India’s Coffee Connection



When you think of coffee, you think of cafes churning out frothy shakes and hot cups of cappuccino; you don't think of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan’s old capital and definitely not a Sufi saint who first brought coffee beans to India more than 400 years ago.

As you may have now guessed, India’s coffee connection is the story of ancient trade routes, Sufi saints and our penchant for lounging around and chatting. But the tale of coffee itself begins in Ethiopia, where legend has it that a shepherd in the highlands of Ethiopia noticed that some of his sheep were more alert and active than the rest. He began to observe his flock more closely and found that his ‘hopped-up’ sheep were munching on berries from a certain plant, which was changing their behaviour. Apparently, this is how coffee was discovered by man. It was fine-tuned over time – the seed began to be roasted to perfection – to give us the fine brews we savour today.

While there is no corroboration for the tale of the shepherd in Ethiopia, the earliest reference to people drinking coffee as a beverage comes from Yemen in the Arabian Peninsula, in the 14th or 15th CE. In fact, by now, references to coffee seem to have been popping up across.

Arab Coffee Shop
Arab Coffee Shop|Wikimedia Commons

Strengthening the Arabian connection is the root of the word ‘coffee’, which comes from the Arabic word qahhwat al-bun. This means ‘wine of the bean’, which is what it was considered, albeit not as intoxicating as the wine of the grape! But there are many similarities – coffee ‘beans’ are actually the pits of a red fruit called a coffee ‘cherry’.


So coffee ‘beans’ is incorrect, make that coffee ‘seeds’!

In Arabia, there is mention of roasting and brewing coffee as we know it today in the 15th CE. Later, it is believed that coffee was used by Sufi saints to keep themselves awake during their long religious rituals.

By the 16th century, coffee drinking had spread to the rest of the Middle East, Persia, Turkey and North Africa.

Arab men smoking pipe and drinking Turkish coffee in a coffee shop corner in Jerusalem
Arab men smoking pipe and drinking Turkish coffee in a coffee shop corner in Jerusalem|Wikimedia Commons

Coffee Comes To India

For the longest time, the coffee plant was so prized that people were not allowed to carry its seeds out of the Arabian Peninsula. The only beans that were allowed to be taken out were roasted and hence sterile i.e. they couldn't be used to grow the coffee plant. This was to ensure that the Middle East retained its monopoly over coffee production, and even the Mughals initially exported coffee from here.

It took a wandering Sufi mystic to change all that in the 16th century. Baba Budan was from Chikmaglur in present-day Karnataka and he lived in a cave on a hill. The Baba was revered by Hindus and Muslims alike and while on one of his journeys to Mecca, for the Hajj, he is said to have brought back seven raw coffee seeds from the port of Mocha in Yemen, hidden in his flowing robes.

Back home, he planted the seeds on the slopes of the Chandragiri hills, near the caves where he and his followers had settled. Coffee from these plants was served as a drink to the local people. Today, coffee is still grown in these hills and the area is known as ‘Baba Budangiri’, which also houses the saint’s tomb.

 Baba Budangiri range of hills
Baba Budangiri range of hills|Wikimedia Commons

The first actual mention of coffee being consumed comes from the work of Reverend Edward Terry in the court of Emperor Jehangir, in 1616. Rev Terry was the chaplain to Sir Thomas Roe, ambassador of the King of England, at Jahangir’s court.

Rev Terry provides the first detailed account of the use of coffee in India. He writes:

Many of the people there (in India), who are strict in their religion, drink no wine at all; but they use a liquor more wholesome than pleasant, they call coffee; made by a black seed boyld in water, which turns it almost into the same colour, but doth very little alter the taste of the water: notwithstanding it is very good to help digestion, to quicken the spirits, and to cleanse the blood.”

By the 17th century, coffee had become a popular drink among upper-class Indians. In fact, it was a very important part of everyday life in the Mughal cities. Coffee was served in public spaces called qahwahkhanas (coffee houses) and there were many in Shahjahanabad, around Delhi’s Red Fort, especially in the famed Chandni Chowk area.

Edward Terry
Edward Terry|Wikimedia Commons

These qahwahkhanas became a hub of social and intellectual activities.

Poets would assemble to listen to each other’s verses. Scholars and laymen would debate on public issues. An ecosystem of mehfils or meet-ups of music, dance, poetry and repartee emerged in different venues in the city. Like our cafes today, in 17th century Delhi too, the qahwahkhanas emerged as a hotbed of discussion and chats, all fuelled by coffee.

Unfortunately, with the decline in Mughal power, and the rise of the British, who were primarily tea drinkers, the coffee culture of Mughal India collapsed. But it did manage to make its way back over the next 200 years.

