Tea: History revisited

tea 4

Whenever we discuss the history of tea, people talk about how Englishmen brought it to India. Then they discuss that Emperor Shen Nung in 2737 BC had been the one to bring tea into Chinese culture after he discovered the benefits of tea by accident. Then apparently, it took a long route through 3 different continents and till the year 1780, to reach India. The fact that British had first introduced tea into India, has at times baffled me. The points of confusion were:

  • If tea was already grown in China and had been also consumed and tasted by the visiting Dutch in 1602, then how could they have possibly ignored India? Chinese travelers and Dutch companies had frequented India before British occupied  India. Dutch came to India in 1605 and lasted till 1805.They had tasted green tea in Japan in 1610, which was originally introduced to the Japanese emperor by Chinese monks. Then why and how did neither Dutchmen or Chinese monks ever introduce tea in India before 1837, which was the year when Englishmen did the honors here, of introducing tea.
  • From China, Fa Hien had visited India first (399 -413AD) and after that, Hiuen Tsang had spent 14 years (630-644 AD) in King Harshavardhan’s capital Kanauj after travelling through the Himalayas. By 618 A.D tea had become most popular drink in China and had also shared the knowledge with Japan. Hence why did the travelers from China never bring it to India in their cultural exchange? Why wait for the Englishmen?
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  • Assam was chosen as the right terrain where Englishmen could grow tea and turn it into a commercial prospect. But Assam and Arunachal already had some tribes who were spread across India, Myanmar and China. They were already cultivating their own tea leaves, hand-picked and dried. They used the leaves throughout the year to make the refreshing concoction. This was much before the first experiments of planting tea in India, in 1780 by the emissaries of East India Company.

“This realization that tea was indeed turning into a great commercial prospect, led to a sustained effort by the British to understand tea production and cultivate the crop in India. In early 1774, Warren Hastings, then Governor-General of Bengal, sent a few select samples of tea seeds from China to his British emissary in Bhutan – George Bogle – for planting. Noted English botanist Sir John Banks was asked to make notes on tea in 1776, and he concluded that the British must undertake tea cultivation in India. Colonel Robert Kyd from the army regiment of the British East India Company also tried to cultivate Chinese seeds at the botanical garden that he had founded (now named Indian Botanical Garden at Howrah in present day Kolkata) in 1780. Research by : India Brand Equity Foundation

  • Areas like Darjeeling had vast forest lands and the Englishmen had developed the mountains as their own pleasure hunt. Tea too was taken to the mountains by the Englishmen. But when they visited Assam they discovered that the plant had already existed and were used regularly, so why did they establish the fact that tea was first introduced by them in India and not declare that the famous beverage always existed and they just took it up commercially in 1823 for trade benefits?

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 were added to enhance the flavor. 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:  


Half truths of History


Emperor Shen Nung of China who discovered the magic of tea.

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

In 593 CE, Buddhism and tea both were taken to Japan. Now Buddhism itself was brought to China during 121BC by ‘the great Han’ of Han dynasty. The emissaries were two Indian monks Dharmaratna and Kasyapa Matanga. Hence 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.

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 in 1607 when Dutch East India Company moved a cargo of tea from Macao to Java. In 1610 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 traveled 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.

dsc_0540 the-cup-that-cheers

Now the interesting bit:8iebb9n8t

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 1magnifying-glass

There are two tribes named Singhpho/ Jingpho  and Khamti, who are spread  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 hand-blended, since 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. Then leaves are placed in a hollow tube of a bamboo. The bamboo cylinder is then kept in the smoke of the fire and then it is stored and used for years. So tea was already being used in Indian soil since 12th century.

Concept 2.    magnifying-glass

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 AD, 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. Remember the Chinese had already discovered tea in 2737 BC? But it did not come to common use till 350 AD. The monks had taken a sample of tea (as used now) to popularize it in China, proving that it already existed in India around the time they had added the concept to the dictionary.

The monks had also traveled to Arunachal and subsequently they had returned to China, with the tea leaves maybe?This was in the latter half of Han dynasty’s rule in China.

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 Indian subcontinent long before the advent of European traders, who had only groomed their tea drinking habits in late 16th century. If epics are to be taken as historical records, then Hanuman looked for Sanjeevani in 12209 BCE (researched). The leaves of this tree rejuvenated and had magical qualities. It was boiled in water and given to Rama.

Musing thoughts: Sanjeevani or Camellia Sinesis? Did it start in India back then? The tribes of Assam and Arunachal definitely highlights the possibility of tea being grown in India long before the English even knew about it, let alone the story of them being the first people to grow tea. But  the popularity and the booming trade in tea can be credited to the Europeans.  What we valued maybe they just knew it’s worth and commercially gained from the leaves that refreshed all: Tea.

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1 Response to Tea: History revisited

  1. debapriyo says:

    excellent research and unique effort

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