The Tea Story


For a large number of Indians, a usual day begins with a cup of tea. Even outside of their homes, a cup of tea is not difficult to find as a tea stall is always just around the corner. While on holidays, especially on a hill station, the warmth of tea is always welcome. Back at home, guests are served a cup of tea together with some snacks. And how can we forget the constant call of chai chai on railway platforms and trains? It is one of the most familiar sounds there.

Tea is such an integral part of our daily lives that a day without it seems impossible. It is therefore a little surprising for those who do not know that tea drinking was not a part of Indian culture to begin with. It is a pretty recent affair, just a little more than a century old. So here’s a quick Tea Story.

Early Tea Cultivation and Its Later Expansion

Commercial tea cultivation began in China and from there it spread to the rest of the world. Tea became a social beverage in England after the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza married King Charles II of England in 1662 and brought with her a chest of loose-leaf tea, along with other items, in her dowry. As the tea drinking became a part of the English life, the British imported tea from China in exchange for silver. However, it was quite costly and therefore the British started trading opium grown in Bengal, India in exchange for tea.

As the demand for tea grew, the British wanted to control tea manufacturing. They wanted to grow tea on their own and therefore began growing tea in India. After they lost the monopoly to trade tea with China, their need to grow tea in India became even more important to them. However, their knowledge of tea manufacture was limited. Therefore in 1848, a spy, a botanist named Robert Fortune was sent to China who smuggled tea seeds, the manufacturing technique as well as Chinese tea specialists to India.

Tea Cultivation in India & Its Export

Munnar Tea Factory
Munnar Tea Factory

Now in India, wild tea bushes were already being consumed as a medicinal brew by natives of Assam for a long time but commercial tea cultivation was introduced by the British. In 1778 English botanist Joseph Bank had recommended tea cultivation in India. In 1823, Scottish explorer Robert Bruce, with the help of an Indian Maniram Deewan, found out that native tea plants were grown by the Singhpho tribe in the Upper Brahmaputra Valley. After his death, his brother Charles Alexander Bruce sent the samples to Calcutta for testing. It was found that the samples were a different variety of tea plant in China.

The Assam variety of tea was found to be more suitable for cultivation in India than the Chinese variety (of seeds brought into India) and after years of efforts, the first commercial plantation was established in Chabua in Upper Assam in 1837. In 1838, the first batch of tea grown from the Assam leaves was shipped to London. In between in 1833, as stated before, the English lost the monopoly to trade tea with China thereby making a need to cultivate tea in India even more important. The knowledge brought back by Robert Fortune further helped expand the tea production in India.

Tea Popularity in India

While Britain was extensively consuming tea grown in India, the local population of India was still not used to it. Indians were more used to seasonal drinks or medicinal brews. In the country, only the British population and the high society of the country drank tea.

It took a concerted effort over a period of time to make tea a household beverage. In the early 1900s, especially post the first world war, the tea companies began advertising tea to the local population of the country. Tea stalls came up, free tea samples were distributed, training institutes came up and the ladies of the house were also taught how to make tea.

By 1950s, tea had become extremely popular in the country. However, Indians added their own masala to the beverage. Over the period of time, the consumption of tea grew and became a made it quite a common drink in the country.

Today, India is not only one of the largest manufacturers of tea in the world but also one of the biggest consumers of the product. Apart from Assam and Darjeeling in northeast India, tea is also grown in the Tamil Nadu (like Ooty and Coonoor, etc) and Kerala (Munnar, Waynad) in the south.