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One of the oldest drinks in history and a staple in many South Asian countries, Chai is instantly recognizable in a variety of different flavors, spices, and aromas. Its recipes fluctuate between families, villages, cities, and countries – each sip bringing forth different nuances of meaning to whoever holds the cup to his or her lips. To the people of India, Chai is more than just a simple cup of tea. Its thick, sweet nectar is foundational to the rhythms of daily life. A symbol of hospitality, Chai evokes a sense of identity. It connects people to their heritage and, to many, is a lasting source of habitual comfort.

No matter how you take it — whether you prefer it strongly spiced, milky, or sweet — Chai is a ubiquitous drink that transcends socioeconomic borders, bridges communities, and even crosses continents. Across India, you will find it being stirred by Chai wallahs (tea vendors) on crowded streets and ladled out of simmering pots in household kitchens. In Western countries, you might find Chai Lattes on cafe menus, or even within Chai tents at music festivals. The fascinating story of Chai weaves from its inception through to ties with colonialism and family-brewed recipes passed down through generations, all finally resulting in its present-day popularity.

chai tea history elke frotscher
Photo by Elke Frotscher.

Evidence from the third century AD suggests that the practice of ritualistic tea drinking originated in China. Chinese farmers were known to have compressed freshly-cut tea leaves into small, steamed blocks, which were then submerged in hot water and served with salt, ginger, orange peel, and spices. From there, the practice spread. However, like most good legends, there are various and contradictory accounts of how the drink came to be.

Indian folklore presents one such version, suggesting that a tea-like beverage was concocted by a king of the royal court in ancient India. The king desired to create a healing Ayurvedic (a form of traditional Hindu medicine) drink for his people, and set out to gather ingredients known for their benefits. The drink may have included ginger and black pepper to stimulate digestion, cardamom pods for elevating mood, a few cloves for pain relief, a pinch of cinnamon to stimulate circulation, and star anise for added flavor. Served with warm water, it was considered to be an elixir. However, at this stage, the drink did not seem to contain any tea leaves. It wasn’t until the 13th century that evidence suggests the Singpho tribes of north Assam were drying, smoking, and steeping the leaves of native tea bushes in water, which was then used in cooking and medicine.

One thing we know for certain is that amid fables of emperors and Buddhist monks who stumbled upon tea-drinking customs along the Silk Road, the history of tea spans thousands of years and across many cultures. The story of Indian Chai, in particular, begins in the early 17th century.

Following the start of trade with China, by 1610 the Dutch had made their first official import of tea leaves. The drink was slowly introduced into Europe as a medicinal beverage with therapeutic properties. Due to its high price, tea was consumed only by the upper class. At the turn of the 18th century, tea began gaining wider recognition and tea rooms appeared around the country. By the mid 19th century, Britain’s high society had developed an insatiable habit for daily tea drinking; the ritual was a fashionable and popular social activity for wealthy aristocrats.

Up until this time, China had been the country of origin for all tea imports into Britain. However, as the demand for tea became greater, the British eyed India as having potential to overthrow the Chinese monopoly on the product. The British East India Company, a powerful and exploitative trading body that allowed England to take part in the East Indian spice trade, stepped forward. However, there were numerous failed attempts at growing the Chinese variety of tea bushes in India, and only after some years was it discovered that the tea bush native to the area grew much more successfully in the cooler climate.

drinking chai gabriel flores
Photo by Gabriel Flores.

With tea plantations successfully established in Assam, Indian tea quickly rose to higher esteem compared to that of Chinese and British-led tea cultivation swiftly expanded. Within 50 years, Britain was in full control of international tea imports, and in an effort to further increase its consumer market, the company began the promotion of tea to the locals. Mandatory tea breaks were put in place in fields, factories, mines, and mills. With the opening of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railways in 1879, tea became more readily available to all parts of India.

Initially, tea struggled to overtake coffee as the drink of choice within the local Indian community. It was only after the First World War that something like the modern consumption of tea in India began to take shape. Railway stations from Bengal to Punjab started to set up shop and followed the British example by adding milk and sugar, though there were local twists too: sweet spices such as cardamom and ginger were mixed into strong black tea, along with creamy buffalo milk, before being boiled. Advertisements and propaganda followed promoting the consumption of tea — or as it came to be known in its Hindi translation, Chai – to all classes of society. By the 1930s, the sale of Chai from street-side vendors boomed.

chai tea stall elke frotscher
Photo by Elke Frotscher.

After India gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1947, Chai became the country’s largest industry and biggest foreign exchange earner. Through continuing ad campaigns and further reductions in prices, Chai was crowned the official drink of India. All classes of society were hooked and Chai was distributed to the masses and sipped at on street corners, in workplaces, and in homes around the country.

In the decades following this inception of Chai into Indian culture, the practice of tea drinking became intertwined with the arts. A common subject in photography, the frequent act of Chai drinking was also commonly portrayed in Bollywood movies and tea parties became a beloved pastime. Used to greet visitors at social gatherings or within the home, Chai became a symbol of exceptional hospitality and remains an essential ritual today.

200 years after the British introduced Chinese tea to India, the country is now home to three world-famous tea-growing regions: Assam, Darjeeling, and Nilgiris. India remains one of the largest tea-growing nations and the largest consumer of tea in the world.

tea cup elke frotscher
Photo by Elke Frotscher.

For many societies around the globe, their histories are ones of complicated tyranny that trace back to colonial empires. The origins of Chai happen to be one such story. Rooted in legend and steeped in a complicated history, Chai has gone on to become a ritual woven into the very fabric of Indian society. More than just a medicinal beverage to nourish the body or quench one’s thirst, Chai has been tying families and communities together for over a hundred years — it fuels a nation one cup at a time. Seen as a celebration of South Asian heritage, and regardless of its association with British imperialism, Chai has single-handedly changed the way in which life in India is lived and remains a cherished drink for many to this day.

Interested in learning more about India? Check out India’s most important festivals or read up on the architecture of Delhi.

Header image by Emily Nathan.