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History of Tea

Tea, the world’s second most consumed beverage after water, has a complex history, deeply rooted in Chinese culture. There are numerous legends and tales about its origins, centered around the first cup of tea that was ever brewed. The best known among these is the story of Emperor Shen Nung from China, who is believed to have sipped on tea by chance, when strong winds channelled a few tea leaves into a pot of boiling water. Some legends have it that tea was first consumed in China between 1500 BC-1046 BC when the Shang Dynasty discovered it as a medicated drink. The true facts about the origins of tea may never be verified. However, its roots in Asian culture remain strong, making it a staple drink in the region till date.


Tea and its Chinese origins

  • Tea was discovered between the 30th and 21st century BC. Initially, tea was used for its medicinal properties and the fresh leaves were chewed on for their refreshing and energising effects. Its was much later that tea leaves were brewed to make an infusion.

  • Between 722 and 221 BC, the Chinese began to brew these leaves, sometimes adding other healthy ingredients such as ginger and orange peel. At this points, the infusion was consumed by mixing with rice to prepare a meal.

  • This gradually evolved to be a beverage, often offered to noble lords and high ranking officials as a refreshing drink. Varieties of tea were soon distinguishable, and tea was presented as gifts, with rare varieties presented to emperors. As tea became a coveted trade item, the commercial practice of trading in tea began.

  • Between 420 and 589 BC, tea became embedded in Chinese traditions. Interest grew around the methods of cultivation, and its consumption rapidly increased.

  • Several tea shrubs were planted between 618 and 907 BC by the Tang Dynasty. At this point, Japanese monks carried seeds with them as they travelled back to Japan. Thus tea began to spread overseas.

  • Scented varieties of tea were explored in the years that followed, between 960 and 1279 BC. This included Wu Yi Tea in the Fujian Province of China.

  • By 1271 BC, machines were used in the production of tea, even though commoners prefered loose tea for brewing. The introduction of machinery marked a significant development in crafting methods. Tuocha and Tea Cakes were still given to the lords in exchange for favours as these were prestigious items worthy of presenting to royalty.

  • During the rule of the Ming dynasty, roasting of tea leaves became popular. In the years that followed, leaves were rolled into strips, and loose tea leaves were used to make drinks.

  • Between 1636 and 1911 BC, the Qing dynasty rules over China. By this time, tea had become a part of people’s lifestyle, and the popularity of varieties of tea such as Green Tea, Black Tea, Oolong Tea, Yellow Tea, etc. had spread. Tea was instrumental in bring foreign trade to China, as it was gradually exported across the world.

An overview of the Indian tea industry

Tea is believed to have been brought to India centuries ago through the ‘silk route’ via caravans that travelled to Europe from China. The Camellia Sinensis plant is in fact native to India, but its value and use was not recognized until the British attempted to cultivate plants from China. Prior to the British, tea was incorporated into the diet of native Indians, primarily for its medicinal benefits. Its initial uses were in the preparation of soups and vegetarian dishes, far from today’s famous ‘chai’ preparation. Today, chai is prepared using black tea, which is sweetened with sugar and milk and flavoured with spices such as ginger and cardamom.

The British introduced the plant to India, primarily to put an end to China’s monopoly on the cultivation. Indian soil was perfect for its cultivation, and the hills of Assam and Darjeeling were used for large scale production. For the British, it took nearly 14 years to produce tea that was as good as the Chinese varieties. Today, India remains one of the largest producers of tea in the world.

The native Indian tea species


As the British were attempting to grow tea by smuggling the seeds into their colonies to end the Chinese monopoly over its cultivation, scotsman Robert Bruce discovered a native species of the Camellia Sinensis plant. He came across it through the Singpho tribe, who would drinking an infusion similar to the tea consumed in China. When samples of this native species were analyzed, it was found to be a variety of the plant grown in China, which was Assamica after the region in which it was found.

Indian soil was found to be unsuitable for the cultivation of the seeds smuggled into the country from China. Thus, interest grew around the cultivation of the newly discovered Assamica variant. After numerous trials, the first commercial tea plantation let by the British was set up in the year 1837 in a region named Chabua in Assam.

By 1840, the tea industry began to take shape in India. Since the soil around Assam was found to be unsuitable for growing the varieties of tea from China, attempts were made to cultivate these plants in higher elevated areas such as Darjeeling and Kangra. These attempts were successful, and tea cultivation officially began in Darjeeling in 1841.

The Indian tea industry today

Even after the British left the country, the tea industry in India continues to flourish. There are a large number of tea gardens in Assam, Darjeeling and in the Nilgiris. The Tea Act of 1953 contains a system of certifying authentic tea from these regions. Interestingly, the Geographical Indications of Good Act of 1999 has the words ‘Darjeeling logo’, ‘Darjeeling’, ‘Nilgiri logo’ and ‘Assam logo’ registered for teas from the respective regions.

In a diverse country such as India, a gradual evolution has taken place in the tea drinking styles across regions, with regional variants of chai evolving based on flavour preferences in different states. However, the chaiwallas of India continue to prepare the signature Indian chai for hundreds of working men and women irrespective of class and regional divides, while high-end gourmet tea rooms serve fine teas to those who want a taste of a gourmet tea drinking experience.

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