A Leaf from History

tea manufacturing in india by british

The fact that British first brought tea to India has at times baffled me. The points of confusion were:

  • If tea was already being grown in China and had been also consumed and tasted by Dutch, then how could they have possibly ignored India?
  • Dutch had arrived much before Englishmen in India, then why hadn’t they brought tea to India, and supposedly had left the charming Englishmen to do the job.
  • Assam was chosen as the right terrain where Englishmen could grow the tea and make it into a commercial prospect. But Assam and Arunachal already had some tribes who had been spread out in India Myanmar and China, who were cultivating their own tea leaves, hand dried them and used it throughout the year.
  • Areas like Darjeeling had vast forest lands and the Englishmen had developed the mountains as their own pleasure hunt. Tea too was taken to them by the Englishmen. But in Assam, they had discovered that the plant had already existed, so why did they establish the fact that tea was first introduced by them in India?

These questions lead my curiosity to a trail which threw up certain invigorating facts:

What is tea?

“Tea” is anything derived from the Camellia sinensis plant. Anything else, while sometimes called “tea”, is more accurately referred to as an herbal tea or tisane. Tisanes include chamomile, rooibos and fruit teas.

So it’s a leaf which can be dried and used to make refreshing brews. Now if we go by that definition, we have evolved tea to a much greater degree when we introduced the herbal variety where basil, ginger and other fruit extracts added to the flavour. Now, we find numerous references in our scriptures, of concoction prepared from herbs which was used to refresh people as it had medicinal qualities.

A peep into the history:

Tea was produced in China in 2737 B.C. Second emperor of China Shen Nung first said to have discovered leaves with color and medicinal qualities, when it was accidentally blended in his hot cup of water.

In 593 CE, Buddhism and tea both were taken to Japan. Now Buddhism itself was brought to China during 121BCE by great Han of Han dynasty. The emissaries were two Indian monks Dharmaratna and Kasyapa Matanga. Hence, the advent of tea either from China to India or from India to China was much earlier than perceived by the historians as we will see in the concepts discussed here, later.

On the other hand, the first mention that we find of tea in European history is as late as 1594, in the book ‘Delle Navigtioni et Viaggi’ where venetian traveler Giambattista Ramusio mentions the magical potion called ‘Cha’ which increases the life span of the Asian men. He was travelling back from China.

First recorded shipment of tea to Europe was in1607 when Dutch East India Company moved a cargo of tea from Macao to Java. In1610 Dutch merchants began marketing tea and in 1657 Englishmen tasted their first sip in London, England at Garaway’s coffee house.

So it is evident that tea was already popularly used in China, when Europeans had just begun their adventure with the brew. The Buddhist monks were also in the habit of drinking tea, so that could have possibly travelled from India to China also. Hence, it was not really the Englishmen who had introduced us to ‘Cha’ or ‘tea’ as we popularly call it today.

Now the interesting bit:

In India we find the mention of some leaves which are said to have some medicinal qualities. The leaves were to be boiled in the water and consumed. A herbal tea? In some places we also find the mention of Sanjeevani potion, a medicinal drink which could rejuvenate men.

There are some documents, which claim that it was the Portuguese who had taken tea plants and leaves from India to China in 16th century. Now this again is highly debatable as we have reasons to believe that tea was already in use in Asia, especially in China.

Concept 1

There are two tribes named Singhpho/ Jingpho and Khamti, who are spread all over India China and Myanmar. In India, the district of Lohit and Changlang in Arunachal Pradesh, in Assam- Tinsukia, Sivsagar, Jorhat and Golaghat and East Siang District have people from these tribes spread all over. These tribes have been drinking tea in its finest form i.e. handpicked, dried and blended, since the 12th century, much before British East India Company thought of doing away with the Chinese monopoly in tea and popularizing the Indian brand in 19th century.

The tribes grow tea, dry them in sun and expose them to the night dew for three days and nights. The leaves are then placed in a hollow tube of a bamboo. The bamboo cylinder is then kept in the smoke of the fire and later stored and used for years. So tea was already being used in Indian soil since 12th century.

Concept 2

There is a famous tea plant in China called ‘Gan Lu’. The name means ‘sweet dew’. It is a very famous tea which has a golden brew. Legend has it that the Gan Lu tea plant was first cultivated by legendary Buddhist monk Wu Li Zhan. During his travails in India during 25-221 CE, to pursue his Buddhist studies. He had experienced the taste of this special tea and had taken this plant to China. These were planted in Meng Mountain in Shezwan.

The monk had also travelled to Arunachal and subsequently had returned to China. This was the latter period of Han dynasty.

Rings a bell? Well, we have all the information and more. We just need to string up the facts. Interesting isn’t it?

The brew that energizes all was in the Indian subcontinent long before the advent of European traders, who had only groomed their tea drinking habits in late 16th century. The popularity and the booming trade in tea can definitely be credited to the Europeans. What we considered mundane, maybe they just knew it’s worth.

Share this post