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Is Tea Indigenous to India?

There are not many Indians who do not like tea. Tea is the most common beverage in India. From Kashmir to Kanyakumari, from Gujarat to Assam, tea is widely available and heavily consumed. Most households can not even function properly without one or two cups of brewed tea a day. This is why India is the world’s largest tea-drinking nation. This International Tea Day, let us look back at whether this was the case some 500 years back.

Researchers still debate whether tea originated within the present borders of India. However, tea was neither consumed widely nor was it drunk like how we are drinking it today. The earliest reference to tea drinking comes from the Dutch controlled Surat in Gujarat. Tea was consumed by indigenous Indians living in Surat as a medicine for its strong medicinal values. In those days, tea was expensive as it was imported from China. Hence small quantities of tea were consumed only on feeling unwell or having health issues. Back then, tea was only brewed in water, with no added sweetener or milk. However, lemon juice and some spices were added to it for additional health benefits.

Spiced tea with lemon and spices

The British started the first plantations in Darjeeling with Chinese tea saplings. Though the first attempt was a failure, more attempts proved successful and commercially viable. Thus was produced the world-famous Darjeeling tea, which has great flavour and taste. More plantations were made in south India in the hill-towns of Ooty, Munnar, and Sri Lanka. However, these were Chinese varieties, and such tea can not be said indigenous to India.

In the early 1820s, when the British were looking for an alternative to the Chinese monopoly of the tea trade, they found that tea was grown and consumed by Assam tribes. After a detailed study, it was concluded that the Assam tea was of a different variety and that local people consumed it as medicine. Geographically, Assam is located near Yunnan plateau in China, where tea was believed to have originated. Hence, some also thought that the Assam variety of tea was a variation of tea that originated from the Yunnan region of China. As per consumption, various tribes, most notably the Singpho tribe, used to consume tea since time unknown. However, the production and consumption technique was different from modern tea, which the Europeans disliked. Assam tea, being indigenous to Assam, thrived well throughout Assam and parts of north Bengal, and this is today the most prominent tea producing region in India.

Tree Plantation in Assam

Kashmir has another story of tea consumption. Though tea did not originate in Kashmir, its proximity to China and lying in the old silk route between Iran (Persia) and China made it a vital tea trade centre. Kahwa chai, or Kashmiri green tea, has been widely consumed in Kashmir, Pakistan and Central Asia since the Kushan empire in the 1st and 2nd century AD. The word kahwa means sweetened. Kahwa tea involved the addition of a sweetener, either sugar or honey. Spices like saffron, cardamom and cinnamon and sometimes nuts like walnut, almond were added to it. The Mughal empire later patronized it in the 16th century. So tea consumption in India is very old, at least in some parts, goes back way before the British popularized it in the rest of the country.

Kashmiri Kahwa Green Tea

Ladakh, Lahaul and Spiti, parts of Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh consumed tea much before the British arrived in India. Here, tea was consumed with yak butter, yak milk and salt, and is today called butter tea. Yak butter tea provided the much-needed warmth and energy that is required in such a cold climate. Today, however, yak butter is often substituted with butter made from cow’s milk due to its availability and low price. Consumption of butter tea started in the 7th century in Tibet and was popularized in the 13th century indicating how old the tradition of drinking butter tea is.

Ladakhi Yak Butter Tea

Lastly comes modern tea, which is popularized across every part of the country by the British. However, the Indians were reluctant to drink a product that was foreign to them. The railways played a crucial role in spreading tea consumption. Tea brewed in water, with milk and sugar added to it, was introduced in the railway stations. The locals took up the initiative as being cheap. It attracted the middle-class Indians and thus became an excellent revenue-earner. Tea became a staple of the Indian diet as it became a typical drink to have in long-distance railway journeys. Even today, lemon tea and milk tea available on the train and the stations are most travellers’ choice of beverage during journeys.

Tea Vendor also called Chaiwala in north India

There is a wide variety of “chai” consumed in India. Some of the most notable types are – 1)masala chai, where powdered spices were added to the tea to increase its flavour, 2)lemon tea, where lemon juice is added to liquor tea, 3)jasmine tea, where jasmine flowers are boiled with green tea, 4)milk tea, where the base liquid is fully or partially milk. Based on the amount of processing, tea can be 1)white tea, 2)green tea, and 3)black tea, in increasing order of processing. White tea is the healthiest of all, obtained from leaves of young saplings; green tea is a bit more processed though retaining most of the healthy ingredients; black tea undergoes many processes that make it lose most of its antioxidants. The most popular version in India is black tea for its strong flavour and rich caffeine content and also for being publicised widely by the British. Though newer versions are increasingly made available in cafes and restaurants, a street chaiwala is still preferred by most common Indians. At homes, despite the promotions of the health benefits of green tea, black tea with the home-customized version is the favourite among most Indians.

Masala Chai

Which tea do you prefer at home? Will you opt for a cafe or a chaiwala to drink tea outside? Do mention your preferences in the comment section below.

Written by – Himadri Paul

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