When Indians Did Not Care About Tea For Centuries
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It might come as a huge surprise to us that India was not a tea-drinking country until the 20th century. Yup, that late. There is an enduring assumption that Britain’s love for tea began thanks to Indian subjects, but in fact, it is the other way around. Indians had ignored tea for centuries. The British, in what can only be described as an aggressive marketing campaign, introduced tea in India, and the rest is economic and social history. India is now the world’s second-largest producer of tea. But even a hundred years ago, the suggestion that India would be a tea powerhouse would have been laughable.

Tea consumption began in China in the 4th century, and then it was brought to Japan in the 6th–8th centuries, where eventually it became part of their social customs. It also made its way to Tibet and the Himalayan areas in the north of India, where it was mixed with butter and consumed as a kind of soup. In the eastern corners of India, in Assam, Burma, and Thailand, the hill tribes preferred to chew the steamed and fermented tea leaves. Even though the countries neighboring India were tea drinkers (or chewers), India itself was unmoved by the appeal of tea.

Coffee and coffee houses did have a presence, even if not large or pervasive. A young German traveler (Mandelslo) noted that amirs(Mughal noblemen) gathered in coffee houses to listen to poetry, chat with people, and just people-watch. Chandni Chowk, for example, did have coffee houses. In a previous piece, we discussed how coffee came to be in India, including the legend of Baba Budan, who is believed to have smuggled seven beans from Arabia and planted them in India. Besides, Arab Moplah traders did introduce coffee drinking in the southwestern parts of India. But coffee-drinking was limited to wealthy Muslims and did not quite catch the general population’s attention.

What were the Indians drinking then? Water. Edward Terry, a chaplain, noted that the drink the Indians preferred was simply water. Coming in at second place was buttermilk. And if things needed to get spicy, then perhaps arrack or toddy. It was not as though tea was unknown in India. Not at all. In fact, several travelers in their accounts speak of tea’s existence and use. But it was very much a medicinal concoction.

Tea as medicine was a fairly prevalent notion back then. Initially, monks in China, and later in Japan, used tea as a medicinal remedy for headaches, joint pains, and to improve meditation. However, it soon became a popular daily drink among the masses. Similarly, other nations that began drinking tea first used it as a form of medicine. The Dutch in India would blend it with spices, sugar, or preserved lemons, and even sometimes a splash of arrack, to make a concoction to treat headaches, gallstones, bellyaches, and intestinal spasms ("Griping in the Guts" and "Twistings of the Bowel"). Mandelslo reported that he was restored from high-grade fever and profuse bleeding due to the tea he drank while on an English vessel crossing the Persian Gulf to Surat. Even in Britain, tea began its life as a herbal remedy for the wealthy elite. In the majority of places, tea went from being a medicinal cure to becoming a staple in the kitchen cupboard. India, however, still held the perception of tea as a herbal remedy, and the British were required to bring their own tea leaves when they ventured out into the Indian countryside since it was impossible to purchase it there. Sounds unbelievable, doesn’t it? India without chai now seems like science fiction.

Tea’s ubiquity in India was entirely a British project. By the end of the 18th century, tea had become the drink du jour among the British. And they procured it entirely from China. Of the £72 million worth of trade that happened with China between 1811 and 1819, 70 million was tea alone! Tea was an alternative to the sweet wine aristocratic ladies would consume in the afternoons with their biscuits. It also gave them a chance to show off their delicate porcelain bowls. Toward the late 1820s, the British East India Company was anxious that their control over the China trade might be taken away, which ended up happening in 1833. So, they were especially motivated to find alternative regions to procure tea from. Besides, Chinese reliance "on small householders, who grew tea on their tiny plots of land, was a haphazard, labor-intensive, and unreliable way of producing a commodity that had become vital to the British," as historian Lizzie Collingham notes. It was then that Lt. Andrew Charlton of the Assam Light Infantry, stationed in Sadiya, persuaded the authorities in Calcutta to investigate the possibility of growing tea in India. (Although there were claims by other officers that it was they who noticed that the locals in Assam were brewing a concoction that looked very much like tea.) Charlton, however, did receive a medal for discovering tea in India! Storm in a teacup, indeed.

The British-run Indian Tea Association then launched an intense campaign to convert wealthy Indians into tea drinkers. And boy, did they succeed. More on this later.

Until then, enjoy your cup of chai. Dunk a biskoot. Because, why not?