Tea is indisputably India's national drink. For many Indians, a typical day will begin with a cup of masala chai at home, followed by additional cups throughout the day from ubiquitous canteens and tea vendors. Commonly made by boiling tea leaves with milk and sugar along with ginger root and warm spices like cardamom and clove, India's masala chai has become one of the most famous brews in the world—so popular that, in many countries, the word “chai” (which simply means “tea” in Hindi) is synonymous with the Indian brewing style.
However, tea's popularity in India is a relatively recent development. Sixty or seventy years ago, many Indians had never tasted tea, let alone masala chai. Its transformation from the beverage of the subcontinent's British colonizers to a distinctively Indian drink recognized all over the world was the result of global depression, the struggle for Independence, technological innovation, and a series of aggressive marketing campaigns.
Pre-colonial Tea Consumption: Ancient India and Trade Cities (1200s - 1600s)
While tea drinking has only recently become widespread, the practice does have ancient origins in India. In the northeastern state of Assam, tea grew in the wild. As early as the 12th century, the Singpho people and several other indigenous groups drank this wild tea frequently for its health benefits and, presumably, for its caffeine, too. To process it, they often packed dried, toasted tea leaves into bamboo cane, after which the cane parcels would then be smoked. To this day, the Singpho people consume tea in this style–cutting off a segment of smoked, tea-stuffed cane as needed.
There are some later reports of tea drinking in Indian cities near trade routes that were established with Europe, the Middle East, and China. In the late 1600s, for example, people in the Gujarati city of Surat used tea imported from China to treat stomach aches and headaches. In A Voyage to Surat in the Year 1689, English traveler John Ovington observed that Indian traders drank tea “with some hot spice…with sugar-candy, or, by the more curious, with some conserv’d lemons."
British Rule and the Rise of Indian Tea Production (1700s-1900)
Industrial tea production began in India because of conflict between Britain and China. “Even as the British and Chinese increasingly viewed each other as barbarians, the British could no longer live without tea,” Erika Rappaport, a food historian, explains in her book A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World. By the 1830s, Britain consumed a stunning 40 million pounds per year. When China abruptly ended tea trade with the British and relations escalated into war, the British looked for alternative sources. Recognizing that the Assamese grew their own indigenous variety of tea, the British expanded their colonial reach into Assam to clear the jungle for tea plantations.
The early days of the Indian tea industry saw rapid development and conflict. From the 1830s on, Europeans, Assamese, and Indian industrialists worked to establish tea plantations. As export demand for tea heightened, a frenzy of planting exploded. Getting people to work on those plantations, however, was another matter. Many Assamese people distrusted the tea industry, and refused to clear the jungle for planting or work in the tea fields. Wishing to maintain sovereignty, the Assamese revolted against the planters, launching attacks against the plantation owners and their families. In response, planters hired migrant workers from distant regions of India to work as indentured laborers. Far from home, these tea workers became trapped on the plantations due to disease, malnutrition, and debt. In her book titled Empire’s Garden: Assam and the Making of India, historian Jayeeta Sharma said that because of the woeful working conditions, “plantations became restricted zones where outsiders were not permitted entry.” As mortality rates approached 50%, rebellions erupted.
And yet, even as Indian tea production exploded in the late 1800s, only a minority of Indians consumed it. Instead, most Indian tea was sent abroad. What little remained in the Indian market was sold to Europeans and upper-class Indians who adopted elements of British social culture. These people prepared tea in the British way, using precise steeping times and specialized tea ware, and served it with milk and sugar. Indian tea consumption at this time was limited, and often linked with acceptance of the British regime. In From an Imperial Product to a National Drink: The Culture of Tea Consumption in Modern India, Bengali historian Gautama Bhadra explained that in the 1880s, “social opposition to tea in the public press had equally matched the enthusiasm for it." As more of the abuses of Indian workers on tea plantations came to light, and the general public became more aware of the plight of plantation workers, a number of Indian nationalists and prominent upper-class citizens gave up tea drinking altogether.
The Early Days of Indian Tea Drinking: New Styles, Tea Cabins, and Parsi Cafes (1900-1930)
Despite the controversy surrounding tea's production, Indian tea drinking culture started changing in the early 1900s. An economic depression occurred abroad, and tea traders suddenly had an overabundance of tea that they couldn’t export, which led them to focusing on the domestic market, launching marketing campaigns that, at first, targeted middle- and upper-class Indians. The initial advertisements closely echoed the message of ads targeting Europeans and Americans, focusing on the refinement of tea, its health benefits, and “proper” British methods of tea steeping. In much the same way that today’s factory-farmed meats use images of open pastures to advertise their products, early tea packaging tried to blunt negative opinions of tea plantations by featuring images of idyllic, peaceful tea gardens.
