Conquest of India by chai

While tea is known to have been in vogue in China and Japan as early as in the fourth century, it reached Europe only in the 17th and in India even later

Conquest of India by chai
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Nilosree Biswas

I was advised by Nasir (our university’s adored tea stall owner who was universally called Nasir because he resembled actor Nasiruddin Shah) that come summer (the unbearably humid one of Bengal) I must rely on a hot beverage than cold drinks and sherbet. Since then, I have never discarded tea in any season, and certainly not in summer.

But how did it acquire the status of a ‘national drink’ and is a great leveller, consumed both by the haughty and the hoi polloi? Served in salons and on highways, no travel book on India is complete without referring to the beverage and many different ways it is prepared and served. But it never ceases to amaze to realise that though an ancient beverage in China and Japan, in India it came much later. Its history here is not too old.

It was on a stormy night in 1662, we are told, that the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza reached England to marry King Charles II. Tired from days of sea voyage, she held on to the elixir offered in the form of a cup of tea. It is said that her dowry also included a chest of the finest tea because tea was by then a favourite beverage of members of the royal court in Portugal.

Portuguese were the first Europeans to bring tea from China and introduced it to Europe. It then reached England via Amsterdam. But it was possibly green tea as the black tea, the ingredient for the Indian Chai was still not born.

In China tea was being consumed as early as in the 4th century, spreading to Japan next. It was called chá, a word that originated in Mandarin. Initially consumed as herbal remedy for headaches and joint pains both in China and in Japan, tea was perceived as a quick therapy to common health hiccups.

But by the time it reached Europe more than a thousand years later, tea was a seriously expensive commodity. Print advertisements from 1660’s indicate that a pound of tea was costlier than 1440 bottles of Spanish sherry.

The East India Company ordered the first direct consignment of tea in 1664. It grew swiftly from 100 pounds to 200,000 pounds in the early 18th century. But there was still no indication that India would become a major centre of tea cultivation or consumption.

Bengal, which was to grow into a major hub of tea, was curiously drinking coffee at the time, though limited to upper classes and those connected with Bengal Nizamat. Chinese ambassadors visiting Bengal in the 15th century had noted the absence of tea and had recorded that guests would be welcomed with betel nuts and plain water.

Joseph Banks, a British botanist,first advised the East India Company to cultivate tea in the region to cut down the cost of importing tea from China. This was the period when plans were initiated to plant tea across British colonies including New Amsterdam (present day New York), New England, Georgia, Newfoundland and India.

Bradby Blake, an English botanist researching in China’s Canton sent some tea seeds to England with details on the categories of tea, plucking and cultivation modes etc. The information and the seeds never reached England and was lost in the sea. Scottish botanist Robert Fortune was then mandated to collect, read and smuggle out every possible information around tea, including seeds, live plants and techniques of cultivation to India. And that is how 20,000 plants and seedlings reached Darjeeling from China, which would go on to become the tea capital of India.


But it was eventually an indigenous variety discovered in Assam and bred with a Chinese variety that produced the early black tea. In 1834 Governor General William Bentinck initiated a tea committee to facilitate production of tea in India. However, it was not before 1880 that Assam Tea Company and others were ready to challenge the monopoly of Chinese tea.

The Company with private merchants and tea planters began a vigorous campaign to popularise Indian tea in England. Free samples were distributed in London. Indian Khidmatgars were hired and dressed in exotic clothes to serve tea and create the oriental mystery and magic in marketing exhibitions at Paris and elsewhere.

Thomas Lipton was the first to procure bulk tea from India for his tearooms in England. Soon he realised the potential of the desi market and began promoting tea in Calcutta.

Popularising tea wasn’t a cakewalk. Spencers, one of the better- known hotels of Kolkata, put up alluring posters targeting middle class babus to taste ‘the Queen’s own tea’ with a copy that read ‘The Sovereign Drink of Pleasure and of Health.’ Lavish tea parties became part of the promotion.

Indian Tea Association was established in 1901. Advertisement in newspapers, kiosks and posters in public places like railway stations mushroomed. The clarion call of ‘Chai Garam’ (hot tea) was given. There was evidently ‘Hindu chai’ and ‘Muslim chai’, the latter possibly laced with spices.

There was resistance to tea as well in Calcutta, known for its protests! Scientist and nationalist Prafulla Chandra Roy advised strongly against tea,which he described as unhealthy and immoral. Tea, he declared, would ‘make housewives wayward’. Down south Maraimalai Adigal campaigned for neeragaram, a drink made from fermented rice, instead tea or coffee. Other nationalist leaders rejected tea as a mark of protest.

But tea had arrived. The canteen at Bethune College, one of the earliest women’s colleges in the country, served toast, eggs and tea. Bengali landed gentry in the countryside also took to tea as a reasonably priced energy drink, an antidote to their addiction to alcohol. Indian girls were taught to make tea as part of their home science curriculum while acquiring other feminine skills like embroidery.

By 1930’s and 40’s advertisements had begun appearing, reassuring people that “Tea is 100%Swadeshi”. The advertisements depicted women weaving Charkha with a steaming cup of tea by their side to carry more conviction. As industrialization, factories and road construction activities picked up, a variety of tea was introduced to workers, who soon got addicted to the milky concoction. Women dropped their resistance to tea as sipping tea began to be seen as signs of modernity.

Chai or Cha has not look back in the last 100 years. Our subjugation to the beverage is complete.

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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