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Tea- An Underrated British India Love Story (“चाय” एक अमर कथा)

by Travelature Team

“Chai”, Tea in Hindi, is probably the most common underrated want of every traveller. Our readers, mutually look forward to a cup of tea in almost every place they visit or desire to visit. Why did we use the adjective ‘underrated’ with the most loved commodity in India?

This is because ‘tea’ is most commonly available in India. You can reach any point of India and can bet a 100 rupee in terms of the availability of tea. Did you ever wonder how do tea make such a penetration in the lives of Indian people?

“A cup of tea” is a phrase taken straight out of the lifestyle of the British. It might come as a shock to you but Indians are not responsible for the birth of tea. So it is time for some history lesson in the ‘travelature-way’.

History of "Ek Garam Chai Ki Pyali"

English: Tea Time / 18th century / Image via Wiki Commons

Tea was cultivated, manufactured and popularized in India by the British during their colonial rule (i.e in the early 1800s till the post-independent era).

Fun fact:

Tea was originally incorporated in India by the British. Their lifestyle did not allow the British to stay in India without Tea. Secondly, it was difficult to cargo ships, filled with tea leaves, every time due to ravaging carrying costs.

But why does the British loves tea to the extent to which that they decided to start planting it in India?

Customers enjoying afternoon tea at Lyon’s Corner House on Coventry Street, London, 1942. Image via Wiki Commons

Tea is a lifestyle for the British. It had started during the pre-independence era as a beverage of the elite that has not become a household delight. The British drink more than 60 billion cups of tea a year, according to the Tea and Infusions Organisation. Although this number is no match for Indian tea consumers but we have to appreciate the British for giving us the gift of eternal love.

England is geographically located on the cold side of the poles which makes it a nation for hot beverage habits. A hot cup of tea is not just suitable for their taste buds but also for a warm feeling on a cold morning. India, on the other end of the world, is a summer hot country and tea is regarded as an energy rejuvenator for most people. The tradition of tea is presented to guests as an honourable gesture which still runs around the Indian households.

British are also responsible for Indian railways and trams in India. You can read about the love story of Trams in India by going to our article based on it. Let us also know if you want us to publish an article on Indian railways.

The origin of tea started due to the failure of the British to develop tea plantations in Bhutan. It was in 1774 when Lora Warren Hastings decided to start a tea plantation in Bhutan with his freshly gathered China seeds. It proved to be a failure.

It was actually in 1780 when Robert Kyd experimented with tea cultivation. A few decades of patience but continuous persistence bore fruits (or most appropriately, bore ‘tea’) when in 1823, Robert Bruce discovered the evidence of tea plantations along the upper Brahmaputra Valley. In present India, you must be familiar with ASSAM TEA, and that is how ‘tea’ made its presence in India.

Fun fact:

Assam Tea was the first specimen of tea that was exported from India to England for public sale.

The tea plants in Assam were able to withstand extreme heat that the plants from the China-seed were unable to survive. This resulted in the creation of Assam tea followed by ‘Bengal Tea Association’ in Calcutta. In Assam, one of the first entrepreneurial ventures of tea was taken by George Williamson in the form of Jorehaut Tea Company.

This was just a start. After the success of the Assam’s Brahmaputra valley, the empire of tea reached the foot-hills of the Himalayas. The year 1863 marked 78 plantations in Kumaon, Dehradun, Garhwal, Kangra Valley and Kulu followed by commercial plantations in Darjeeling. The vastness of the tea empire in India was officially recognised and commercialized by the British in 1881 with the formation of the Indian Tea Association in parallel with the United Planters Association of Southern India (established in 1895).

India, in 2021, is the flag-bearer of the largest tea producing nation while quenching the thirst of tea lovers from all over the world. India boasts 13,000 gardens and a workforce of more than 2 million people.

tea-producing regions of India

1. Assam

The total area under tea: 312,210 ha
Production: 507 million kg
Elevation: 45-60 metres
Rainfall: 2.500-3,000 mm

There is a reason why Assam Tea is the ‘business class’ if Tea is regarded as an airline industry. Assam, as a state, houses soil that is rich and favourable for the growth of Tea-leaves. The courtesy goes to the Brahmaputra river and the extension of its valley.

History:

The history of tea in Asom (culturally pronounced) dates back as far as 100BC. Chang Kien, a Chinese explorer, identified Asom as a Queen of natural resources in the following ways:

  • The state consists of the northern Brahmaputra valley.
  • The middle Karbi and Cachar hills and the southern Barak valley.
  • Asom experiences heavy rainfall between March and September.
  • Asom is rich in vegetation, forests and wildlife including Kaziranga, the home of the rare Indian Rhinoceros. 
  • The soil of Assam has been classified into three types -red loam soil, lateritic soil and alluvial soil.

