The Fascinating History of Masala Chai
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.
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.
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.
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!