From Cha to Chai: The Story of how Tea made inroads into the Indian Household

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“If you are cold, tea will warm you;
If you are too heated, it will cool you;
If you are depressed, it will cheer you;
If you are excited, it will calm you.”

― William Ewart Gladstone

The mention of tea has been known to evoke a variety of emotions, whether it is the refreshing feel of morning tea, or the ideal beverage fit to serve to guests, or perhaps the numerous tiny tea breaks we take during work. But, as timeless as this beverage may seem, our great grandparents and the generations before them were not aware of tea, or as we know it, “chai.” The introduction of tea and the prominence it has attained in India is still recent.

While coffee shops have largely become a symbol of western culture, tea shops still adhere to a desi touch, even in their marketing strategy. This is interesting, considering that coffee was introduced in the Indian subcontinent almost three centuries before tea. On the other hand, tea reached India from Chinese plantations in English ships.

I’ve always been a tea person. There is, perhaps, not one occasion where I think tea cannot fit in. Reading a book, watching a movie, working late nights or hanging out with friends, tea is an ideal companion. But it wasn’t always like this always, so let’s rewind a bit and see where the story takes us.

The Chinese legend of discovery of tea is fairly popular. The legend goes like this: Chinese emperor, Shen Nung, was resting under a wild tea tree, beside a pot of boiling water, when a slight breeze caused a few tea leaves to fall into the pot. The emperor found the resultant drink very refreshing and revitalising. This legend, for obvious reasons, is highly unlikely, but there are other sources which verify the existence of tea in china. However, tea was mainly used as a medicinal drink and not as a regular beverage.

In spite of inconsistencies, the popularity of tea in China is firmly established.  However, the ascendency of tea as a profit earning commercial commodity happened only after the intervention of the Europeans. China was a closed society and gave little importance to trade, but enterprising Dutch and Portuguese traders managed to establish trading post at Macau. The first shipment of tea was sent to Netherlands in 1606.   The Portuguese traders pursued the tea trade more enthusiastically from 1610 onwards. A major breakthrough, however, was yet to come.

Tea drinking was introduced in England after King Charles II married Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza, who was an avid tea drinker. There on, drinking tea became almost a fetish in British High society.  Sounds strange? Just pick up one of the Austen’s works and see all the countless references to evening tea. Learned Englishmen also appreciated tea for its sober and civilizing effect, as opposed to wine and tobacco, which were till then consumed at social gatherings.

However, Indians did not slavishly copy English customs when it came to tea consumption. Indian social gatherings are indeed incomplete without tea, but the kind of tea and its preparation is remarkably distinct in India.

Wild tea trees were indigenous to Assam and Burma before the British turned it into a commodity. The British domesticated the wild tea to dot Assam’s landscape with tea estates. As it was becoming increasingly difficult to procure tea from China, they had to set up plantations in India, since its demand was not showing signs of slowing down in Europe. Apart from this, the English didn’t want to miss this opportunity to make more money. Assam, henceforth, became the empire’s tea gardens.

However, the factors that made tea a regular drink in Indian household is still a chequered history. This is so, because, till 1920s, even though tea was widespread in Calcutta, it was still considered an elite drink, connected with British culture. Even Gandhi believed tea would leave India with the British. This did not happen.

India has now become the second largest producer and consumer of tea. The popularity of tea might have also increased with discovery of cheaper methods of processing tea, and its versatility, which allowed tea to blend with regional and local flavours. However, one also has to credit the vigorous marketing efforts of Indian Tea Association in 1950s to increase the sales of tea, which eventually lead to mass consumption of tea.

India has a lot of variety when it comes to this drink, all very different from each other and expressive of regional flavours. For example, Kehwa is a Kashmiri green tea prepared with saffron, cardamom, and cinnamon. There is Mumbai’s cutting chai, the irani chai of Hyderabad, Darjeeling chai, assam chai and the list goes on.

Even student campuses witness a majority of students consuming tea. Both Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University campuses are dotted with tea stalls. Being a student in North Campus of Delhi University, I have seen firsthand friendships being formed, debates and discussions being held, all over tea. Hunting for a tea stall is an essential part of being a Delhite. Tea has come a long way and is showing no signs of slowing down. Maybe the British accidently gave us something worth cherishing, to the disagreement of Shashi Tharoor.

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