A saga behind the origins of tea industry in the far-east region of India, and the transformation of Guwahati from a small river port to the administrative center of the larger Assam Province.
At present, the tea industry in Assam along with the far-east region of India is the world’s largest, and the city of Guwahati has grown to be the gateway for this entire region. The city itself is now set to become an international connecting point, especially to the emerging South East Asian region, and is also the starting point of the Asian Highway which connects it to Bangkok and onwards right up till Singapore.
Very few are aware about the profound contribution and influence of two gentlemen upon the story of both Guwahati and Tea… one Mir Syed Shekhawat Hussain from far away Awadh, and another Francis Jenkins from further away Great Britain.
And even fewer remember a great love story that played out beside Digholi Pukhuri (Dighalipukhuri), a lake which has witnessed an immense amount of history unfold, and which has been the centerpiece of Guwahati.
Francis Jenkins (1793 – 1866) was born in the picturesque village of St. Clement, Cornwall, UK on August 4, 1793. He left Cornwall at a relatively young age to sail from Great Britain to India in 1810, to join the British East India Company. Rising through the ranks, in 1828 he was appointed the commissioner of Assam, stationed at Gauhati. By 1831 as a captain, he was deputed by Lord Bentick to undertake a survey of Assam, including Cachar and Manipur, following its annexation by the British. Having successfully completed this mission, he was promoted to become Col. Francis Jenkins and appointed to the newly created post of the first chief commissioner, and agent to the governor-general, for Assam in 1833. He remained in this position to become the longest serving chief commissioner of Assam, and also eventually in the rank of a major general, until his retirement in 1861.
Mir Syed Shekhawat Hussain originally hailed from an aristocratic family of Agra, in the erstwhile Awadh principality (present day state of Uttar Pradesh) and migrated to settle in Gauhati sometime around late 1820s.
During those days, the royal House of Awadh was rapidly losing its influence over its principality in the face of East India Company’s increasingly firm grip over its affairs. Uncertainty loomed large, and there was a growing sense of insecurity amongst the people. While since the time East India Company’s influence and control grew across the land, places it had major interests in were being administered with the help of appointing Indians from several aristocratic families from different parts of the country, to various sub-divisional administrative posts, a practice that continued more noticeably when India became a colony directly under the British Crown in 1858.
When offered an administrative post in the far-east of the country, a young Shekhawat Hussain felt it as a much better and secure prospect. He and wife Rahimun Nesa being a young couple, probably had the drive for this exciting prospect of exploring life in a new place. They, with Shekhawat’s parents and younger sister, along with some of the close family members and an entourage of the entire household staff, proceeded on a caravan journey towards the fertile promise of Assam. In those days moving places for work usually meant a one-way journey.
The Long Lake or Digholi Pukhuri…
Upon their arrival in Assam, Mir Syed Shehkawat Hussain and his family had settled on the banks of Digholi Pukhuri, a lake surrounded in wilderness, which during that time was much longer than its present size. The lake at that time began from where the railway lines leading to the present Guwahati Railway Station are located and right up till the River Brahmaputra.
Digholi Pukhuri has had a significant history… In the early times, it was a massive tank constructed by King Bhagadatta during his daughter Bhanumati’s wedding. The legend goes that at the base of this tank are seven deep wells, which were used to draw water for various chores during the wedding. Later the King ordered a canal to be dug so that the tank was permanently connected with the River Brahmaputra, and due to the incoming waters from the river the tank itself grew longer, earning the name of Digholi Pukhuri, or the ‘Long Lake’.
Subsequently all the later kingdoms, the Burman, the Kamata, the Koch and the Ahom, had used Digholi Pukhuri as a ‘Naoxal’, a place to keep their naval boats and probably where they also constructed them. The legendary Ahom general, Lachit BorPhukan had used Digholi Pukhuri to ‘hide’ his numerous boats, which he so successfully used against the larger Mughal ships during the famous Battle of Saraighat…
Mir Syed Shekhawat Hussain’s family adapted well, and settled into the local milieu quite effortlessly. Eventually his wife Rahimun Nesa gave birth to two daughters and a son, and their household also grew to include many local helps. Soon both culture and language of the land seeped into the household, much so that Shekhawat’s younger sister Fatima Begum even acquired a nickname in the local Assamese language by which she was more widely known, Moni Phutuki.