Assam, in 2021, contributes largely to tea production, not because of its fertile soil, favourable climate and natural resources. This is where the Tea Research Association comes into the picture which is situated in Jorhat. The centre has been producing Assam tea which is brisk, strong and of malty character since 1911. It is important to note that it is a research centre and constant revolution is the reason why Assam tea has only excelled in soothing the taste buds of a 130 crore populated nation excluding the global demand.

Asom means ‘one without equal’ and in terms of the production of tea, it is true. The single largest tea-growing nation in the world, Assam, is the Queen of Tea along the Brahmaputra Valley.

2. Darjeeling

Darjeeling tea workers, 1890. Image via Wiki Commons

Total area under tea: 17,820 ha
Production: 9.8 million kg
Elevation: 90-1,750 metres
Rainfall: 3,000 -3,300 mm

When Batman is there, Robin cannot be far behind’

Darjeeling tea can be considered as the distant cousin of Assam tea with equal taste wrapped in different flavours. We need to understand that tea leaves, growing in different regions, tastes different because of the natural conditions. Darjeeling is located in the snow-covered Himalayan range.

Fact

A cup of Darjeeling is golden or amber in colour and has a unique, delicate flavour that is referred to as “muscatel,” or, having the flavour of muscatel grapes, the typical flavour can also be described as “flowery,” and sometimes, “peachy.

History:

After the failure of Chinese seeds to produce tea in Assam, it was brought to Darjeeling by Dr A.Campbell. Within a decade ( from 1841-1853), Darjeeling was the host of 113 tea gardens in the Darjeeling district alone. Till today, the china variety exists in Darjeeling.

The secret to such delicacies in terms of tea lies in the geographical location of Darjeeling. It is situated at an elevation of 7000-ft making it ideal for receiving fresh rainwater either directly or through drainage. The soil is another key ingredient to its rich flavour and global demand.

Darjeeling is responsible for almost 1 per cent of the entire tea production in India. This makes it suitable to produce tea of the highest price and also of the desirable quality.

There are two important reasons for Darjeeling tea to be such a prized possession:

  1. Working in elevations for tea workers is always a task that calls for suitable compensation. This cost gets reflected in the final price of Darjeeling tea.
  2. The tea leaves in Darjeeling has a short life span and withers away if not timed properly leading to capital loss.
  3. Darjeeling tea leaves are produced using the traditional methods which cost about five times more than what it could have been if produced differently.

Darjeeling tea has never compromised on its quality. It is the reason why the demand for Darjeeling tea is a sign of the elite. In 2021, Darjeeling tea is making its way to almost every household in India either directly or through commercialized products.

3. Dooars and Terai

The total area under tea: 97,280 ha
Production: 216 million kg
Elevation: 90 -1,750 metres
Rainfall: 3,500 mm

DARJEELING had sparked the benefits of tea plantations among the British but also among the ambitious Indian businessman. The first tea plantation was set by the British in 1862, Champta (the Terai region). The tea leaves were more suitable for the Dooars region that forced the British to migrate towards this fertile region of West Bengal.

Dooars lies in the foothills of the Himalayas. It is blessed with natural resources, space for the wildlife to sustain, fertile soil and a favourable climate. The meaning of ‘Dooars’ is Doors which is the gateway to the northeast and Bhutan. The demographic accuracy of Dooars (middle-ground for north-east, Bhutan on one side and Darjeeling and Sikkim on the other). This had proved to be a breeding ground for profitable trade in tea plantations. Tea is one of the chief economic resources for Dooars after Timber and Tourism.

4. Kangra

Total area under tea: 2.348 ha
Production: 0.8 million kg
Elevation: 700-1,000 metres
Rainfall: 2,300-2,500 mm

Kangra, “The valley of Gods”, spreads over an area of 2603 hectares. This region, unlike what you have read before, has a distinct flavour to its tea.

How did it begin?

In 1849, Dr Jameson brought China seeds from the nurseries at Almora and Dehradun. He allowed it to grow in the Kangra region of Himachal Pradesh. The plants grew well and it motivated the Government to go ahead.

Till today, the Kangra tea region makes it to the list of the top prime spots for tea plantations. Next time, while you are at Himachal, do not forget to remind yourself about the ‘Kangra-tea’ when you take that first sip.

