We drink it wherever we go – in our homes, at work, when chilling with friends and even at roadside stalls or ‘tapris’. And you’ve got to admit, we can’t live without it. It’s refreshing, it’s heartwarming and it gives you an energy hit when you most need it. Anyone who has savoured a steaming glass of ‘cutting chai’ will vouch for that.
If you haven’t guessed already, we’re referring to that beverage for all seasons – tea. Yet tea-drinking was never a part of Indian culture; the brew was introduced to India by the British less than 200 years ago.
Why on earth did they do that?
Remember, India was then governed by the British East India Company, which turned India into a nation of tea drinkers only so they could fill their teapots back home while reaping a massive profit from it here in India. For a company interested only in making profits, it was a brilliant idea.
But the story of tea isn’t quite as straightforward as that, and is linked to another heady addiction.
The saga of tea goes back to 18th century Britain, which was importing tea in enormous quantities from China. But all this tea drinking was draining the British treasury, and when they could afford it no longer, the English came up with a clever plan. They turned to their cash cow – India – and began selling opium produced in the Indian subcontinent to China. The money thus earned helped them support their tea addiction.
As you can imagine, the British made a pretty penny from turning China into a nation of opium addicts. For the English, it was a cosy quid-pro-quo.
It didn’t last very long.
In 1839, the First Opium War broke out, when China decided to stop all opium imports. The drug had caused millions of Chinese to get addicted, it was causing social disruption, and was also costing China too much money.
Although Britain eventually won the First Opium War (1839 – 1842), the conflict had threatened its tea imports from China, and depriving Britons of their ‘cuppa tea’ was simply not an option.
So the British turned to India. Again.
They figured that cultivating tea in India could break China’s monopoly over the brew and ensure a steady supply back home.
The British East India Company opened the first tea estates in Assam in the 1830s – with saplings and seeds smuggled in from China! They also began to cultivate indigenous varieties. The tea thus produced was exported to England and other parts of Europe.
But the East India Company wanted more.
They realised that they could make massive profits if they sold tea to Indians too – all they had to do was get Indians addicted to the brew.
It was nothing short of Machiavellian, and they went about it very systematically and very deliberately.
– The British drew up a smart strategy – they distributed tea packets free, opened tea stalls at railway stations and in cinema halls, and even taught homemakers to make the brew.
Tea was pitched as a drink of the masses, thus ensuring a massive customer base. In a country with a population such as this, it was a winning idea.
But not everyone bought it.
For leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, tea was a symbol of imperialism, to be shunned. But the imperialists won and the nation was eventually hooked. The British had added an element to the Indian economy by creating a culture of chai.