An emerging city…
Mir Syed Shekhawat Hussain was given the charge of managing and developing Gauhati (as Guwahati was spelt earlier), during the time when Col. Francis Jenkins was the chief commissioner in charge of the Assam province, so that it could serve the purpose of both an administrative headquarter within the larger Assam province, and also as an important river port on the Brahmaputra, which was then the only major lifeline and trade route for the remote far eastern region.
Gauhati during those days was just a large village comprising of a few hamlets along the banks of River Brahmaputra, majorly concentrating around the present day Machkhowa to Santipur, and mostly populated by fishermen and those trading in ‘Tamul’ (Betel Nut), also called ‘Guwa’. As their main occupation the locals would regularly lay out a ‘Haat’, or market, on the banks of the river offering fish, betel nuts and other assorted goods, and buyers would take the bulk on boats to other villages.
During the later years as an administrator, Mir Syed Shekhawat Hussain oversaw the transformation of this sleepy river port into an important administrative center, which was also called Gauhati… eventually it became the capital of the larger Assam province, and is now a bustling city in the modern times…
The love story…
In due course of time Col. Jenkins met and fell in love with Fatima Begum. It was love at first sight, as the legend goes… Fatima Bi, fondly nicknamed Moni Phutuki meaning ‘the one who emerges from bursting pearls’, was indeed a very beautiful woman and Jenkins was smitten by her beauty.
Mir Syed Shekhawat Hussain would work in close coordination with Col. Jenkins, and the two forged a close bond as the new city of Gauhati was being built. However, despite that he and his family members were not ready for the alliance when Col. Jenkins asked for Fatima Begum’s hand in marriage. Eventually, after several pleas by Jenkins and his promise that Fatima Bi would be allowed to maintain her cultural and religious identity, the family relented.
Neither religious nor cultural differences posed much of a barrier for the British Col. Francis Jenkins and Indian Fatima Begum when they married in late 1830s. After her marriage, she was popularly called Phutuki Mem (short for madame, a title associated with British officers’ wives in India) and they remained happily married until death did them apart and quite literally so…
Incidentally, one of popular love stories in Assam ‘Chameli Memsaab’, also the biggest landmark Assamese language film of the same name made by the renowned director Abdul Majid, is inspired by, though not based on, the real-life love story of Col. Francis Jenkins and Moni Phutuki (Fatima Begum).
The tea story…
Meanwhile during his travels throughout the region as the chief commissioner, Col. Francis Jenkins must have noticed tea tree growing abundantly in the wild, as some of which still do in the Karbi and Dima Hasao hills, and also in the hills of Manipur. Even today the Singpho tribe collect wild tea leaves for their distinctive ‘Smoked Tea’ variation. And it is also certain that during early times of East India Company, the locals were harvesting tea leaves from the wild to sell it loose and were also collecting it for the company.
One of the initial actions of Col. Jenkins was to set up a committee in 1834 to explore the possibility of a tea industry in India, which would break the Chinese monopoly in the market. He soon realized that tea could possibly be grown commercially in the region, in a better organized manner, particularly since the soil and weather of the region were so conducive for tea.
In the book ‘Early British Relations with Assam’ (published by Government of Assam, 1949), SK Bhuyan credited Maj. Gen. Francis Jenkins as the initiator of the tea plantations and the tea industry in Assam and across the entire far-east of India. SK Bhuyan further wrote in his book: “In some quarter Maj. Gen. Jenkins is also credited as the discoverer of the tea plant in Assam, now known as ‘Thea Assamica’, identical with the tea of commerce then in circulation.”