5. Nilgiri

Total area under tea: 66,175 ha
Production: 135 million kg
Elevation: 1,000-2,634 metres
Rainfall: 1,000-1,500 mm

Nilgiri means blue mountains. We hate to break it to you but the tea leaves here will not be blue. Keeping aside our degrading sense of forceful humour, let us introduce you to Nilgiri Tea.

It started because of its climate. Nilgiri, before Shimla, was a holiday destination for the Europeans who were fish out of water in the hot and humid climate of India. The British used to move their offices to the hills during the Summer and that was how Niligiri hills gained the attention of The Duke of Buckingham (the then Governor of Madras).

Keeping history aside, Nilgiri tea dominates over 10 per cent of the total tea production of India. Its delicacy lies in its fragrant and its golden-yellow liquor makes it distinct.

6. Wayanad

Total area under tea: 5470 ha
Production: 16 million kg
Elevation: 850-1,400 metres
Rainfall: 2,000-2,500 mm

The last time Wayanad (in Kerala) came on the news was because of elections. The Niligiri extends to the Wayanad region resulting in tourist spots, fertile soil, a favourable climate and a natural shelter for wildlife. In 1845, the earliest plantations were spotted due to Coffee and later in 1874, tea made its way. 

The story behind Wayanad resulting in a tea plantation is very interesting. 

In the year 1880, out of sheer speculation, companies made their way into this region for gold. They did find gold in the form of ‘Tea’ and ‘coffee’. It is needless to say that many companies had to face financial breakdowns due to the ‘gold-bubble-burst’.

NOTE: The tea in the regions of Wayanad and Nilgiri are known for their distinct fragrance.

7. Karnataka

Total area under tea: 2140 ha
Production: 6 million kg
Elevation: 750-1,000 metres
Rainfall: 2,000-3,500 mm

When we think of Karnataka, we think of Bangalore. This is going to change after you know about Chikmagalur. This region marks the origin of Coffee in India. It is believed that Baba Budan sowed the first coffee seeds which he had brought from Yemen. In 1841, the coffee plantation was officially commercialized by Thomas Canon and today, Karnataka is the largest producer of coffee in India.

In terms of tea, Golden ochre liquor is a brisk and refreshing product from this region that is known to refresh you from the inside. Do let us know if you have ever tasted this and we can bring you on our platform for ‘tea-table live streaming’.

8. Munnar- Hiah Ranaes

Total area under tea: 13,000 ha
Production: 27 million kg
Elevation: 950-2,600 metres
Rainfall: 1,300-7,000 mm

Munnar is the commercial capital of all the Indian tea regions.

Why?

It competes with other tea growing regions, globally, in terms of climate, soil, tourism and breathtaking scenes as well as work locations. An idyllic tourist location in Kerala, Munnar is set at an altitude of 6000 feet in the Idukki district. British made their way to Munnar for a summer retreat which ultimately gained their attention for a spot for a tea plantation.

History:

In 1870, A.H Sharp Parvathy Estate (now known as the Silent Valley Estate) gave birth to the Munnar tea region. It was in 1895 when a European company commercialised it with 33 tea estates. Tata group entered into the scenes in 1964 and this European company (known as Finlay) eventually lead to the formation of the Tata-Finlay group. In 2005, this company was transferred to a new company by the name of Kannan Devan Hill Produce and Co.

The Munnar tea comes with the fragrance of a sweet biscuit. Do not forget to enjoy the region of Munnar with their ultimate product, the Munnar tea.

9. Travancore

Total area under tea: 14,000 ha
Production: 20 million kg
Elevation: 750-1,350 metres
Rainfall: 2,000-6,000 mm

The region of Travancore enjoys a salubrious climate, all year round which makes it a pandora’s box for tea lovers. This region enjoys the plantation of tea and its 7 seven sisters:

  • Coffee
  • Coconut
  • Pepper
  • Cardamom
  • Rubber
  • Eucalyptus,
  • And houses one of India’s largest wildlife sanctuaries.

 Fun Fact:

Tea plantation, in this region, started as an experiment. It was in 1875 when the leaf disease grasped the coffee plantation among its clutches, naturally gave birth to the need to plant tea. This tale, metaphorically explains how every crisis can be converted into an opportunity.

The Munnar-tea can be identified by its fragrance with hues of yellow. For our readers who are tea-lovers, it promises a natural relief from your body oxidants, clearly rejuvenating you from a long day of travel.

Content Curator & Creative Writer

Dr. Arindam Ballav

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