Inside India #14: India’s tea plantations and why there’s no such thing as chai tea

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here

India is the world’s largest consumer of tea and the second largest producer. In many ways, tea has become synonymous with the subcontinent. In recent years, Indian tea companies have acquired foreign tea brands that may be familiar to many, including the likes of Tetley and Typhoo. This simple brew serves as an ongoing reminder of the shared past between Britain and India, though the two nations may disagree violently over the best way to prepare the iconic beverage. (I myself have never been a big drinker, though my parents loved the stuff, preferably in its milky and sugary avatar – “chai”, as it is called on the subcontinent. I do, however, remember, as a child, scouring the bottom of PG Tips boxes for the collectible cards hidden there.) 

How did tea become one of India’s top exports? 

Some varieties of tea are native to the country, but tea also made its way to the subcontinent via the Silk Road from China where it is first purported to have been drunk. The ancient Hindu text, the Ramayana documents tea consumption in India around 700-500 BCE; a thousand years later we have stories of monks using tea as part of their daily ritual.

Commercial production of tea in India began with the British, and efforts by the East India Company to break the Chinese stranglehold over the global tea trade. The native variety of the Camellia sinensis plant was discovered by Scotsman Robert Bruce in 1823 in Assam. The story goes that a local merchant introduced Bruce to the Singpho people who were using the dried leaves of the plant, exposing them to dew before placing them inside a hollow bamboo tube and smoking the whole thing until the tea flavour matured. Bruce sampled the result and found it to be similar to tea from China. Sensing a business opportunity, he began to experiment, his initial forays in the Assam valley later expanded to the mountains of Darjeeling using transplanted Chinese seedlings.

Following years of failure and false starts, tea cultivation in India began to boom, enabling the production of a tea that was equal to, if not better than, its Chinese counterpart. The result was the first commercial plantation in Darjeeling, the Tukvar Tea Estate, established in 1850. 

Wind the clock forward 150 years and, today, there are over one hundred thousand tea gardens across Assam, Nilgiris, and Darjeeling. Thanks to the Tea Act of 1953, teas produced in these regions must be certified to ensure their authenticity. 

Tea drinking in India has evolved in many ways, with every region of the country now making its own variant. Humble roadside chaiwallas pour steaming half-glasses for passers-by, connecting all strata of society, from businessman to beggar. On the other end of the spectrum are the gourmet stores selling the very finest Indian tea, usually for a king’s ransom. 

Although tea continues to reign supreme in India’s rural regions, in the metropolises, the modern coffee shop phenomenon threatens to turn a generation of urban Indians away from the traditional beverage favoured by their parents.

Finally, a word to the wise. Never order “chai tea” on the subcontinent. Chai just means tea (and ordering “tea tea” is just plain silly), albeit the black version with milk, sugar, and, sometimes, a hint of spice, such as cardamom. Oh… and, according to the Tea Board of India Darjeeling, tea is best drunk in porcelain teaware – without any sugar or milk.

My parents would be turning in their graves.

This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here.

One thought on “Inside India #14: India’s tea plantations and why there’s no such thing as chai tea

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s