The earliest legend brings the story of a Buddhist monk who lived 2000 years ago and wanted to spend 7 sleepless years to understand Buddhism. But after 5 years he struggled to stay awake and chewed on some leaves to revive himself.
This was the wild Indian tea plant. Since at least the 12th century, leaves of wild tea shrubs were used as medicine by the Singhpo tribe in Assam. The Singphos believed to be among India’s first tea drinkers, still process tea through the traditional centuries-old method, dhooan chaang. The first mention of tea growing in India was chronicled by a Dutch traveler, Jan Huyghen van Linschoten in 1538. He mentions in his travelogues of natives making a vegetable dish that incorporated tea leaves with oil and garlic and also boiling the leaves to make a brew.In the 18th C. the Britishers were actively looking for alternatives to counter the tea monopoly of China. In 1788, British botanist, Joseph Banks, reported to the British East India Co. climate in British-controlled parts of northeast India was ideal for tea growing.
However, in his report he seems to have missed the fact that the plant was a native to Bengal and simply suggested transplanting tea bushes from China. Believing his idea to be impossible and hence without merit, it was firmly ignored. In 1823, an English Army Officer, Robert Bruce, received a medical tea drink, brewed from a wild plant, from the Singpho King, Bisa Gam. Intrigued by the brew, so much like tea, he along with his brother Charles sent a few samples of the plant to Calcutta botanical gardens.
This idea of growing tea in India didn’t resurface till 1833 when China refused to trade tea with British East India Co. The samples sent long back gained fresh attention. What happened next was the planning of one of the biggest botany espionage in tea history.
In 1843, Scottish botanist, Robert Fortune, sailed to China, funded by the Royal Horticultural Society, to study the varieties of the drink grown there. The British East India Co. reached out to him in 1848 to smuggle tea seeds. However, at that time, Fortune failed. In 1849, he tried again, stealing branches from the Wuyi Mountains, famous for black tea with the help of his Chinese servant Sing Hoo.
He took the specimens to Shanghai and packed them off to India with soil inside glass containers. This time, the heist was successful.
Charles Bruce, who was familiar with the Assam region, was entrusted to build a nursery with the 80,000 seeds from China.
Bruce hired professional tea makers from China to help him perfect the art. Soon the imported Chinese tea struggled with the harsh climates of Assam.
Ironically, the native plants flourished. It was eventually decided to make subsequent plantings with seedlings from the native tea bush. The first 12 chests of manufactured tea made from indigenous Assam leaf were shipped to London in 1838 & sold at the London auctions.The East India Company wrote to Assam to say that the teas had been well received by some “houses of character”. There was a similar response to the next shipment, some buyers declaring it “excellent”. Having established a successful industry in Assam’s Brahmaputra valley, the Assam Tea Company began to expand into other districts of northeast India. Cultivation started around the town of Darjeeling in the foothills of the Himalayas in the mid-1850s. By 1857, 60-70 acres were under tea. The China variety of the tea plant had not liked the conditions in Assam, at elevations of 2500- 6000 ft, it grew well. The company pushed on into Terai and Dooars and even into the remote Kangra valley, 800 miles west of Darjeeling.
In the 1930s, William McKercher invented the CTC to make tea cheaper for the masses. And after World War I, Indian and Eurasian vendors began selling tea with milk at the historic railway stations of Bengal, Punjab, & the Frontier provinces.
This led to the popularity of chai.
Slowly, each region and community in India took its own time to adapt tea to its taste, and steadily it became a part of every Indian household.
Today the popularity lives on with over 837,000 tonnes of tea consumed by Indians, every year!