“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
In India, chai is more than just a cup of tea to start the day – the thick sweet drink is an integral part of the rhythm of life. Everything, from neighbourly gossip to intense political discussions happens over a cup of tea. One of the oldest drinks in history, chai is also India’s most popular drink – the country consumes a whopping 837,000 tonnes of tea every year!
Given how ubiquitous a cup of chai is across India, and how chai drinking transcends all boundaries, it come as a surprise that not many Indians know about the fascinating history of tea in India.
So, on the 12th International Tea Day, enjoy a beautiful cup of tea and appreciate the origins of your favorite cuppa as we reveal the story of how tea become an inevitable part of Indian lives.
Like the history of any famous beverage, the origins of chai are steeped in legend and contradictory accounts. In ancient India, chai was not the term used for the tea we know today, but for a healing concoction made by brewing herbs and spices, much like the traditional kada. In fact, the earliest chai did not contain any tea leaves, and its recipes differed according to the seasons and available ingredients.
However, there is a slight difference between a chai and kada – while chai uses herbs and spices associated more with aroma, kada uses herbs, leaves and flowers mainly for their medicinal properties. Also, chai is brewed for a lesser time than kada. There are also many other versions of the story of how the first cup of tea came about in India.
One story goes that chai was developed by accident when a Buddhist monk on his way to China, observed the local ritual of chewing on a few wild leaves and tried it himself. On feeling rejuvenated, he decided to bring it back to India with him. Interestingly, tea is believed to have been first discovered by mistake 5000 years ago when the Emperor of China found tea leaves in his pot of boiling water. Known for his scientific curiosity, he proceeded to taste the drink and loved it. Before long, tea became a staple of Chinese culture.
Another legend has it 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 hour. 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.
Dutch traveller, Jogn Hughen Von Linschoten, who visited India in 1538 AD, corroborated this fact in his account of his visit to India. He wrote:
“Indians ate the leaves as a vegetable with garlic and oil and boiled the leaves to make a brew.”
There is a third legend that says Sanjeevani buti (and its concoction), which brought a comatose Lakshman alive in the epic Ramayana, is the first chai. Interestingly, the shrub that finds mention in each of the tales is akin to Camellia sinensis, a tea shrub that was discovered by the British in Assam in 1823.
Talking of Assam, the northeastern state has a long historical connection with tea. Since at least the 12th century, leaves of tea shrubs that grew wild were used as medicine by the Singhpo tribe in Assam. The Singphos, believed to be among India’s first tea drinkers, still process tea through the traditional centuries-old method, dhooan chaang.
The Singphos believe that a cup of their traditionally brewed tea after every meal aids digestion, and credit it with keeping the community relatively free from cancer and diabetes. Even during the reign of the Ahom kings in Assam, Laal Chaa (a brew made of special wild leaves grown in Assam) was a popular welcome drink in the homes of both, royals and commoners.
It was also the Singhpo chief, Bisa Gam, who introduced tea to Englishman Robert Bruce and his brother Charles in 1823. The Britishers discovered that the assamica variety of tea was much better suited to the region than the Chinese sinensis variety growing at higher elevations and colder climates. Soon, they established tea plantations as an alternative to the expensive Chinese tea they were habituated to consuming. Indian tea production grew significantly under the British who employed native people to work in the fields.
As for the question when and where was milk added to tea, tea historians believe that the first iteration of chai with milk was developed by travellers and traders mostly likely from Gujarat, Maharashtra and Bengal, people who had easy access to good quality milk. With growing cross-country trade, sweet milky chai soon became the go-to drink, at least for the office bearers (and workers), to sustain a rather long day. Soon, masala chai (chai favoured by aromatic spices) was born and was usually served with a sweet or savoury toast, a hybrid of Indian and British tradition.
Over time, an exchange of customs and cultural ideas led to a growing thirst for tea among all classes, not simply the wealthy. Thanks to the British Raj, the concept of tea time also came into existence. It is also worth noting that tea wasn’t an overnight success in India. Each region and community in India took its own time to adopt and adapt tea to its own tastes. Today, there are a billion possible ways in which this combination can be effected in India, the most popular ones being Mumbai’s cutting chai, the rich Irani chai of Hyderabad, the fragrant Darjeeling chai, the mellow Assam chai, the strong masala chai of Gujarat and the delicate pink Kashmiri chai.
However, it was not until William McKercher invented the CTC (cut, tear, curl) method of making tea, that tea became cheaper and India’s favourite brew became affordable for the masses. With Iranian cafes and Coffee Houses putting it on the menu, chai also became the brew for intellectuals – it soon became a political ally in every meeting, discussion and even strikes.
So it was India’s CTCs that turned turned an entire generation (and generations thereafter) of Indians into ritual tea drinkers. Strong, flavoured, aromatic or all three together, the CTC blends made and consumed in India are among the best in the world and can go up to a couple of thousand rupees depending upon the blend of leaves, buds and granules (leaves give the aroma, buds the health, granules and dust the colour and strength).
The fact that chai is now not just a beverage, but woven into the fabric of this nation is hard to dispute. Today, no matter where you are in India, you’re probably not very far from a chai stall, little roadside shacks that go by different names in different parts of the country. Tea sold at these humble outlets is often the cheapest, the most delicious and the ideal refreshment in every kind of weather. And it is impossible to deny that “chai…chai-garam” has woken up several billion more Indians on Indian Railways than “coffee-nescoffee” ever could.
So the next time you reach sleepily for your morning cup, or share a version of the brew with your colleague or or even stock up on the biscuits you love dunking in your favourite beverage, remember it isn’t just chai you are consuming – it is history, diversity and popular culture, all amalgamated into one cup!
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