw it into the large common net the group carries with it, before moving back in place so the group can resume its travel.
This economical and effective method has sustained the innovative people of the Rungamattee labourer lines for decades, and they learn it early on, with even the children playing their part in carrying nets or forming their own amateur fishermen lines.