Tracing the History of India’s Favourite Beverage

By Cheragh Tankaria

If I had been asked a couple of years back to rate tea amongst my list of preferred beverages, it would not have ranked so highly. A tea bag dunked in boiling water with some sugar and milk was considered an okay pick-me-up, adequate with cake or biscuits in the afternoon, but better with fresh, butter-drenched cumin parathas, and stir-fried shredded cabbage for breakfast. I used to enjoy a freshly brewed cup of coffee in the mornings, with plenty of hot frothy milk and cinnamon, and a cigarette. This was before I discovered the intensely disagreeable effects coffee had on both my digestive and nervous systems, after which I have abstained from even a drop. Since my stay in Delhi however, I must admit that I now cannot get enough of tea. If I cannot find the time to make a proper cup of masala chai in the morning, my day does not seem to pass smoothly.

I was thinking back to a couple of years ago when I chanced upon Victoria Wood’s Nice Cup of Tea on the BBC. The programme information described the renowned British comedienne travelling through China and India, meeting “chai wallahs, opium smokers, Assam tea pickers and grumpy elephants” along the way. I was more than intrigued and had settled down nicely to a thoroughly enjoyable, and informative, humour-riddled documentary on the history and industrialisation of the tea trade. I applaud Victoria Wood for writing such an entertaining yet honest account of history. Even dark and uncomfortable truths of the depraved intentions and practices behind the British Empire were revealed though the weight of these details were detracted through the use of her amiable, satirical wit.

After the programme, I thought deeply of the consequences of the tea trade. When direct trade between Europe and China first began in the 16th Century, entry into China was forbidden to all outsiders; certain ports were specified solely for trade in order to keep invaders and foreign rulers out. The Chinese kept the production of their most lucrative and sought-after exports a closely guarded secret — tea being one of them. By the 18th century, the British demand for tea—along with such coveted Chinese goods as silk and porcelain—grew rapidly. In contrast, China’s demand for British goods was low, and silver, the only commodity the Chinese would accept, and which the British were subjected to purchasing from other European nations, was only incurring the Empire further losses. This distressing degradation caused Britain to turn to India, by then, under British rule, to exploit its opium poppy harvests in order to restore the balance of trade with China.

The British introduced opium to China, where its fatally addictive nature quickly allured the masses, securing an instant consumer market. Despite strong protest from the Qing Dynasty government, British traders began the import of opium from India until its sale and consumption was finally prohibited in 1729. It was only a century later, in 1838, when China’s own silver had been exhausted from the sheer number of its people hooked on the destructive narcotic that the Daoguang Emperor demanded the arrest of Chinese opium dealers, along with the confiscation and destruction of all foreign stock. In retaliation, the British devastated the Chinese coast in the First Opium War. This resulted in China being forced to pay the British for security, to open its ports to Britain, France, and the Untied States, and to relinquish Hong Kong to Queen Victoria whilst recognising Britain and China as equals. Though the House of Commons had wondered if there had ever been “a war more unjust in its origin, a war more calculated to cover this country with permanent disgrace”, the Second Opium War was proclaimed a triumph in the British press.

This subsequent victory ensured new Chinese ports to be opened for foreign trade, permission granted for all foreigners (including Christian missionaries) to travel throughout the country, and indemnities of five-million ounces of silver to be paid to Britain and France. This period in Chinese history is referred to as the Century of Humiliation. The lasting effects of these mercenary disputes, all stemming from a guzzling appetite for the cured leaves of some aromatic plant, are still evident today.

Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence. It inculcates purity and harmony, the mystery of mutual charity, the romanticism of the social order. It is essentially a worship of the Imperfect, as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.

Okakaru Kakuzo, The Book of Tea

As the British poisoned the Chinese, laws enforcing the prohibited sale and personal use of opium in India were so rigid, so effectively enforced, that the Indian opium den was eliminated, and continues to remain relatively so. The British had encouraged agricultural productivity, even providing economic incentives for workers to bear more children in order to assist in the fields. Furthermore, Indian landlords were given a share from cash crop systems, driving them to mount unrestrained pressure onto their workers. The cultivation of such vast amounts of opium, with an enforced scarcity of its demand on Indian soil, allowed the British to control both its production and its distribution, monopolizing the entire trade. Then, intense Indian droughts started to result in the failure of grain crops, and population numbers were beginning to exceed the amount of available food and land. This led to the Great Famine of 1876-78.