Col. Jenkins was a keen botanist and reported that Assam was already home to tea plants, and throughout his time in Assam he played a key role in the development of tea cultivation. An experimental nursery was thus set up near Sylhet, and later another one near in Jorhaut (Jorhat), where excellent tea was soon being produced. Subsequently, as a major general, he began initiating an organized growth of tea plantations in the entire region. His encouragement led the commercial production of tea to rapidly develop, and by 1861 when he retired more than 10,000 acres in the region were devoted to tea cultivation, and this led to the beginning of the saga of commercial tea plantations and its trade from the region.
It was also due to the encouragement and help of Maj. Gen. Francis Jenkins that the first-ever tea company, the Assam Tea Company was established in 1839, with one John Jenkins as chairman of its board of directors. Eventually Maniram Datta Barua, was made the dewan of Assam Tea Company, and came to be known as Maniram Dewan, who also became one of the first Indian proprietor of a tea garden.
The first major collection center of all the tea produced from Assam and the region was obviously located in Calcutta (now Kolkata), which was then the headquarters of the company and later of the crown administered colony, and also its main shipping port.
Hence, tea from the region was first transported through River Brahmaputra and then River Hoogly till Calcutta, from where the tea was shipped all the way to the Great Britain, and onto London through the inland route of River Thames, where it would be stocked in massive warehouses along the River Thames before they were further traded…
In fact, one of those warehouses named ‘Assam’ is standing and well preserved to this day, and still bears the nameplate.
A bygone era…
Maj. Gen. Francis Jenkins was considered a man of versatile abilities, apart from being a great administrator, he was also a scholar. Jenkins was deeply interested in the history and antiquities of Assam. He contributed a number of articles to the pages of the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, and inspired others to contribute on subjects relating to Assamese history, philology, topography, mineralogy and other such topics. The first noteworthy history of Assam was compiled in 1841, by William Robinson at the instance of Maj. Gen. Jenkins to whom it was dedicated.
The love for his beloved Phutuki Mem (Fatima Begum), and his fondness for Assam prompted him to settle down in Gauhati after his retirement, and ensured that he never went back to his native land.
Maj. Gen. Francis Jenkins died of fever on August 28, 1866 and was laid to rest in Gauhati, the city formed under his administration. His grave was located at the old cemetery near Guwahati Railway Station which is currently the present site of Institute of Engineers, and is just about half a kilometer away from the Shekhawat’s family graveyard along Digholi Pukhuri, where his wife Phutuki Mem (Fatima Begum) lay buried along with her brother Mir Syed Shekhawat Hussain, her parents and other relatives.
According to the eminent researcher on Guwahati, Kumudeswar Hazarika, the other memorials to Maj. Gen. Francis Jenkins were eventually transformed with the passage of time, like the Jenkins Road (present day MG Road) and Jenkins Ghat (present day Sukleshwar Ghat). Curiously years later, a set of Francis Jenkins’ journals and letters dating from 1810 to 1860s were brought to auction at Sotheby’s in 2009.
The legend of their love – a Christian British major general marrying an Assamese Muslim girl – is still alive among those who live along Digholi Pukhuri, on the present-day Md. Tayebullah Road. However sometime in mid-1990s when Col. Jenkins’s descendants came visiting, hoping to pay their respects at the grave of their great-grandmother, they sadly could not locate the grave among the overgrowth of the abandoned graveyard of the Shekhawati family, and neither did they get a chance to meet any of the family’s descendants who could have pointed out the exact location where the beloved Moni Phutuki was resting in peace.
Footprints of history…
The Shekhawat’s family graveyard, also known as the Shekhawati Kabarstan (graveyard), is located on a plot along the Digholi Pukhuri and surrounded by mostly homes of the family descendants. It had been in use since around 1843.
Ironically, this graveyard came into existence when Mir Syed Shekhawat Hussain and his clan were uprooted from the west side of Digholi Pukhuri where they had initially settled. It happened when the British administration required more space for the ever-expanding Gauhati, much for their own administrative, educational, social, cultural and residential establishments.
