The Genesis Of Baradighi - The Bungalow
When the British landed on India’s shores, they knew little of the vast expanse of land they would soon claim and use to produce the Chinese drink they would soon swear by. As it were, the-soon-to-be fantastic discovery of tea would give work to generations, change the landscape of forests in areas like North Bengal forever, and create a titanic industry, and give birth to heritage tea bungalows… All while leaving behind the scenic tea gardens – abodes for seekers of tranquil, and saviours from the hustle of the future metropolis.
That’s perhaps why they never chronicled the founding of the majestic tea estates.
One such non-chronicled discovery was of Baradighi Tea Estate. Little is known of the first days of this heritage tea house, but collections of recollections from old-timers and archives leave a teasingly incomplete story of the birth of the majestic 600 acres of pastoral and production-induced pompousness.
The name itself would be a misnomer. The Baradighi village is actually not on the tea estate. It is across the Neora River, and owes its name to the estate.
In 1880, the first British businessmen and landowners arrived in Jalpaiguri, a land already known for its historyof being blessed by the Buddha when he travelled through it. Having discovered tea in Darjeeling, they were experimenting to see how far below the slopes of the hill town they could plant tea upto. The Baradighi estate, set on the banks of the Neora nadi, was unique to Bengal. The land had no label, and locals found it difficult to address it and inform people of where the masters had called them to work. And they invented a name that stuck.
The Bengali word dighi, Bengali word for ‘the riverside mound’, would be used to denote the geographical location for workers to report to. As the land expanded, they began to refer to the 12 noticeable mounds individually to demarcate spots.
Soon, local parlance normalized the usage of Bara, or 12, and dighi, to refer to the British tea growing land of Baradighi, sprawled across roughly twelve such riverside mounds.
But it was decades away from being the estate it is.
Baradighi (or ‘that place with 12 hills’) was a quick favourite. Its factory, established in 1893, produced some of the finest teas, due to its handy labour. The estate itself, rich in soil since it was on a river bank, would produce the most serene sights, and the best tea leaf.
In the many years that followed, growers in the Baradighi region merged to form a single large territory, gradually increasing in size what the locals called Baradighi. But it was in 1890 that Baradighi Tea Estate would be formed, registered locally. The village housing workers on the estate acquired the same appellation and was called Baradighi village. That same year, the Baradighi Company was formed, with British masters.
This heritage tea house and estate owes its fine qualities to the wisdom of many managers. The fourth British manager, Sir W.L. Travers, headed the estate for 26 years, and added fine aspects to the work culture, including the gong signalling work times, the initial Estate Manager’s bungalow and the division of labour residences, creating, unknowingly, a community demarcation that would last across cultures and beyond the century.
Much of the tale of Baradighi in British India is lost. In 1935, the firm came under Jardine Henderson, a Calcutta company, and in 1950, when its British masters left India, having handed over to new Indian owners, they would burn every last piece of paper, leaving no trace of their exploits, and with no faces to the names of the Englishmen who made the estate.
Now in Indian hands, the firm was merged with other tea estates in 1960’s, to form Rydak Syndicate Limited, which runs the estate to this day. Little has changed on ground since. The workers are natives, living in temporary shelters, and remain emotionally attached to the land. The British gong that would ring through 100s of acres to signal mealtimes gave way to a siren. Tea making shifted from the orthodox hand-picking of fine teas, rolled leaves and longer, manual make to the modern cut-tear-curl method.
The train station at Baradighi was built in the 1960s. That significantly changed communities’ social living. Schools had always been in existence. Now they were formalized and government-run. Workers’ clubs, temples, churches, mosques and markets made it a town of its own. In 2011’s census, some 6000 people work at Baradighi.
An Englishman’s bungalow is his castle. India’s numerous tea estates had some lavish heritage tea bungalows. Baradighi boasted of housing lawns, 40 servants, clubs, and unending bakery items, Indian delicacies, guests, wine and hunting prey and gear- so residents never missed the English countryside or culture.
But when the Baradighi Tea Company grew in 1930’s, the firm built its owners and guests a bungalow like no other. Built over two years in the decade of the 30’s, a red-bricked two-storey and 4-bedroom structure with lawns and fountains comprised the original form. Today, that part comprises just the left flank.
Built in traditional European style, the bungalow was envisaged by the architects to expect additions to the build, and they left the staircase on the edge, with an infinite view of the horizon from its running balcony, and a view of the Kanchenjunga peak from the main bedroom’s rear window.
As if on cue, in the 1950s, with a mix of Gothic and Early Renaissance architecture, the Indians had a right flank built, adding a drawing room and dining hall. At the far end, one room acted as the office of the owner. The heritage tea househas novel architecture, with wooden walls, chimney manholes and large, palatial rooms inspired by the royal housing of the Europeans.
The Bungalow has hosted its best. Legend has it that the Viceroy of India was resident there in 1945. He was on his way to Darjeeling when the servants in his entourage heard of the beauty of the tea estates in Dooars. Word was sent out that the Viceroy wished to stay in one of the estates to experience the Dooars first-hand. After much search, his Indian assistants chose Baradighi’s fine bungalow for his stay. Since his stay, the estate had the permission to fly the Union Jack on its rooftop. It was lowered only when Indians took over in 1959.
Rydak had superintendents and officers overseeing more than two estates. The superintendent was an important man, and the only planter superior to the loyal, monarch-like managers. Naturally, they became post-Independence royalty in India’s heritage tea bungalows, and lived in style. The superintendent of the company’s tea estates was given permanent residence at Baradighi. The palatial Viceroy Bungalow was the residence of the Superintendent. This is how it attained its latest form.
Many tales of the last decades of the 20th century, written or experienced by planters, their children or their spouses are set in the Baradighi superintendent’s bungalow. As per many accounts, there was an airstrip behind the bungalow, where the officers from Calcutta would land, and reference is made to an old Ciena plane used by the firm. But it serves as legend alone, believable only by the looks of other evidence of past luxury on the estate.
Over years, the memsahib, wives of the superintendents, added much to the bungalow, in the process creating a sight the modern luxury-seeker, or nature-lover, would relish. Flower beds, gardens, décor, walls, furniture, tennis courts, garden sheds, tree houses, a broadened view of the estate from the grand running balcony, castle-like dressing rooms and intricately designed gateways all made a package that are now untraceably part of the bungalow, and to the 21st century eye appear part of the original structure.
At the peak of its grandeur, this house featured in Inside Outside, a lifestyle magazine. It remains one of Asia’s oldest, sturdiest and most opulent heritage tea bungalows.
It fell into disrepair in the late 1990s, when technology drove the Bungalow into obsolescence by reducing the need for superintendents to be resident for long periods. In the mid-2000s, a proposal was moved to convert the premises to a hotel exhibiting the Bungalow’s past pomp and grandeur, and the legacy of North Bengal’s plantation culture. With government approval and the addition of modern facilities in 2019, the Bungalow was made liveable again.
There are still antique documents, artefacts, books and selected works or remnants of old newspapers to be found every now and then on the vast premises. Much of the Bungalow’s history remains subject to imagination.
The Baradighi natives, fireplace, stones, bush, architecture and fauna bear the pride and veneer of erudite lifestyle that was once frequent there. And in the lap of the Bungalow at Baradighi, it is your turn to tread down history’s lanes, and feel like its pampered residents and guests once did.