Indian Chai: A British Propaganda? The Story of Tea in India

Indian Chai: A British Propaganda? The Story of Tea in India

“Khadak chai aur garam samosa on a rainy sunday evening”. Doesn’t this resonate with almost every Indian? :)

While it cannot be denied that Chai (Indian tea) has become an integral part of Indian lifestyle and is on its way to become the “national drink”, the process in which tea attained this status deserves to be a psychological case study, and is one of the best examples for nation-wide propaganda carried out by the British Crown (pre-independence) & subsequent Governments of India (post-independence). Let’s find out how this wonderful piping hot beverage (It has health benefits as well) managed to “invade” into our lives and got us hooked to it.

One of the earliest references of a health potion in epics is that of the Sanjeevani herb in Ramayana, which some believe is a form of tea. Since the herb was used to restore life, it can be categorized as a divine herb and hence the arguments of Sanjeevani being a form of tea does not hold good.

The popular consensus among historians in the aspect of tea is that it had its origins in China in the 4th century BC as a stimulating drink, prepared by boiling tea leaves in water. While we are at it, let’s check out a popular Chinese anecdote throwing some light on the “accidental discovery” of Tea.

Legend has it that more 4,000 years ago in China, a divine farmer named Shennong, after a hard day’s work decided to boil some water in an open vessel and take a short nap under a Camellia (tea) tree. Dried leaves from the tree floated down into the boiling water, thereby resulting in the world’s first tea emanating delicious fragrance. Upon taking a sip of this “hot water”, Shennong felt energized & refreshed. Realizing that it must have been due to the blending of the leaves with boiling water, he announced his discovery to his fraternity and that’s how tea came into being.

The above anecdote has witnessed several adaptations over time to suit different geographies and cultures. In fact, there is one such story attributed to an Indian farmer as well who fell asleep while boiling water under a tea tree, but these are just legends and not documented facts. If one must go only by documented facts, the earliest mention of tea is in “Erya (Erh Ya)“, an ancient Chinese dictionary published in 350 BC. We can therefore safely assume that tea is atleast 2350 years old.

Back then, tea was used for ritual purposes and consumed only during special occasions. Later, as tea spread from China to Japan (during the propagation of Buddhism), it had become “mainstream” but still had the ceremonial status and even today, Japan holds tea in very high regard & is consumed as part of “tea ceremony”.

By the 8th century, tea had gained widespread acceptance in China & Japan among the poor & working class also. Tea was not just a ritual drink but also a symbol of friendship & hospitality. However, there are still no documented references to tea in India in the 8th or even in the 10th century.

So, how & when did tea find its way into India? We shall find out in the next part of this series.

Part 2 continued here:

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