Tea is a way of life across most of India, cutting across income, education, and social classes. This country with a land area 1/3 the size of the United States and a population 4 times greater consumes triple the amount of tea per person as America. In fact, widespread tea consumption in India is a relatively recent trend that is forecast to increase significantly in coming years.
Indian tea consumption likely has a very long history dating back thousands of years. Although commercial production of Indian tea only dates back a few hundred years, its consumption has been documented as far back as 750 BCE. Stories in the region suggest that a number of tribes in the region consumed tea well before the documented evidence, perhaps even referring to it as “soma”. More recent research suggests that the Camellia sinensis plant actually developed in the Mongolia region of China and then migrated along along river and trade routes to Assam and elsewhere. Given the stories and the emerging evidence from genetic profiling of tea, it is very likely that tea has been cultivated and consumed in the region for thousands of years.
The history of tea, from India to China and Japan, is inseparable from Buddhism, which got its start in India before migrating to China, Japan, and elsewhere. It is Buddhist monks who are credited with bringing tea to Japan from China. It is said that Buddhist monks have used tea for centuries as a means to maintain alertness and focus while meditating for long periods of time. The flow of monks, and with them technology and ideas, throughout Asia likely helped tea get its start in India, just as it had done in Japan.
Arrival of the British and the East India Company
Although tea may well have been consumed in India for thousands of years, it is the arrival of the British and other westerners which began written record and significant increases in tea production and consumption in India. While India is the second largest tea producer in the world today it was the western addiction to tea and a desire for cheaper sources which brought tea production to India. Initially tea plants were brought from China, but the discovery of tea growing in Assam, triggered the explosion of the Indian tea industry. The assamica variety of tea, it turned out, was much better suited to the region than the Chinese sinensis variety growing at higher elevations and colder climates.
Indian tea production grew significantly under the British who employed native people to work in the fields, as servants and as cooks. It was only natural that, over time, customs and cultural ideas would be exchanged, leading to a growing thirst for tea among all classes, not simply the wealthy British. It is also worth noting that tea wasn’t an overnight success in India. The various religions and casts in India each had their own timeline for adopting tea with some quickly adopting tea and others showing aversion to western ideas that took a long time to dwindle. (Roshan)
Classic Indian Tea Experience: Chai Tea
If the Indian tea vendor or chai wallah was unknown in Western cultures, the election of Narendra Modi, supposedly a former chai wallah, to Prime Minister of India has certainly elevated awareness of both chai wallahs and chai. The chai wallah are tea vendors operating small businesses throughout India, keeping their chai boiling to be served in small clay or plastic cups. In particular, they serve a mixture of boiled tea with milk and spices. Origins of chai are somewhat debated, though it has become deeply ingrained in Indian culture since the British began large scale commercial production of tea. Chai wallah are found all over India and serve not only as a place to buy tea but a gathering place for socialization, discussion, and debate.
Indian Tea Culture Today
Today tea is consumed in all corners of India and is often considered a way of life. It is served by small road-side vendors, on trains, and in mills and factories. It has been popularized in literary works, movies, and even politics. Indian tea consumption has been rapidly growing over recent years and India may actually have to start importing tea to meet the demand from its people. India consumed about 718 grams per person as of 2011. This is the equivalent of about 240 cups of tea per person annually at 3 grams per cup. Compare this to America where the consumption for the same period was about 228 grams or 76 cups per person (World Tea News). The amount of tea consumed in India is even more impressive when you consider that there are over 300 million people living below poverty. The number of people living in poverty in India is, incidentally, roughly equivalent to the entire population of the United States. As the population continues to expand and reductions in poverty continue, the consumption of tea is likely to substantially increase over the coming years.
World Tea News, India’s Domestic Consumption, February 3, 2014, http://www.worldteanews.com/news/indias-domestic-consumption
World Tea News, Per Capita Tea, January 24, 2014, http://www.worldteanews.com/news/per-capita-tea
Formation and Expansion of Tea Culture in India, by Gurung Roshan, Kansai University, http://kuir.jm.kansai-u.ac.jp/dspace/bitstream/10112/6140/1/3-10-31-Gurung%20Roshan.pdf