It was in the year 2016, when images of Arshad Khan, the quintessential blue-eyed Chaiwallah of Pakistan became the embodiment of our undying love for Chai and Chaiwallahs. Tea-drinking’s latest poster boy joined a long line of icons in a world where this beverage is the most consumed only after water. Pakistanis go through around 172,911 tonnes of the stuff every year, making it one of the top seven countries where demand shows no signs of slowing down.
Globally, six billion cups are drunk every day with China the biggest producer and drinker of tea. It is followed by India which accounts for approximately 19% of global consumption. This makes the story of tea perhaps one of the most successful ones in the world of colonial commerce.
Chai patti or tea leaves are a staple in South Asian kitchens, but they originated elsewhere. Tea or Camellia Sinensis originated in the southern Himalayan region of north-east India and Burma, flourished in China, and was re-introduced to the Indian subcontinent by the British who acquired this habit from the Dutch. It was the Dutch merchants who brought the first shipment of tea to Europe from Japan in 1610, and later to New Amsterdam (now known as New York).
It was the East India Company, however, which set up the first tea plantations in Assam and Darjeeling in India in the latter half of the 19th century. That would mean that in a short span of a century and a half, the popularity of tea as a drink reached its pinnacle in South Asia. But how did South Asians turn into the world’s most prolific tea drinkers by the middle of the 20th century? We know that in 1606 the Dutch were the first to trade tea with the Chinese and became the main importers of tea to Europe until the British took over from them in 1678. Initially the Europeans used tea as a medicinal herb for common ailments but then as a stimulating drink. In England, in the beginning tea was considered an elite and luxury commodity. It was only by the 19th century, that it became part of the English national identity, appearing in the middle- and lower-class homes as a national beverage.
Chai, cha, te
According to Meyer, Konversations-Lexikon, the first mention of tea in Europe came via the Portuguese in 1559 under the name Cha. The English borrowed the word ‘tea’ from the Dutch ‘thee’ (tea) and they had, in turn, taken it from ‘tê’ of Hokkien-speaking Chinese merchants in Bantam (Java, Indonesia). The word Chai / Chay has its origin in Sinitic (Old Chinese) ‘Cha’, which was absorbed into Hindi, Urdu, and other South Asian languages from Persian.
There is a common belief that tea became a social beverage in the English royal court in 1622 when the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza, a known a ‘tea addict’, married King Charles II of England. But in The Tale of Tea, George Van Driem counters this; it was the Dutch tea traders who were instrumental in introducing tea to the English, and not the Portuguese princess.
The tradition of drinking tea with milk was introduced to England from France in the mid-17th century, since the taking of tea was already quite fashionable amongst the Parisian elite. Cardinal Jules Mazarin (1602-1661), who served as the chief minister to King Louis XIV from 1642 to1661, used tea to relieve his gout.
Long before the introduction of Chai in South Asia, people probably drank butter milk (Chāch), yogurt drink (Lassi) in the summers and warm milk in the winters. Pān (betel leaf with areca nut), Surti / Khaini (dry leaf tobacco), Hookah (smoking pipe) and Bidi (rolled smoking tobacco) were the consumables over which social interaction took place for many centuries.
In 1834, the British East India Company lost its monopoly of trade in China. As a result, they created the first tea plantations outside of China in India in 1839, using the Camellia Assamica variety. This laid the groundwork for the establishment of a tea culture in South Asia. In the mid-19th century the famous Darjeeling tea was known in the Anglophone world as Darlington Tea. Cachār Tea or Assam Tea was known as Catcher Tea. It was obvious that geographical correctness was not a matter of concern for imperial masters.
This 1892 advertisement of Lipton Tea with a tea-drinking woman shows a bejewelled plantation worker enjoying a cup, in an attempt to create the image of Lipton as a moral business.
It would take a while for it to catch on in the market where it was produced. For example, in a 2003 Bengali film Chokher Bāli, based on a Rabindranath Tagore novel set in the late 19th century, a Bengali Hindu widow Binodini exhorts other widows of the house to drink tea, which they consider as a sinful act for widows, implying that tea drinking was still a taboo in British India, and tea was considered an import of the foreigners.
The tea grown in Assam and Darjeeling and other hilly areas was exclusively exported to western markets. At the same time a small class of Anglophile native elites and Bābus (bureaucrats) started indulging in this English ritual of tea drinking as a way of socializing. As Philip Lutgendorf mentions in his “Making tea in India” severe worldwide economic downturn in the 1930s, The Great Depression, forced British and Dutch tea companies to start looking for newer markets for tea produced in their plantations in India, Ceylon, and Netherlands East Indies.
Thus in 1935, the International Tea Market Expansion Board was formed. It was a body whose sole purpose was to promote global consumption of British and Dutch colonial teas. A 1936 calendar for Jacob Co. Biscuits, Ireland, a modern woman is seen pouring tea, apparently suggesting the intricate relationship between tea-drinking and modernism.
The board started a sustained campaigned to publicise the merits of drinking tea in India and other parts of the British Commonwealth, by organising free tea vans, demonstrations to prepare tea the British way, or publishing tea promotion materials in native languages such as Hindi, Bengali, Urdu, Tamil, Sinhala, Marathi.
Ironically Chai was not considered a healthy drink as late as the 1940s. In 1942, Mahatma Gandhi wrote a booklet named ārōgya nī cāvī (Key to Health) in Gujarati (also translated in Hindustani as ārōgya kī kunjī and as Key to Health in English). In it, Gandhi talks about the habit of drinking tea, coffee and cocoa and their alleged ill effects on the human body. He confesses he even had a history of indulgence but then encourages complete abandonment of this habit for better health. He goes on to add that the tea leaves contain tannins which are harmful to the body. Tannin is generally used in tanneries to harden leather. When taken internally it produces a similar effect upon the mucous lining of the stomach and intestine. This impairs digestion and cause dyspepsia. It is said that in England innumerable women suffer from various aliments on account of their habit of drinking tea which contains tannin.
Despite Gandhi’s anti-tea pronouncements on health grounds and his sympathy for the plight of exploited tea plantation workers (he compared tea to the blood of the workers), the influence of the tea companies and the later governments succeeded in promoting tea drinking in the South Asian domestic market. As a result, by the 1970s, South Asia became one of the biggest producers and consumers of tea. This was fuelled by aggressive marketing and promotion of tea as a drink full of qualities, such as stimulating, refreshing, energising, satisfying and beneficial socially. A print advertisement for Lipton Tiger Tea from the 1980s promotes tea for vigour, strength and bravery. A South Asian tea drinker is shown with a handlebar mustache confronting a wild tiger with a teacup in his hand. I do not remember my grandmother or my great grandfather craving tea. It is not that they did not drink it, but it was still not a habit for them. In their minds, perhaps tea was still an addiction of the ruling British who enjoyed this nashā (intoxication). But it was a different story with my own parents who enjoyed plentiful cups of chai, spiced milk tea, all their lives. They drank it ritually almost three or four times a day. I remember Rādhey Tea Shop, in Agra which did brisk business solely by selling chai, biscuits, some savouries, and cigarettes all year round. The khokha, dhaba or tea stall is so ubiquitous in South Asia that it is hard to ever imagine a time when they did not exist. It is as if the Arshad Khans have been making tea for centuries.
Abhishek Avtans teaches Indic languages and linguistics at Leiden University (the Netherlands). He tweets at @avtansa