By Raviakash Deu
Tea, in its many forms and flavours, is a household staple that in one way offers us security during those unexpected guest visits, while also extending a gesture of warmth in a sometimes chilly setting. For youths with less to say, “Go, make chai”, is a phrase we perhaps long for on these awkward occasions. When heard, it triggers a natural reaction to leave the front room and perform a mindless routine in the kitchen, usually accompanied by several WhatsApp checks – this may be our only opportunity for the next several hours. Seemingly of less importance is the temperature at which we boil the water, the teacups selected, the speed of the pour, or remembering who takes sugar and how much. The ceremony, in other words, is perhaps taken for granted and so too, the rich history of this beverage which, until the early 19th century, was not formally introduced to India. Strange, given it has become such an intrinsic part of daily life for South Asian folk, even the ones living abroad.
From the Silk Road to Starbucks
Putting a stop to the deculturation and gentrification of tea: think, the popular Starbucks order of "chai tea lattes" – literally, ‘tea tea latte’ – seems a worthwhile endeavour. And yet, the debate around whether it should be pronounced ‘chai’ or ‘cha’ may not have an answer. While ‘cha’ seems to derive from the Cantonese ‘chah’ sometime around the 16th century, there’s reason to believe the increasingly widespread pronunciation ‘chai’ developed when the word passed overland from China to Central Asia via the Silk Road. The popular concoction of sugar and spice, otherwise known as ‘masala chai’ actually has historic roots in Ayurveda, an alternative medicinal system from the Indian subcontinent. Now I know what you’re thinking, ‘Slow down! You just told me the same thing about Yoga!’ It turns out while the ancient sages had figured out the spiritual significance of our movement and breath, they’d also discovered much about the health value of certain aromatic herbs - not so pseudoscientific after all!
Steeped in the same medicinal mood are tea chronicles from Chinese legend, stretching as far back as the 2nd Century BC and growing over subsequent dynasties. But a more relevant starting point for our tale is the ‘discovery’ which took place just a few hundred years ago in North East India and Assam. Along with Southwest China and Tibet, the birth of the tea plant can be traced back to this very region in which now almost 20% of the population are employed in tea fields and over 500 million kilograms of tea are produced per year. This is supported by a climate that helps to sustain over 304 thousand hectares worth of tea bushes. It’s as though the state of Assam was destined to serve our caffeine cravings. At least this was the view of the crafty British in the mid-1800s. Were it not for their efforts to break China’s hold on the tea industry, we may not have seen the full-bodied Assam secure its position as the go-to ‘base’ of our modern chai.
The ‘(Dis)honourable East India Company’ started out having little success with their secret missions to smuggle back tea seeds from China to Great Britain. When introducing these into several areas across India, most plants did not survive. However, Doctor Archibald Campbell’s experiment in the Himalayan mountains which featured both Chinese ‘sinensis’ and the fortuitously unearthed ‘assamica’ would prove telling. The Scottish Botanist and plant hunter Robert Fortune determined that the high altitude was of far greater benefit to the Chinese variety than its Indian counterpart which, despite originating from the same plant, flourished much more in the lowlands.
By 1856, the first handful of commercial tea gardens were established in Darjeeling, a city located within the ‘lesser Himalayas’ in West Bengal. By 1866, this rose to thirty-nine plantations including the revolutionary Makaibari Tea Estate. The factory was the first of its kind in the world to be certified for tea trading. It was here that Indian owners established (without any British influence) the crucial process of withering and oxidation to fortify the product for its journey down to Kolkata and over to Britain. Further investments in infrastructure such as a railway, which drastically reduced shipping times, produced a surge in demand that changed the very essence of the district. From a population of under one hundred citizens in 1830, by 1885, 95,000 migrants from neighbouring Nepal and Sikkim were working across Darjeeling’s one hundred tea gardens.
Land was also being offered up in Assam to any European willing to cultivate its tea for export. As the products started to arrive in larger quantities in Britain and Europe, a once luxury drink reserved for special occasions was gradually becoming an everyday beverage. This was especially true of the cheaper and more robust flavoured Assam which, in comparison to the lighter and spicier Darjeeling, grew all year round and could therefore be produced at a quicker rate. Gone were the days where only the elites in Parliament or those in the monarchy were able to claim the tea-drinking experience. And while it may not have penetrated contemporary culture with quite the commercial spirit and breadth of nomenclature we recognise today, tea seemed to be spilling across all levels of society.