Mir Syed Shekhawat Hussain had to then move with his entire clan and entourage to the east side of Digholi Pukhuri where they built their new homes. Shekhawat Hussain also kept aside a plot of land in the midst of his own family settlements as a family burial place, and thereby ensuring no further uprooting of the family.
The descendants of the Shekhawati family, with many others who settled alongside, have been around since the time the city of Gauhati took shape and remained on the east side of Digholi Pukhuri till the present times. Over the course of time some of the other prominent families who settled here were those of, advocate Jagadish Medhi and writer Gyan Bora, and down the leafy lane from the lake were BK RoyChoudhury and SK Bhuyan (after whom the lane got named), apart from the Singha and Gohain families. Notably, the Singha family are the direct descendants of the Ahom royal lineage.
This graveyard contains graves of many members and descendants of the Shekhawati family, and also of several eminent personalities of the Digholi Pukhuri area, some of whom were also prominent figures of Assam… including the entire extended family of the stalwart figure of Indian freedom movement from the region, Mohammed Tayebullah, and his elder brother Mohammed Herasutullah. Their father, himself a prominent administrative official, along with mother, and other close members of his family have all been laid to rest in this graveyard.
Md Tayabullah, after whom the road alongside Digholi Pukhuri is named, was the man with the responsibility for organizing the annual general meeting of the Indian National Congress which was held under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi in 1929 near the present Gauhati University campus. When due to a thunderstorm the venue for the meeting got severely damaged, Tayebullah sold a part of his land on Digholi Pukhuri to another noted figure SK Bhuyan (author of ‘Early British Relations with Assam’) to collect some money for re-arranging the venue of the meeting, and making it a success.
From among the descendants of the Shekhawati family, two other prominent figures were brothers, Qazi Tahfizur Rahman and Qazi Taufiqar Rahman. Their father Qazi Talmiur Rahman was the son of Roufun Nesa, Mir Syed Shekhawat Hussain and Rahimun Nesa’s first born, who was married to Azizur Rahman. While their mother Syeda Masuda belonged to a very prominent local family, whose brother Sir Syed Saadullah, was the first prime minister of Assam in the newly-independent India and the only one from entire far-east region of India to have been conferred upon the Knighthood by the United Kingdom.
Qazi Tahfizur Rahman in 1929 had become the first Indian from undivided India to ever get trained in the science of ‘oil technology’ from the Imperial College of Science and Technology, London (United Kingdom). He was the part of the core team working at the Digboi Oil Field, Asia’s first oil well and one of the earliest in the world. He also led the engineering team that established the Noonmati Oil Refinery. An extremely well-travelled man, he never married, and continued to pursue his passion for travelling right till the end. Apart from his extensive travels across Europe, he also fully explored the far-east Indian region, both out of work and interest.
Qazi Taufiqar Rahman, who completed his studies from Aligarh Muslim University, was an advocate and a progressive social figure of the area who emphasized on education and social equality. A school for the under-privileged under the name of QTR Memorial School, run by the locals in his memory, is still functioning on a piece of land he donated in Amsing, near Narengi. He also encouraged women to offer prayers in local mosques, equally with men, especially in the mosque located next to the present day Latasil Park Police Station, which he helped establish. His wife, Rezia Khatoon was the oldest social figure of the area around Digholi Pukhuri, till she passed away in 2019 at a ripe age of 93.
Both the QT brothers were socially very active and also amongst those who initiated the Guwahati Town Club, with the elder Qazi Tahfizur Rahman already being a member of the elite Digboi Club while he was working in Digboi.
The High Society…
As the new city of Gauhati expanded, Digholi Pukhuri almost became an unspoken demarcation between the British and Indian settlements, notwithstanding the original local settlements on the further north-west along the riverside.
