Tea Time – The Story of Tea in India
Morning sun and a cuppa, Can you imagine how much tea is part of our everyday life? From the gossip over tea party to chai garam on railway platform to even “garam chai ki pyali” song featured in one of the salman movie. It’s everywhere and it touches our heart and senses in variety of flavours we don’t even know.
I always thought Chai is something proprietary to us Indian, until I visited the Tea Factory Museum and got to know that it came from Chinese word “Cha”. So here’s the history of tea and how it travelled to India. (Courtesy Tea Factory Ooty)
Legendary Origin of Tea
The Story of Tea is fascinating and began in ancient China more than 5000 years ago. According to Chinese mythology, the story of tea began with Emperor Shen Nung, a skilled ruler, creative scientist and patron of arts. His far sighted philosophy among other things, that all drinking water be boiled as a hygienic precaution. One summer day while visiting a distant region of his kingdom, he and the court stopped to rest. In accordance with his ruling, the servants began to boil water for all to drink. It was then that some dried leaves from nearby bush fell into boiling water and a brownish liquid began forming. The emperor, being a scientist, was interested in the new liquid and drank some of it. He found it very refreshing.
Tea as we know today was discovered at that moment.
After a few hundred years, it travelled to Japan. The first tea seeds were brought to Japan by returning Buddhist priest from China, Yeisei who is also known as “Father of Tea” in Japan. It received almost instant imperial sponsorship and spread rapidly from royal court and monasteries to other section of Japanese society. Tea was elevated to an art form resulting in formation of Japanese Tea ceremony, Ch-no-yu or ‘hot water for tea’. The purity of this art form prompted the creation of supportive arts. A special form of architecture, Chaseki was developed for the ‘tea houses’. The cultural/artistic hostesses of Japan, the Geisha also began to specialise in presentation of the tea ceremony !
Great Britain was the last of the three sea faring nations to break into Chinese and East Indian trade routes. Tea quickly proved popular enough to replace ale as the national drink of England. ‘Tea mania’ swept across England as it had earlier spread throughout Holland and France, and was drunk by all levels of society. Two distinct forms of tea services evolved – ‘high’ and ‘low’. Low tea served in the ‘low part of afternoon , was’served in aristocratic homes of wealthy and featured gourmet titbits rather than solid meals. High tea was the main or ‘high’ meal of the day. It was major meal of the middle and lower classes and consisted of dinner items such as roast beef, mashed potatoes, peas and of course tea!!
The Boston Tea Party
The Boston Tea party is famous in the history of American Independence, an early example of rebellion against British rule. It also stands apart as an interesting landmark in the history of tea relations among the then wealthy nations of the world.
In December 1773, between 3 and 60 men disguised as Native American Indians boarded ships owned by British East India Company just off the Boston shore. Once aboard, they smashed open tea cargoes from wooden chests and threw them into the sea. Washed up on the shore the next morning, the cargo of course was worthless. Other ports followed suit and every patriotic American gave up tea drinking and switched to Coffee.
Origin of Tea in India
Long before the commercial production of Tea started in India in the late 1830’s, the tea plants was growing wild in the jungles of North East Assam. Then between 1823 and 1831, Robert Bruce and his brother Charles Bruce, an employee of the East India Company, confirmed that the tea plants were indeed a native of Assam area and sent seeds and specimen plants to officials at the newly established Botanical Garden in Calcutta.
But nothing was done perhaps because the East India Company had a monopoly on the trading of tea from China and since they were doing very well, saw no reason to spend time and money elsewhere.
The Company suddenly lost its monopoly in China and then woke up to the fact that India may prove to be profitable alternative. A committee was set up and Charles Bruce was given the task of establishing the first nurseries. The secretary of the committee was sent off to china to collect 80,000 tea seeds. (because they were still unsure if tea was indigenous to India, committee members insisted on importing seeds from China). The seeds were planted in Botanical Garden in Calcutta and nurtured until they were sturdy enough to travel 1000 miles to newly prepared tea gardens. In 1833 everything changed.
Meanwhile in Assam, Charles Bruce and others pioneers were clearing suitable areas of land on which to develop plantations and experimenting with freshly plucked leaves. Bruce had recruited two tea makers from China and with their help he learned the secret of successful tea production.
The condition were incredibly harsh. The area was remote and hostile. Tigers, Leopards and Wolves constantly threatened the lives of tea workers. They were also subjected to raids by local hill tribes. But they preserved and gradually the jungle was opened up, the best tea tracts cultivated under the light shade of surrounding trees and new seedlings planted to fill gaps and create true tea gardens.
Tea being exported to England
The first twelve chests of manufactured tea to be made from Indigenous Assam leaf were shipped to London in 1838 and were sold at the London Auctions.
The East India Company wrote to Assam to say that the tea were well received by some “houses of character”, and there was a similar response to the next shipment as well, with some buyer declaring it excellent.
Tea in India had arrived at world stage