How did tea come to India?

It is believed that tea was brought to India by the silk caravans that traveled from China to Europe centuries ago, though the Camellia sinensis is also native to India, and grew in the wild long before its true worth was realized. Native Indians used the leaves as part of their diet sometimes, though mostly it was used for its medicinal properties. Used in cooking, in vegetable dishes or to make soup, it was a long time before it transformed into what’s now famous as chai – a flavourful black tea sweetened with sugar and milk along with spices like cardamom and ginger.

Who discovered tea in India?

An intrinsic part of daily life today, tea was introduced formally to Indians by the British.  The origin of tea in India is owed to the British who intended to overthrow China’s monopoly on tea, having found that Indian soil was eminently suitable to cultivate these plants. The evidence of local plants was a great indication that the soil was right for transplanting Chinese seedlings and it was the Assam valley and the looming mountains of Darjeeling that were chosen as early sites for tea planting. After many unsuccessful attempts over 14 long years, tea production in India began to boom, enabling the production of a tea that was equal, if not better, than its Chinese counterpart. Thanks to them, India became, and remains, one of the largest tea producers in the world – second only to China.

The native tea species

Let’s explore the history of tea in India, one of the world’s largest producer of tea. Commercial tea plantations were first established under the British Rule when a native variety of Camellia sinensis plant was discovered by Scotsman Robert Bruce in 1823 in Assam. The story goes that a local merchant, Maniram Dewan, introduced Bruce to the Singpho people who were drinking something very similar to tea. The Singphos plucked the tender leaves of a wild plant and dried them under the sun. These leaves were also exposed to the night dew for three whole days after which they would be placed inside the hollow of a bamboo tube and smoked till flavors developed. Bruce sampled the leaf decoction and found it to be similar to the tea from China.

Bruce collected samples of this plant. But it was only after his demise in 1830 that his brother Charles pursued the interest and sent samples for testing to Calcutta. It was found to be tea but a variety different from the Chinese plant and was named Assamica.

It is significant to note that during the time that these developments took shape, efforts were being made by the East India Company to break the Chinese monopoly over global tea trade due to their rising conflict of interests. One of the initiatives taken by the Company in lieu of this situation was to start producing tea within the British colonies, including India. For this, Chinese tea seeds were reportedly smuggled into the colonies, including India and Sri Lanka, and tested for commercial viability. However, these Chinese plants were unsuitable to Assamese terroir. So the Assamica variant was welcomed. After many trials and extended periods of dedicated efforts, the first British-led commercial tea plantation in India was established in 1837 in Chabua in Upper Assam.

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