During this period, not only did the British government continue to oversee the export of a record 2.9 million tonnes of Indian wheat to England, but it also refused to export grain to India from its colonies in an attempt to reduce expenses on welfare. It has been estimated that between 12 million and 29 million Indians died as a consequence of Britain’s financial greed. It was after this period that many Indians, mostly agricultural and skilled labourers, began to migrate to British colonies as those in East Africa and the West Indies to take up work as indentured labourers.

Come oh come ye tea-thirsty restless ones — the kettle boils, bubbles and sings, musically.

Rabindranath Tagore (Collected Poems and Plays)

Aside from the poignant realities behind the tea trade, I also began to think of the peculiarities of tea-loving nations in great anticipation of the morning when I would finally be able to relish my next cup. I found Wood’s reactions to the various tea preparations she was savouring quite amusing. Whilst the Chinese infusions were appreciated for their delicacy and floral fragrance, the traditionally brewed tea offered by the Singpho people of Arunachal Pradesh (and enjoyed with a hit of opium by the men folk) was considered too strong and bitter. A cup of Indian tea in Assam was likened to cocoa: thick with sugar and condensed milk; it was “not quite doing it.” And finally, a special masala chai in Kolkata, prepared with spices, mint, and rosewater by a chai-wallah called Sadhu, was dubiously described as tasting like sweet, hot milk. It was “really lovely,” she opines, but “he might need to think about doing a skinny version.” The very thought of a masala chai made with rosewater and mint makes my mouth start to water. That exotic, perfumed, intense sweetness is something Victoria described as a world away from a British cuppa. And quite rightly so.

The tea I grew up with was boiled in milk and water, in a saucepan, over the stove. It was sweet, rich, and subtly spiced, with a commercial chai masala powder that contained far too much dried ginger for my taste. It was strained always with a brightly coloured plastic tea strainer. My mother would fly into a rage over tea leaves littering the kitchen sink. And there was always that fine layer of cream floating persistently at the top of the cup, savoured by some, despised by others. For years I thought tea—and the word ‘chai’—to be purely of Indian origin, as I did saffron and chillies. The brightly dressed Indian woman picking tea on the boxes of PG Tips confirmed this to me, as did the love of tea displayed by not only every member of my family, but also every Indian person I encountered. Everything seemed to be governed by chai.

Drinking English tea at cafes, canteens, and restaurants, I had always felt that there was something missing; that the tea had not been allowed to brew for long enough, that the establishment was being forced to act frugally with their milk supply, or that the entire method of preparation may have been desperately rushed. Back when I used to frequent the farmer’s market each Saturday, a couple of friends and I decided to spend one morning in languor at a charming little café along Stoke Newington Church Street in North London. Seated in the rear outdoor area of the café, on distressed filigreed garden furniture under a forest green parasol, we were surrounded by pots of evergreen shrubs, grasses, and herbs placed along the walls. There was a shed or greenhouse taking up most of the limited space, which resulted in a warm and intimate atmosphere amongst the friends and couples discussing artwork, theatre plays and modelling. We ordered a pot of tea and it arrived in an Alice in Wonderland style clear glass teapot with some sort of high-tech filter within containing the tea. What a spectacle! We poured ourselves a cup and tucked into our pastries. But what a disappointment the tea turned out to be. It was bland and watery: poorly flavoured, hot water. I allowed the tea to stew for the duration of our morning, added more milk to my cup, and then, more sugar. But, it was just not doing it.

And I can never forget the first time I tried green tea. When I used to work at my local pharmacy, a work colleague would wax lyrical about Jacksons of Piccadilly, insisting that I try their sencha green tea with lemon. I was quite stubborn in those days and had remained quite resolute in my refusal to chance a gustatory experience so unusual; I had been the same with sushi. My colleague kindly offered me a couple of teabags to take home and try. That weekend, I must have indulged in one-too-many gin and tonics, and woke up on Sunday morning feeling worse for wear. Remembering the green tea, I thought I might as well make myself a cup; I could do with the detox. I found the taste revolting! It was unpleasantly bitter with a grassy mustiness, the lemon flavour reminiscent of Dioralyte.

