Tracing the history of India's most beloved beverage
In every Indian household, tea, is a staple. More popularly known as “chai “, it is usually the first drink Indians have in the morning. It is also often had during office breaks and along with evening snacks. Chai is an emotion for many. It is savored in the rainy season to enjoy the rains, in the winters to warm oneself, and in the summers… because why not? It is rather believable that a country like India consumes 8,37,000 tons of tea every year!
Let's look into the history to understand the origin of this amazing beverage.
How tea reached India?
One tale is that chai originated when a Buddhist monk on his way to China saw people following a ritual of chewing wild tea leaves. After trying it himself, he felt energised and decided to bring the tea leaves to India. So, according to this story, it was first discovered in China and then came to India, thanks to the Buddhist monk.
Another account speaks of an ancient Indian king who developed chai to remain active during court sessions. Some historians claim it was an important part of Emperor Ashoka's court sessions. It eventually became a part of common people's lives much later.
Chai's connection to Ramayana
However, another account places the first mention of chai in the Ramayana, where it was referred to as Sanjeevani buti and used as a medicinal herb. The shrub of this herb is similar to a tea shrub called Camellia sinensis, discovered by the British in Assam in 1823.
Assam and tea
Assam has been known for tea for ages. The Singhpo tribe, who have used tea shrubs as medicine since the 12th century, are said to be India's first tea consumers. The Singhpo tribe often packs dried and toasted tea leaves into bamboo cane; the cane parcels are then smoked. Even today, the community consumes tea in this way.
Even more fascinating is that the tribe's chief, Bisa Gam, introduced the British to their tea in 1823. Soon, they realised that the Assamica tea was better suited to the region than the Chinese tea variety Sinensis. They began to establish Assamica tea plantations and consume this tea. It was mainly a conflict between Britain and China that made the British take this decision. When China abruptly ended the tea trade with the British and relations escalated into war, the British sought alternative sources. Recognising that the Assamese cultivated an indigenous variety of tea, the British soon colonised Assam and cleared the jungle for tea plantations.
In the late 1800s, when Indian tea production grew drastically, only a small population of Indians drank tea. At that time, most Indian teas were exported and sold to Europeans and upper-class Indians who desired British social culture.
It was only in the early 1900s that Indians widely accepted the culture of drinking tea. Moreover, because an economic depression made it difficult for tea to be exported to Europe, a marketing campaign to sell tea to middle and upper-class Indians was launched. The campaign succeeded, and more people began to accept tea as part of Indian culture.
How did milk become part of tea?
The important question is - how did milk started getting mixed in tea? It is said that Indian travelers and traders were the ones who began to add milk. They were from different parts of the country, like Gujarat, Maharashtra, and West Bengal, so they had access to good milk. Soon, different variations of milky chai came about. It slowly became a drink that was consumed by the working class. This led to the birth of masala chai, which is chai flavoured with aromatic spices. The concept of teatime, started by the British, is still followed by many. However, drinking tea did not become a success immediately among Indians, and every community and region took its time to accept the taste of chai.
What does chai mean to us today?
Post-Independence, chai was made more affordable for the common people. Decades down the line, India's tea brewing style spread globally, and tourism helped spread the variations of masala chai. Today, chai has become an integral part of people's lives.
The most famous teas are cutting chai from Mumbai, Irani chai from Hyderabad, mellow Assam chai, strong masala chai from Gujarat, fragrant Darjeeling chai, and delicate pink Kashmiri chai.
Health benefits of tea
Historically, tea leaves were boiled in water to produce a bitter brew. The leaves were primarily used as medicine until the sixth century. Also, in China, tea has been an important part of meditation, fostering peace and inner strength and reducing stress.
Tea has been deemed a herbal medicine in India for centuries. A form of tea called “Kadha” has been famous for curing the common flu and cold. This drink is prepared using a traditional ayurvedic formula, its main ingredients being herbs, dry fruits, and black tea.
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