Of course much can be criticised about the plantation economy in Darjeeling, Assam and the rest of North East India during this period. Its very foundations had been built on the idea of enforcing cheap exploitation of labour while at the same time providing occupations to hundreds of thousands of natives. The narrative is one we are all too familiar with as it repeats for a great many commodities produced under the British Raj including cotton, rice, leather and tobacco. Less ubiquitous perhaps is the alarming system of recruitment through abduction, enticement and other inhumane practices that existed in the old tea industry. The issue became serious enough that in 1861 the Imperial Government themselves appointed a commission to make a full enquiry. Their enactment two years later ensured the mortality rate of labourers was reduced, yet ultimately it failed in guaranteeing their safety once they arrived on the plantations.
The government’s own policies didn’t offer workers any protection whatsoever against the planters. The Worker’s Breach of Contract Act of 1859 maintained that those who had entered employment couldn’t leave before a period of five years, and planters were also given the power to make arrests on those they deemed wrongdoers. It would take until India’s independence in 1947 to see any improvements in this gross style of coercion, not to mention the poor housing conditions, desperate food shortages and low wages, all of which had previously been sacrificed to increase profit margins for the British. Practices shifted for the better as greater numbers of natives purchased stakes in the gardens, and by 1953 the entire industry was placed under a regulatory power known as the Tea Board of India.
Tea Infinity and Beyond
The Asian refreshment had been popularised in Britain by this time, yet ironically in India, it was only anglicized brown folk who enjoyed their afternoon tea in places like Calcutta. So when the new organisation came into being and were faced with a surplus of low-grade tea, it was an advertising campaign (nothing like those we see from Tetley) that finally pushed the product out of its colonial capital.
While coffee had become the traditional drink in South India by the 20th century, the take-up of tea in the north was going to prove instrumental in its modernisation. Factories, mines and textile mills were, for the first time, being encouraged to offer tea breaks for workers. This was also the birth of the much-beloved ‘chaiwalas.’ Against the wishes of the Indian Tea Association, these independent vendors developed a habit of introducing spices to the brew (traditionally cardamom, cinnamon, and ground ginger) and greatly increasing the amounts of milk and sugar. The ‘decoction’, or active simmering of the mixture with loose-leaf tea, was a clever way of reducing the usage of leaves per liquid volume all whilst retaining a unique taste.
As the entrepreneurial group took their masala chai business to a number of major cities like Mumbai, there was no sign of it slowing down. Serving the drink in smaller teacups known as kulhars or ‘cutting chai’ – a term which refers to a full cup ‘cut’ into two parts for a lower cost – soon became the trend. Causing great fascination also was the dexterity of the chaiwalas with their unusual ability of pouring the tea from arm’s length. While the dramatics may still carry through the country, the precise make-up of the chai seems to vary from place to place. Beyond the dominant notes of cardamom and ginger, in Western India, cloves and black peppercorns are generally replaced with lemongrass. And in Kashmir, it is green tea, not black tea which takes centre-stage in a more subtle offering enhanced also by almonds and saffron.
To answer a request made in 1615 by Richard Wickham from the East India Company office in Japan when writing to a merchant in Macao, for ‘the best sort of chaw’ – this, the first record of tea in the English language – who’s to say?
In recent years we’ve seen self-proclaimed chai-aficionados swear by the addition of cumin, nutmeg, rose and even coriander. When it comes to chai there simply doesn’t seem to be a one-flavour fits-all, there is an infinity of choice. The disapproval we reserve for western supermarkets selling chai tea bags, or even the avant-garde creations of the big coffee-shop chains may be well-intended, but what responsibility, if any, do we as South Asians really have? Should we be deepening our palettes? Should more of us be starting our own tea-based enterprises, boycotting big chains in favour of smaller, Asian-owned localities? Or should we simply be grateful for how far we’ve come since the days of 17th century Britons like Peter Mundy who describes ‘chaa – only water with a kind of herb boyled in it.’ I imagine we could ponder over this over a cup of tea, what do you think?
About the author:
Raviakash - Rav for short/ease, is a full-blooded feature writer from Birmingham, UK. He graduated from the University of Nottingham in 2016 with a bachelor's degree in English Language and Literature, going on to a Master's in Shakespeare Studies at King's College London. He is passionate about long-form writing across culture and the arts, with a growing interest in spirituality.