An interesting historical anecdote exists regarding the location of the two oldest premier social establishments – Gauhati Club and the Gauhati Town Club – which is best understood if one imagines the layout of the emerging city during the British times…
Immediately on the west and north-west of Digholi Pukhuri were the major administrative and educational establishments, like Cotton College (now a university), Curzon Hall (present day Nabin Chandra Hall and Library), the post house, the administrative headquarters (present day deputy commissioner’s office), Christ Church, Baptist Church and residences of several British families. Further away, closer to the British establishments, were the commercial areas and shops of Pan Bazaar and Fancy Bazaar (adjoining the now-closed jail house). A smaller number of Indians living on the west side were mainly big traders and shop owners who lived in and around the commercial areas.
To the north of Digholi Pukhuri stood the imposing Gauhati High Court and residences of the judges. The impressive Gauhati High Court building and the circuit house were constructed after land filling blocked the mouth of river and again separated Digholi Pukhuri from River Brahmaputra.
Towards the southern side of the lake were all the cultural establishments like the library and museum, which along with the laying of railway lines had further shortened the length of Digholi Pukhuri.
Only to the east of Digholi Pukhuri extending all the way along the river side towards Uzan Bazaar were residences of the Indians, and this side of the city soon became exclusively Indian and kept spreading further eastwards. This side of Digholi Pukhuri was also blessed with the presence of the ancient Ugratara Temple and the mausoleum of a Sufi Saint, which is now within the premises of the famous Bura Masjid (the old mosque).
The city, during the turn of the 19th century, was dotted with several open spaces, fields and parks… and the British elite when deciding on a place for their Gauhati Club, deliberately chose an empty field on the east side of Digholi Pukhuri adjacent to the Indian settlements. They opened their clubhouse in 1894, and of course at that time membership for Indians was not allowed.
Not to be outdone, the prominent local Indian residents initiated their own Gauhati Town Club. It was largely funded by tea planters, local traders, Indian advocates and administrative officers, along with eminent social figures. When deciding on a location for their Gauhati Town Club, Indians being quite influential due to their respective positions, chose a corner of an open field (presently called Judges Field) to construct their modest clubhouse in 1906, and thus also reciprocally establishing their presence in the British dominated west side of Digholi Pukhuri.
These two establishments laid the foundation of present day modern social life in the city of Guwahati, and a friendly rivalry between the two clubs continues to this day.
A modern drama…
Digholi Pukhuri remained the centerpiece of the city of Guwahati. This lake has always attracted numerous avian guests, and has been home to a large number of ‘Raj Hans’ (also called ‘Hamsa’ or Goose). Sadly, though in the present times this huge bunch of geese have lost access to Digholi Pukhuri due to its fenced boundary and are relegated to the nearby smaller Jur Pukhuri (the twin ponds). Every once in a while, their loud protests can be seen and heard, when they occupy the Lamb Road (the road nearby that runs parallel to Dhigholi Pukhuri) near the Ugratara Temple and quack in full throttle. It then almost seems as if they are beseeching Devi Ugratara to help them get back their favourite water-body, the Digholi Pukhuri.
Meanwhile, a part of the Shekhawati Kabarstan is currently under litigation due to a group of locals who attempted to forcibly grab the plot of land on which graveyard is located and sell it for real estate development. After repeated attempts of encroachment of the Shekhawati graveyard, the present-day descendants of the family banded together with the local residents and formed the Digholi-Pukhuri Kabarstan Suraksha Committee (DKSC) to protect this little plot of land in the heart of modern-day bustling city of Guwahati that holds such an important part of history linked to the city itself…
Much of these finer historical details regarding the formation of the city of Guwahati has had a profound impact on the entire far-east region of India. The Digholi-Pukhuri Kabarstan Committee, which has many of the present-day descendants of Shekhawati family as its members, have decided that once the legal disputes are settled, they will beautify the graveyard as a public place in memory of all those who rest there…
And also build a memorial to both Maj. Gen. Jenkins and Phutuki Mem, thereby reuniting the parted lovers in the memory of future generations…
All the above has been collated through several historical references and research, but predominantly based on numerous oral history sessions with my maternal grandmother, (late) Rezia Khatoon, who was married to (late) Qazi Taufiqar Rahman, a great-grandson of Mir Syed Shekhawat Hussain.
An edited version of the above article was published earlier here.