The Fascinating History of Masala Chai

"Spices were so important at one time, that when denied, some people decided to sail out in the ocean, even when earth was widely believed to be flat"
                                                                             -Trevor Noah at a Netflix special
In India, chai is more than just a cup of tea to kick start the day – the thick sweet drink is an integral part of the rhythm of life. Everything, from neighbourly gossip to intense political discussions happens over a cup of tea. One of the oldest drinks in history, chai is also India’s most popular drink – the country consumes a whopping 837,000 tonnes of tea every year!
Given how ubiquitous a cup of chai is across India, and how chai drinking transcends all boundaries, it come as a surprise that not many Indians know about the fascinating history of tea in India.

Like the history of any famous beverage, the origins of chai are steeped in legend and contradictory accounts. In ancient India, chai was not the term used for the tea we know today, but for a healing concoction made by brewing herbs and spices, much like the traditional kada. In fact, the earliest chai did not contain any tea leaves, and its preparation methods differed according to the seasons and regions, depending upon the locally available ingredients.

However, there is a slight difference between a chai and kada – while chai uses herbs and spices associated more with aroma, kada uses herbs, leaves and flowers mainly for their medicinal properties. Also, chai is brewed for a lesser time than kada. There are also many other versions of the story of how the first cup of tea came about in India.

One story goes that chai was developed by accident when a Buddhist monk on his way to China, observed the local ritual of chewing on a few wild leaves. On feeling rejuvenated, he decided to bring it back to India with him. Interestingly, tea is believed to have been first discovered by mistake 5000 years ago when the Emperor of China found tea leaves in his pot of boiling water. Known for his scientific curiosity, he proceeded to taste the drink and loved it. Before long, tea became a staple of Chinese culture.

Another legend has it that it was a king in ancient India (most likely Harshavardhana, under whose patronage Nalanda University reached its zenith) who developed chai to remain alert during long court hours. Some historians also believe that Emperor Ashoka too had made it a part of his various peace treaties and court culture, a habit that eventually percolated down to common people.

Early on, masala chai was brewed with a variety of aromatic spices and was prepared in many different ways. It was served both cold and hot, which might come as a surprise today considering the contemporary masala chai is a tea drink that is served pipping hot. Back then, it was also used as a remedy for mild ailments and did not contain any tea leaves, and was caffeine-free.
It may come as a surprise to many that black tea leaves were only introduced to masala chai in 1835 by the British. Following this, masala chai was promoted across India by the Indian Tea Association, which at the time was owned by the British. Back then, tea exports from India were among the top exports along side indigo, spices and herbs. Yet, tea consumption across the country was relatively low, prompting the Association to try to popularise tea as a drink. As a result of this, the Association encouraged factory, textiles mills and mines to introduce tea breaks for their workers, where they sold the tea at cheap prices.

Viceroy Curzon introduced the Tea Cess Bill in 1903 to tax the Indian trade, raise a fund and promote marketing.

Over the previous two decades China's share of the London tea market had fallen from 70% to 10%, replaced mostly by India's and Ceylon's.

By 1900, tea was a large part of British household spending, but the market, although the largest, was starting to go flat.

Board with tea advertisementImage captionAdvertisement for tea from the 1930s

The Indian Tea Association, an industry group made up of British companies, turned to the second largest market, the US - the former colony that 150 years earlier had used the opposition to rising tea taxes as a rallying cry for independence.

When the US economy and London tea prices crashed at the end of the 1920s, the association then looked towards the Indian market.

By then the brew was enjoyed by not just the Singphos and Khamtis, the two Burmese-origin tribes in India's hilly north-east that had enjoyed tea for centuries.

It had become a drink for the Indian upper and middle classes in Calcutta, the colonial capital that had become the world's largest tea port.

Eventually, the popularity of masala chai grew in India. Across the country chaiwallas (tea shop1 owners) in railway stations began to produce the beverage and sold them to travelers and other passing customers. Chaiwallas brewed masala chai in large quantities, serving the beverage in clay pots called kullhads. Each station would have several such chaiwallas, eagerly serving tired travelers who had been exhausted by their long journeys. Soon enough, these small chai stalls became important social meeting points, where men socialized with one another and discussed their daily affairs.

The fact that chai is now not just a beverage, but woven into the fabric of this nation is hard to dispute. Today, no matter where you are in India, you’re probably not very far from a chai stall, little roadside shacks that go by different names in different parts of the country. Tea sold at these humble outlets is often the cheapest, the most delicious and the ideal refreshment in every kind of weather. And it is impossible to deny that “chai…chai-garam” has woken up several billion more Indians on Indian Railways than “coffee-nescoffee” ever could.

tea-anyone

So the next time you reach sleepily for your morning cup, or share a version of the brew with your colleague or or even stock up on the biscuits you love dunking in your favourite beverage, remember it isn’t just chai you are consuming – it is history, diversity and popular culture, all amalgamated into one cup!

Leave a comment