Early advertisements illustrated how to prepare tea, but Indians quickly developed their own techniques. Instead of steeping tea leaves in boiled water, they boiled them directly in water or milk. To make its consumption more economical, people often used fragmented or ground tea leaves. Together, these practices conserved tea and produced a stronger, more caffeinated brew. While Indians adopted the British affection for adding milk and sugar, they increased the amounts to offset the strength of the boiled tea made from ground up tea leaves. Reflecting local tastes, tea sellers boiled the tea with aromatics such as fresh ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, and bay leaves. While the exact origins of modern masala chai are unclear, it likely grew out of these early tea preparations.
In the 1920s and '30s, tea shops began opening in large city centers. In the eastern city of Kolkata, modest eateries called “tea cabins” sprang up in neighborhoods near universities, offering inexpensive tea and snacks. They quickly became hubs for news, political gossip, and lively discussions about cultural matters, and in later decades they became important meeting places for intellectuals and pro-independence Indians. In Mumbai and Delhi, Parsis (Zoroastrian immigrants from Iran) built cafes serving their own style of tea, as well as Persian-influenced food. Parsi cafes served a particularly creamy, heavily-steeped tea brew called “Irani cha” to a diverse clientele.
The Great Marketing Push of the 1930s (1930-1940)
With the Great Depression of the 1930s, the value of tea dropped at the same time as Indian tea plantations were producing record yields. In response, tea boards launched an aggressive marketing campaign to increase tea drinking across India. Instead of targeting select segments of society, this was a broad campaign aimed at increasing tea consumption in all consumers across the country, regardless of class, race, gender, or region of origin.
Traveling salespeople promoted tea everywhere, from train stations and factories to the countryside. At public demonstrations, they showed how to brew tea and urged people to drink free sample cups or take home single-use packets. Promising greater productivity, promoters lobbied factory and office supervisors to offer tea breaks to their workers. Tea was advertised as being healthy, energizing, and a wise alternative to alcohol. While tea consumption remained small compared to the Indian population as a whole, this marketing push successfully introduced tea consumption to many people, who quickly preferred tea to non-caffeinated beverages.
Tea and the Independence Movement (1930-1950)
Tea’s public image was complicated by the rise of the Indian independence movement. In the 1930s and '40s, the Indian population grew increasingly weary of British rule. As part of the Swadeshi Movement, Mahatma Gandhi urged Indians to reject British imperial goods, including tea, openly criticizing the tea plantation system’s low pay and its reliance on indentured labor. This led many tea workers to strike or leave tea plantations altogether. Likewise, Gandhi spoke out against advertisers' unhealthy promotion of drinking excessive quantities of tea. “Strong tea is poison,” he said, urging, “there is need, therefore, for extreme caution in drawing up advertisements."
In spite of these criticisms, advertisers co-opted tea into the nationalist push for Indian independence. Responding to the rising tide of nationalism, they replaced colonial messages with portrayals of tea as a Swadeshi beverage, one that was tied to the national identity, commissioning Indian artists to produce bold, graphic images of tea drinkers outfitted in regional dress accompanied by text in regional languages. Despite emphasizing regional differences, these advertisements also put an emphasis on national unity, and the message appeared to resonate with a population that wished to be free from British rule.
With India’s declaration of independence in 1947, tea marketers released a statement proclaiming tea a unifying force for the Indian people, as well as a future cultural and economic ambassador to the world. Post-independence, the remaining foreign-held tea plantations were gradually sold to Indian owners. And while India kept selling tea abroad, with time, an ever-growing portion stayed in the local market.
Tea in Post-Independence India and Abroad (1950 – 1990)
In the years that followed independence, advances in processing technology made drinking tea more affordable and widespread. This hinged on the “crush-tear-curl” (CTC) process, which shredded tea leaves and transformed them into uniform granules. Because of its greater surface area, CTC tea brews faster and makes far more cups of tea than the same weight of non-CTC-processed tea. CTC processing had been around since the 1930s, but in the late '50s, a Bengali engineer redesigned the CTC machinery, making it more industrially scalable. Machinists all over India infringed on his patent, and CTC tea suddenly became commonplace. In the 1950s and '60s, bountiful supplies of inexpensive CTC tea led to a rise in both roadside tea vendors and household consumption, which cemented tea as India’s beverage of choice.
Decades later, India’s tea brewing style spread around the world as Indian emigrants and tourism exposed non-Indians to various iterations of masala chai, which culminated in the 1990s with Starbucks and a number of other companies latte-ifying masala chai, making it a household name. International versions take many liberties with masala chai, adding espresso shots, or completely changing the ratios of milk, sugar, and spices. While Masala chai has become a trendy alternative to cappuccino, in India, the tea style remains an affordable, everyday beverage that fuels all aspects of life.