In India, Tea is not just a beverage but an integral part of our lives to escape the everyday humdrum of life. From sports to politics, the discussions seem incomplete without a hot cup of tea. But did we ever stop to think about the origin of tea and how it became popular in India?
Legend has it, almost 5000 years back in Ancient China, one day Emperor Shen Nung was sitting under a tree and a few wild leaves blew into his pot of boiling water. Fascinated with the aroma of the resulting brew, he drank some and that is how he came across tea. Since then, China discovered tea first for its medicinal benefits and later as an everyday beverage.
By the mid-17th century, tea was introduced in England by the Portuguese and Dutch traders. Soon the ritual of drinking tea was adopted by the British aristocrats and by the year 1750, they were importing tea worth millions of pounds per year from China. To cut down on this enormous expenditure, the British started experimenting with tea cultivation in India. During this process of experimentation, British colonists found tea plants growing wild in the jungles of North-East Assam around the early 1830s.
History has it that an Assamese merchant, Maniram Dutta Barbhandari Baruah (also known as Maniram Dewan) introduced Scotsman Robert Bruce to the Singpho tribe of Assam who made use of a native variety of Camellia Sinensis. These plants grew wild in this region and were used by them in their daily lives for cooking and as a medicinal drink.
The plant samples were collected, tested and were found to be similar to the Chinese Tea Plant but of a different variety. This variety was named Assamica.
Chinese Tea plants were first introduced in India by Robert Fortune, a Scottish Botanist who spent two and a half years in China working on behalf of the Royal Horticultural Society of London. Around 80,000 tea saplings from China were brought in India and in the early 1840’s Chinese Tea Plants were first tried out in Assam but were found unsuitable for this region. This led to the popularity of the Assamica variant which had thicker leaves compared to its counterpart.
These Chinese Tea saplings were also tested by Dr Archibald Campbell, the first superintendent of Darjeeling. With a keen interest in economic botany, Dr Campbell brought a few tea seeds from the Kumaon region and planted them near his house in the high elevation regions of Darjeeling, on the foothills of the Himalayas. These plants flourished owing to the fresh breeze, acidic soil and cool air in this region. The resulting tea was very different from both the Chinese Tea and the strong Assam Tea. It seemed to have embraced the topography and developed its own unique personality and distinct characteristic. At this time, other families living near the region also planted the seeds and slowly started clearing the area for further tea plantation. By the early 1850s, commercial development of tea plantations bloomed in Darjeeling.
Inspired by the successful outcome of tea cultivation in Assam and Darjeeling, others too tried tea cultivation across the entire foothills of Himalayas and other parts of India – such as Kangra Valley, Kulu, Garhwal, Kumaon and Dehra Dun in the North, and Nilgiris in the South.
Tea consumption in India has evolved in myriad ways over the years. Once considered a drink for the Royals, it has now become the staple of every common man in India. It has become a tradition to welcome guests with a hot steaming cup of tea in almost every Indian household.
Since the end of the British era in India in 1947, the production of tea has increased by 250% with a 40% rise in area under tea cultivation. Today, India accounts for almost 31% of the global tea output with technologically advanced equipment and is proud to be the second-largest producer of tea in the world after China. West Bengal, Assam, Himachal Pradesh and Kerela are the leading states for tea production, with Darjeeling producing the most exclusive teas in the world.