Post lunchtime on a crisp winter afternoon, Rupesh Khakholia settled into a black leather chair at his tea shop in Fancy Bazaar, a bustling market in Guwahati. His tiny office was lined by posters and boxes for various kinds of tea—CTC, green and orthodox, and numerous speciality varieties. Outside, a few employees worked frantically to package teas and keep pace as new crates arrived from nearby warehouses.
Last October, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Khakholia bought a batch of Manohari Gold tea—a highly prized speciality tea from the Manohari Tea Estate in Assam’s Dibrugarh district—at Rs 75,000 per kilogram. This was a record price, confirming Manohari Gold one of the most expensive teas in the world, and it made for many giddy headlines. Khakholia placed his winning bid from his office computer, in an online auction run by the Guwahati Tea Auction Centre.
Tea is big news in Assam, where the tea economy has a history stretching back to the nineteenth century. The state accounts for nearly half of India’s tea production and around eighty percent of the country’s tea exports, and boasts the largest concentration of tea plantations of anywhere in the world. At a rally in Assam in February, Prime Minister Narendra Modi played to the crowd by saying no one appreciated the special taste of Assam tea more than he did. (Modi also alleged there was an international conspiracy to defame Indian tea.) But for much of Assam’s time as a tea-producing heavyweight, the commerce of tea was centred elsewhere. It is only in more recent times that the business has moved closer to home.