A Brief History of Tea

    by Mira Manek

    ‘If you are cold, tea will warm you; if you are too heated, it will cool you; if you are depressed, it will cheer you; if you are excited, it will calm you.’

    – William E. Gladstone (1809–98)

    Despite its status as one of the most ubiquitous drinks consumed by Indians, chai as we know it today was virtually non-existent in India before the 1900s. So, if Indians only started drinking tea around 120 years ago, and as we’ll see, added spices and milk to the brew even later, how did this cherished habit become such an integral feature of the modern-day cultural identity of Indians, both in India and all over the world? And how did India become one of the world’s top-five tea-exporting countries?

    The rise of chai as India’s national drink is a fascinating story and linked closely with India’s identity. It is steeped in India’s colonial past, in the Empire, and fuelled by the British obsession with tea, which started as an upper-class luxury but slowly trickled down to the middle and working classes. As we’ll discover, the switch to widespread recreational tea-drinking in India came about under the rule of the British. But let’s begin at the – quite mysterious – beginning.


    Ancient myths and theories

    We know that the Chinese had been drinking tea for over 2,000 years before it became sought after worldwide. There are many myths surrounding the discovery of the tea plant, but the most popular focus on the Chinese emperor Shennong, said to have ruled around 2700 Bce. He was venerated as the Father of Chinese medicine and, like all ancient Chinese emperors, considered divine. Legend has it that Shennong was drinking boiling water one day when leaves from a nearby tree blew into his pot, and the scent of the resulting brew intrigued him. When he drank it, he was amazed by its wonderful taste and restorative properties. And that is how ‘cha’ came to be, according to Chinese lore.

    In Japanese culture it’s said that tea was first discovered by Bodhidharma, the monk who founded the spiritual tradition in China that later spread to Japan and became Zen Buddhism. In one version of the story, during the fifth year of a seven- year sleepless meditation, Bodhidharma started to feel sleepy. Noticing a nearby bush, he plucked a few leaves and chewed them, and found his sleepiness disappeared. That bush was a wild tea plant. In another version, Bodhidharma is said to have removed his own eyelids to remain awake during meditation, and a tea plant began to grow where his eyelids landed. Teaism (tea-making and tea-drinking) took on deep religious significance in the fifteenth century, with the tea-room as the most important building, set apart from the house in a garden, where tea ceremonies were held.

    Tea is now so inherently a part of cultural life in Japan that is difficult for the Japanese to conceive of a time with no tea in the temple gardens in Japan.

    Indian theories date the discovery of tea back to the epic Hindu text the Ramayana, the events of which are said to have happened some 7,000 years ago. In one episode, Lakshman, younger brother of Lord Rama, is attacked and injured. The monkey god Hanuman seeks out a special mountain plant called Sanjeevani booti and flies back with it in one hand to save Lord Lakshman’s life. It has been suggested that this shrub seems akin to the tea plant Camellia sinensis.

    Another suggestion, made by Frederick R. Dannaway in the essay ‘Tea as Soma’ is that the Soma referred to many times in Indian sacred texts the Rigveda and Bhagavad Gita, a medicinal herb and divine elixir invoking a visionary state, was in fact tea. The word ‘soma’ first appeared around 3,500 years ago, praising the psychedelically induced states of the drink, although other writers have suggested that the word could refer to psychedelic mushrooms or even cannabis.


    Early history

    Whatever its mythical origins, historical records indicate that tea has been grown in India since at least 750 Bce, in the native tea plantations of the Assam jungles, although it was used medicinally and as a cooking ingredient rather than as a beverage. A tenth-century Sanskrit medical text from Assam called Nidana (The Science of Diagnosis), mentions leaves called ‘shamapatra’ from which a drink called ‘shamapani’ was made, which is thought to be the first mention of tea in India. The earliest tea-drinkers – the Singhpo and Khamti tribes of Assam – used tea as medicine, believing that a cup of brewed tea after every meal aids digestion. Hundreds of years later, the Dutch explorer Jan Huyghen von Linschoten, who visited Assam in 1538, noted that tribal people would prepare tea leaves with garlic and oil as a vegetable dish. Another few hundred years passed before records show the Singhpo chief Bisa Gaum met with Scottish merchant Robert Bruce in 1823 to explore the potential of tea. However, the Assam tea plant was so different to the Chinese plant that it took several years for the British to recognise it as tea. We’ll explore more of this history on pages 27 to 33. According to contemporary historian Lu Yu, whose book on tea, Ch’a Ching (The Classic of Tea), appeared around 780 ce, the use of tea had become so extensive in China by the eighth century that it was taxed. A huge trade in ‘bricks of tea’ grew up along the Silk Road, a network of important trading and caravan routes that wove across the mountains and deserts, linking China with the Far East, Central Asia, India, the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Over time, tea houses began to appear across large cities along the routes, making tea more accessible outside of elite society. According to historians Alan and Iris McFarlane, by about the twelfth century, these ‘tea bricks’ were so ubiquitous that they became the preferred currency in many parts of Central Asia. During the Ming dynasty (1368–1644 ce) tea-wares became a major art form, and these ceramics were exported as luxury trade items along the Silk Road.

    Tea spread slowly from Asia to Europe, and arrived in Venice around 1560 ce. It was the Portuguese and Dutch traders who first imported tea further into Europe with regular shipments. By the end of the eighteenth century, tea-drinking was established more widely across the world.


    Excerpted with permission from The Book of Chai by Mira Manek, published by Hachette, 2024.

    Mira Manek is an author, wellness coach and expert, and has her own chai brand. Her third book, The Book of Chai, follows on from the success of her first two books, bestselling cookbook Saffron Soul and a book on Ayurveda and happiness called Prajna. Mira was born and raised in London, where she grew up in a large joint family with her grandparents, strongly rooted in their Indian heritage. She grew up speaking Gujarati, learned Sanskrit at school and has travelled extensively in India, inspiring her passion for Indian philosophy and spirituality, chai and chaiwalas, Indian food and spices, and especially Ayurveda.

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