a Buddhist monk accidentally brewed tea on his tour to China.
Chai – a day for most Indians is incomplete without a cup of this warm and aromatic drink. But how many know about the history of tea in India? Where did it originate? Let’s find out.
The Indian word for tea originates from the Chinese term ‘cha’.
A staple in South Asian countries, including India, tea is a constant companion while discussing world finances, indulging in friendly gossips or enjoying a good read.
It is not just a way to kickstart your day, each cup holds a deeper meaning to the one who sips the drink from it.
Every cup exudes a different scent, thanks to the variety of ways in which it is made. Its recipe is unique to each home, village, and city of the country.
Whether you like it black or milky, sweet or spicy, the country provides a range of flavours to suit every palette.
It also transcends all social and economic barriers. The chai stalls present on every street corner is swarmed by people from all walks of life.
From working professionals to tourists they all drop by to enjoy a hot cup of tea. Western countries have it as chai lattes on their menu.
The chai or tea as we see it today is brewed over a rich history dating back to 1500 BC.
From being an elite’s drink to a symbol of hospitality to an integral part of an Indian’s life, tea has travelled a long way to become what it is today.
Tales Surrounding the History of Tea
Like the history of other foods and beverages, the origin of tea is steeped in a variety of folklores.
Some evidence found says that in the 3rd century AD, the Chinese followed a ritual of tea drinking, which was where the practice spread from.
One story says that a Buddhist monk accidentally brewed tea on his tour to China. He had tried the local ritual of chewing on some wild leaves and brought it to India.
Another one speaks of a Chinese Emperor who mistakenly discovered it when he found tea leaves in his pot of hot water. He loved the taste of it and soon tea became a staple in the country.
An Indian legend suggests that a tea-like concoction was ordered by a king in ancient India, who wanted to introduce a healing (Ayurvedic or Indian medicinal) drink for his people.
After gathering ingredients known to have medicinal values, he brewed a drink which had ginger, black pepper, cardamom, cloves, a pinch of cinnamon and star anise.
Each of these elements is linked to better digestion, improved mood, pain relief and healthy circulation. At the same time, they have a delicious flavour.
In fact, preparations using tea leaves were not restricted to beverages but also extended to food dishes.
A Dutch traveller named Jan Huyghen van Linschoten visited India in 1583 and wrote in his account:
“Indians ate the leaves as a vegetable with garlic and oil and boiled the leaves to make a brew.”
The fascinating stories state nothing concrete about the origin of tea.
However, it is clear that the history of tea finds its roots thousands of years back and the custom of tea drinking spans across cultures.
History of Tea – The Dutch & British Connection
It is the 17th century in India. The silk route is well established and the Dutch rule the country.
The Chinese have been drinking tea for over years now, but Samuel Pepys, an English man, who got the taste of it writes:
“That excellent and by all Physicians, approved, China drink, called by the Chineans Tcha, by other nations Tay alias Tee, is sold at the Sultaness Head Coffee-House, in Sweetings Rents, by the Royal Exchange, London.”
The diary entry dates back to the 1600s. In love with it, East India Company imported tea into Britain.
Considering this and the price of it, tea was a luxury and was only found in the homes of the wealthy.
China remained the single source of all the tea imports in Britain. However, the English faced a financial setback due to the Anglo-Dutch wars.
On one hand, they failed to meet the monetary demands of the Chinese, while on the other they wanted to gain a foothold in the tea market.
They saw potential in the Indian land to disrupt the monopoly held by China. Using the East India Company, they attempted growing the Chinese tea saplings in the Indian soil.
Their endeavours resulted in little to no success because the sapling couldn’t survive in the hot, tropical weather.
It was only in 1823 when a Scotsman named Robert Bruce introduced tea plantations in Assam. This set the foundation of commercialising tea in India.
The Assam Tea Cultivation
The local Singhpo tribe grew tea that was unknown to the rest of the world.
They brewed tea and had it after every meal to ease digestion and strengthen their immunity, keeping diseases like diabetes and cancer at bay.
Lal Chai, which is made of special wild tea leaves, was also served as a welcome drink in royal as well as local homes in Assam.
A native nobleman named Maniram Datta Barua had told Bruce about the Singhpo tribe’s tea. But it was the tribe’s chief Bisa Gam who introduced him to tea.
Bruce set up tea plantations in Assam in order to rival China after he realised that the tea was good.
Assam’s tea plantations soon flourished and by the late 1830s, a market was being assessed in London.
The cultivation of Assam tea was eventually monopolised by the Assam Company and it led to a period of expansion in the Assam tea industry in the early 1860s.
The Cultivation of Tea in Darjeeling and Other Parts of India
The 1800s saw the British trying their hands at growing the Chinese variant of tea on Indian soil.
During this time, Dr Archibald Campbell brought Chinese tea seeds to the region of Darjeeling and planted him in his garden there.
He succeeded in his efforts and in the 1850s, commercial tea plantations started in Darjeeling.
While the cultivation of tea in Assam and Darjeeling was growing at a fast pace, several efforts were being carried out in other parts of India.
This includes northern areas like Kumaon, Garhwal, Dehradun, Kangra Valley and Kullu, as well as Nilgiris district in the South.
Soon after, most areas in India were producing tea.
Modern-Day Tea Consumption and Culture
Tea drinking was a ritual among the British. However, the Indian community took longer to catch up with the trend.
Promotional campaigns to bring Indian interest in the tea culture as well as increase the consumer market was carried out. Apart from advertisements, tea breaks were introduced to factory and mine workers.
Railway tea shops adopted the British style of brewing a cup by adding milk and sugar. Some stalls added a local touch by blending in spices like cardamom or ginger.
Tea historians credit traders from Gujarat, Maharashtra and Bengal to have developed the first iteration of milk tea.
While it is not known for certain, the sweet concoction with milk became a go-to for the working class as it helped them stay energised for a long day.
In fact, the spiced tea also became popular and was often accompanied by a toast, a usual among the British.
After independence in 1947, the already prospering tea industry gained pace thanks to the Marwari people who took over most tea plantations, which were previously owned by the East India Company.
The crush, tear, curl (CTC) is a method of processing tea. It was introduced by William McKercher in 1930.
Post-independence, this method was widely used and provided Indians with an affordable variety of tea.
The influence of the British Raj and local flavours saw tea, or chai, become India’s official drink as well as a symbol of tradition.
Today, the country boasts of a range of blends depending on the region.
The popular ‘cutting chai’ is found at most Mumbai stalls while ‘Irani Chai’ is commonly served in Hyderabadi cafes.
Whether it is the strong masala chai of Gujarat or the Kashmiri kahwa, India offers a variety of teas to suit different taste preferences.
The British went away but left a heritage with its discovery of tea in India. The country is one of the largest producers as well as consumers of tea across the globe.
It has come a long way from being a medicinal herb and has become embedded into the very core of the nation’s spirit.
An aromatic cup of tea enriched with spices has been tying people together while also fuelling the nation’s growth.
The next time you sip on a warm cup of chai, remember it is not a simple beverage but a culture in itself with a rich history.