Ek kadak garam chai ki cup is what starts the day of a lot of households around the world—some will ask for masala chai while others will call for Earl Grey. In fact, Indian tea is famous all over the world. Every time I am travelling outside India, when people offer me a cup of chai, they’ll always say our tea might not be as great as the one in India. Chai for Indians is like an eternal love; this is the second most common beverage after water that you get offered when you visit someone. We Indians do Chai pe Charcha about everything from politics to gossip, from a humble date to marriage proposals. A nukkad ki chai shop has seen and heard everything possible and still chai has remained humble.
Hot Masala Ginger Tea from Old Delhi | Photo Courtesy: Sadaf Hussain
There are many stories about the usage of tea leaves or something which was like tea leaves. One legend says that the concoction of Sanjivini booti was the first brewed tea during Treta Yuga to bring Lakshman back to life whereas others would claim that it was one ancient Buddhist monk who accidentally discovered the leaf when he chewed on it. These leaves made him feel rejuvenated and made him focus on his work. The third story about chai is that it was a king in ancient India (most likely Harshavardhana, under whose patronage Nalanda University reached its zenith) who developed chai to remain alert during long court hours. Some historians also believe that Emperor Ashoka too had made it a part of his various peace treaties and court culture, a habit that eventually percolated down to common people. In fact, Dutch traveller, John Hughen Von Linschoten who was travelling India in the 16th century found a vegetable dish was also being prepared using tea leaves with garlic and oil. The common factor or the leaf between all these legends is the shrub that finds mention in each of the tales which was similar to Camellia sinensis, a tea shrub that was first discovered by Robert Bruce and his brother Charles in Assam in 1823.
However, tea wasn’t the common beverage that we used to consume. We had kada as the substitute. It was the British who made tea drinking famous in India.
The British used to consume Chinese tea in massive quantities but eventually, it became an expensive affair for them. Even though they tried to counterbalance it with the opium trade to a large extent, the consumption was exorbitantly expensive and unsustainable.
This prompted the British to start tea cultivation and production in India in 1774. Warren Hastings (then Governor-General of Bengal) sent a few select samples of tea seeds from China to his British emissary in Bhutan – George Bogle – for planting. English botanist Sir John Banks was asked to make notes on tea in 1776 and he concluded that the British must undertake tea cultivation in India. Due to weather conditions in our country, they were unsuccessful in their initial stints of trying to grow their own tea. In 1823, Scottish explorer Robert Bruce discovered a native tea plant that was growing in the Upper Brahmaputra Valley and being brewed by the local Singhpho tribe. Assamese nobleman Maniram Dutta Barbhandari Baruah (also known as Maniram Dewan) gave this vital information to Robert and his brother. Maniram went on to become the first Indian to undertake private tea cultivation in Assam.
On further analysis and research it was found that these leaves can be classified as a variation of the Chinese tea plant (Camellia sinensis var Sinensis)—so this plant was named Camellia sinensis var Assamica (Masters) Kitamura. By 1838, the first consignment of 12 chests of Assam tea had reached London. Subsequently (in February 1839) the Assam Company – the first joint stock tea company – was formed in London. This was followed by the setting up of other companies like George Williamson and Jorehaut Tea Company.
Once the British started growing their own tea in India, they then ventured out to make it a profitable business and make it a common drink for Indians. In fact, my grandmother told me that during British Raj, they used to get free tea. Salesmen used to come to give free samples to every house. They started training Indians how to brew a nice cup of tea. To get Indians accustomed to the taste of tea was a real struggle. Each region and community in India took its own time to adopt and adapt tea to its own tastes. Although, they were not able to adapt to just the flavour of brewed leaves, and hence started making their own versions by adding Indian spices, ginger and many other indigenous ingredients, along with milk.
Many tea historians believe and would say that that the first iteration of chai with milk was developed by travellers and traders mostly likely from Gujarat, Maharashtra and Bengal. People in these states have easy access to good quality milk. With growing trade, sweet milky chai became the go-to drink, at least for the office bearers (and workers), to sustain a rather long day. This was ridiculed by the British and they did try to “teach” the real way of brewing tea, but soon, masala chai (chai flavoured with aromatic spices) became famous and the demand for tea increased. Seeing this, the British left the masala chai alone, because their company was finally drawing a profit.
Now in today’s India, you aren’t ever far from a small Chai Tapri (Tea Stall), who’ll serve you your favourite kadak chai. So remember, it is not “just” chai you are sipping but you are enjoying a cup full of history, culture, fusion and constant perseverance.