China is the world’s largest producer and consumer of green tea, whilst India is the world’s largest producer and consumer of black tea, which explains the tea drinking habits of these great nations. The Chinese, along with the people of the Himalayan regions, historically drank tea as a medicinal decoction before its popularity increased as an invigorating, bitter stimulant. So why and when did the people of India decide to add copious amounts of milk, sugar, and spices to this traditionally pure and uplifting brew? The British, found that they could grow tea in Assam, and in order to compete with China’s monopoly on the product, resolved to use Chinese techniques to cultivate it on an industrial scale. Thus, the British fondness for the leaf, followed by a drop in its consumption during the Great Depression of the 1930s, generating a production surplus, was passed on to Indian society, giving rise to the integral part it plays in Indian culture and identity today.

If man has no tea in him, he is incapable of understanding truth and beauty.

Japanese Proverb

As the popularity of tea began to grow amongst Indians, the majority of Indian tea was still being exported to Britain. This usually left the Indians with low-grade tea dust, which chai wallahs began to boil with milk, sugar, and spices for longer periods to draw out as much as they could from their tea. This could explain the birth of masala chai as we know it today, but what else is behind its distinct recipe?

India remains the largest producer and consumer of milk in the world, neither exporting nor importing the stuff. Milk has always been highly prized, both for nourishment and for cultural and religious practices. The Vedic scriptures revere cow’s milk as nectar: nourishing and balancing. A golden rule with milk is that it requires sufficient boiling in order to render it digestible for humans. The cream that settles on the top, known in Northern India as malaai, is considered heavy and difficult to digest, and is almost always skimmed off and churned to make butter, or used to enhance desserts. Milk was traditionally taken at the beginning of each day for strength and vigour, and at bedtime as a restorative and nervine tonic. Spices such as ginger and black pepper were added as digestive stimulants and to counter the cooling, unctuous nature of milk, whilst the pungency of cardamom served as an expectorant, neutralising the mucous-forming properties of milk. Cardamom also detoxifies caffeine, which explains its liberal use in the time honoured Turkish and Middle Eastern methods of preparing coffee.

The ritualistic process of pouring the tea back and forth from a height also finds its origins in health and well-being. Apart from its obvious function of cooling down the hot tea before serving, it is believed in Ayurveda that the air bubbles produced by pouring a drinking liquid from a height increase the prana—life force—in a person. Working as a supplementary immunomodulator in modern terms, such practices continue to be carried out in India with drinking water and lassis, for example, though their original significance has been long lost. Even the order in which the ingredients enter the pot is owed to medicinal practices: the herbs and spices are added to the water first in order to draw out their essential oils. Then, the fatty milk is added to mingle with these oils as it heats up. The elongated boiling process allows all the concentrated ingredients to disperse through the liquor, before tea and sugar is finally added and brewed to taste.

The ancient Eastern civilisations were at one with nature; anything that entered or was applied to the body had medicinal value, balancing the body and mind, and promoting physiological homeostasis. Though these beneficial traditions are in rapid decline, the literature is still available to be understood and observed. Even something that Gandhi regarded as foreign, an exploitation of Indian labour, has been wholeheartedly embraced and Indian-ised, the Vedic principles of antiquity are somehow finding their way again into the daily lives of Indians.

Though some argue that tea was never introduced by the British, that it is indigenous to India, and that the British only played a part in its commercialisation and popularisation, it is something I cannot deny being grateful for. I will probably continue to mull over the lasting effects of the tea trade for a while. I reckon in the meantime, I’ll boil myself a nice cup of chai.


Personal PictureCheragh Tankaria is a Complementary Medicine (Ayurvedic Therapies) graduate and a freelance writer. With a keen interest in the history, art, and fashion scene of the Subcontinent, he recently returned from four months of clinical training and travelling across India. His free time is devoted to painting in the Mughal miniature style, learning such classical languages as Persian, Sanskrit, and Urdu, and promoting British Asian solidarity and Ayurvedic lifestyle principles through his writing.

Find him on Twitter @rejdapersa

Next Story >>

<< Previous Story