Tea is deeply ingrained in Indian culture and society. India is one of the largest producers and consumers of tea in the world today, but the beverage has a long and storied past in the country. Here is an overview of the history of Indian tea.
Origins of Tea in India
Tea likely first arrived in India from China in the 1830s. At this time, the British East India Company began experimenting with growing tea in India as a way to break China’s stronghold on the tea market. In 1833, the first English tea garden was established at Chabua in Upper Assam, laying the groundwork for the future Indian tea industry.
The first successful cultivation and manufacture of black tea in India happened in 1837 by the British planter Robert Bruce. He came across native tea plants growing in the upper Brahmaputra valley while stationed there with the Assam Company. Bruce used Chinese seeds to cultivate a tea estate, eventually leading to the first batch of Assam black tea being exported to England in 1838.
This discovery was major, as the Assam black tea was found to be different from Chinese tea plants. It was heartier with distinct regional characteristics. The Camellia sinensis var. assamica species thrived in the tropical climate, becoming the backbone of Indian black tea production.
The Rise of Large Tea Plantations
In the mid-1800s, the British East India Company quickly ramped up tea cultivation activities in Assam and other areas of northeast India. They set up large plantations and brought in indentured laborers from other parts of India to work the fields. The first tea plantations required clearing thick jungle forests and establishing the necessary infrastructure and facilities.
By the late 1800s, there were over 300 tea estates across Assam, Darjeeling, and Terai. Darjeeling tea also emerged as a prized type of black tea from the Himalayan foothills. Large tea companies, British planters, and regulatory groups established during this era still influence the Indian tea industry today.
India as a Global Tea Producer
By the early 1900s, India became a prominent tea producer on the global market. The British, and later independent Indian government, set up research centers to develop new cultivars and farming techniques. The first tea nurseries emerged at this time to propagate high-yielding Chinese varieties.
India’s production increased substantially in the post-independence years. As demand grew domestically and internationally, tea became a major export crop that provided livelihoods for many rural communities. Today, India is second only to China in tea production, with over 1325 tea gardens across 23 states. Prominent tea growing regions include Assam, Darjeeling, Nilgiris, Kangra, and Wayanad.
Key Developments in Processing Methods
Tea processing also evolved considerably from the colonial era to today. Orthodox manufacturing of black tea was standardized in the early 20th century. The process involves withering the fresh tea leaves, rolling them for oxidation, drying to stop oxidation, and firing.
Later breakthroughs enabled the development of CTC (crush, tear, curl) tea in the 1930s. CTC is a process of cutting and grinding tea leaves and is quicker and more efficient. It results in the signature strong liquor and color of mass market black tea blends. CTC allowed the tea industry to increase production and meet rising demand over the years.
Green tea and oolong tea are also widely produced, giving India’s tea repertoire diversity across styles. Enhanced soil management, clonal propagation, mechanization, and focus on quality standards have been more recent priorities for the cultivation sector.
Key Tea Growing Regions of India
While tea is grown across India today, certain regions have become famous for their distinctive teas. Here are some of the prized tea-producing areas:
- Assam – The birthplace of Indian tea production; known for bold, malty Assamese black teas.
- Darjeeling – Located in West Bengal, prized for its light and fragrant Darjeeling black teas.
- Nilgiris – In Tamil Nadu, produces fragrant dark black teas as well as some white and oolong teas.
- Kangra – In Himachal Pradesh, known for green teas as well as black teas with delicate aromas.
- Wayanad – In Kerala, produces both black tea and green tea alongside coffee, spices, and rice.
- Dooars – Located in Assam and West Bengal, the distinct tea gardens here produce Assam black teas.
- Sikkim – A newer tea growing region in India, located in the Himalayas.
India’s Rich Tea Culture
Drinking tea is deeply ingrained in Indian daily life and culture. From the traditional masala chai to ethnic regional variations, tea is part of local food customs. Tea stalls and street vendors known as “chai wallahs” can be found across the country.
Tea is consumed not just as a beverage but also incorporated into snacks and sweets. It is the quintessential companion for breakfast, afternoons, and evenings. Tea breaks are common practice in homes, offices, and shops. In some parts of India, tea is consumed with salt and butter instead of milk and sugar.
The tea culture also varies across regions based on surrounding crops and food habits. Tea is prepared and served according to family and community traditions in Indian households. The beverage brings people together socially in homes and gatherings.
India has come a long way from the first tea seeds planted in Assam in the 1800s. It is now one of the world’s leading tea producers with a thriving industry spanning cultivation, processing, exports, and domestic consumption. Different regional varieties and styles of tea are cherished globally. Moreover, tea is an integral part of both cultural and economic life across India. The history of Indian tea reflects the country’s own journey through colonialism, independence, and modernization.