Coffee And The World

Coffee was the drink of choice across the Islamic world – from Mecca to Istanbul and Shahjahanabad. It first reached Europe through Venice. With thriving trade between the Arab world, North Africa and Venice, many goods including coffee reached Italy. But in deeply Catholic Italy, it was initially seen as a ‘Muslim drink’ and attempts were made to ban it.

Pope Clement VIII
Pope Clement VIII|Wikimedia Commons

By a quirk of fate, around 1600 CE, Pope Clement VIII happened to drink some coffee and felt it was too good a drink for Christians to miss out on. He blessed it and deemed it a ‘Christian beverage’. After this, it was more widely accepted. It is after its acceptance by the church that the Italians went on to introduce coffee to the rest of Europe as ‘caffe’. By the end of the 17th century, the first European coffeehouses were flourishing across Continental Europe, Britain and its colonies in America.

The growth of coffee for commercial purposes was dominated by the Middle East till the 17th century. However, from 17th century, coffee production spread rapidly to where European traders went – Java and other islands of the Indonesian archipelago, the Americas in the 18th century and then to Brazil and the Hawaiian Islands.

The spread of coffee cultivation was so rapid that by the 20th century, the centre of coffee production shifted from Arabia to the Western hemisphere. This was a part of the exchange of plants, animals, ideas, culture and people between the Old World and the New, which is popularly called the ‘Columbian Exchange’ after the great explorer Christopher Columbus.

Boston Tea Party
Boston Tea Party|Wikimedia Commons

Interestingly enough, the heady beverage took on a political flavour in America, during the Boston Tea Party of the late 18th century. On that occasion, American Revolutionaries tossed 342 chests of the East India Company’s tea into the Boston Harbour, which triggered the American War of Independence and led to the decline of tea drinking and the rise of coffee drinking in the United States.

Ironically, it was the British who established the Arabica coffee plantations across the mountains of Southern India. In fact, it was through the efforts of the British East India Company that coffee became popular in England and made a return to India, although commercial cultivation of coffee in India began more than 200 years after Rev Terry’s mention of coffee-drinking in 1616.

By the middle of the 19th century, coffee was being served at the many upscale clubs that sprouted across India, the first being the Bengal Club in Calcutta 1827, followed by the Madras Club in 1832 and the Bangalore Club in 1863. With hill stations being set up in the north and in the south, and the British administration extending to mofussil areas, coffee drinking also spread. The Victorians loved their after-dinner coffee, a practice followed in India too.

India Coffee House, Bangalore
India Coffee House, Bangalore|Wikimedia Commons

Today, India is the sixth-largest producer of coffee in the world and is home to 16 unique varieties. It is grown in three regions in India – in Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

Did you know that the Indian Coffee House chain played a large part in the spread of coffee in India? Started by a government body, the Coffee Cess Committee in 1936, it was set up to promote the sale and consumption of Indian coffee at home and abroad. The first Indian Coffee House outlet was opened on Churchgate Street in Bombay on 28th September 1936. At its zenith, the chain operated 72 outlets across India and essentially introduced the coffee habit to the tea-drinking north of the country. It was the original adda of pre-liberalisation India, where the quintessential jholawalas debated literature, art, social welfare and the changing face of Indian society.

View of Mocha during the second half of the 17th century
View of Mocha during the second half of the 17th century|Wikimedia Commons

Today, many varieties of coffee exist, one of the most popular being moccacino or mocha coffee. It may sound fashionable and cool but this type of coffee actually gets its name from the port of Mocha in Yemen. The beans exported from this port are believed to have had a hint of chocolate flavour in the past. They may not carry this flavour any longer but the name stuck for any coffee that has an element of cacao in it.

One of the strangest coffees is also the most expensive and comes from Indonesia. Called kopi luwak, it is harvested after being digested and excreted by the Asian palm civet, a small cat-like mammal. Apparently, the digestion process gives the coffee a complex, rounded taste – one cup of this coffee can set you back upwards of $50!

From the highlands of Ethiopia, to the qahwakhanas of Shahjahanabad and the cafes of Italy, across the ocean to America and then back to India, coffee has travelled a very long way. Today, it is the second-most traded commodity in the world after oil, and certainly the most relished. And, even though the beverage has evolved, its role remains unchanged. It still facilitates the exchange of ideas, and guides conversation and innovation, whether in the qahwahkhanas of Old Delhi or the cafes of Silicon Valley.

The Coffee Bearer by John Frederick Lewis (1857), Ottoman quarters in Cairo, Egypt
The Coffee Bearer by John Frederick Lewis (1857), Ottoman quarters in Cairo, Egypt|Wikimedia Commons

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