A glass of tea
A glass of hot Chai sold at a tea shop in India

© Abhishek Avtans

Even though Chai Patti (tea leaves) are one of the ubiquitous things to find in Indian kitchens, research on history of these mystic leaves informs us that tea (Camellia Sinensis) originated in southern Himalayan region of north-east India & Burma, flourished in China, and was introduced into Indian subcontinent by the British who acquired this habit from the Dutch. It was the Dutch merchants who in 1610 brought the first shipment of tea to Europe from Japan, and later brought it to New Amsterdam (now New York). But it was East India company of Britain which established the first tea plantations in Assam and Darjeeling regions of India in the later half of 19th century. In this piece I am going to discuss how during the 20th century Indians, in general  turned into Tea-totaller = a person who drinks copious amounts of tea daily (a spoof on Teetotaller = a person who never drinks alcohol or opposed to the drinking of alcohol ;Cambridge English Dictionary).

I do not remember my grandmother or my great grandfather craving for tea. It is not that they did not drink tea, but it was still not a habit for them. In their mind I guess tea was still an addiction of the ruling British who enjoyed this nashaa (intoxication). In Bengali film Chokher Bali (based on a novel of the same name by Rabindranath Tagore), a Bengali Hindu widow Binodini exhorts other widows of the house to drink tea which they consider as a sinful act for widows to do. But it was a different story with my own parents who enjoyed plentiful cups of chai (spiced milk tea) all their lives. They drank it more or less ritually almost 3 or 4 times a day.  I remember there was a tea shop in Agra (Radhey tea shop, Agra) which did brisk business solely by selling Chai, biscuits, some savories and cigarettes all around the year. Tea has finally become a social beverage in contemporary India. 

Many of the die-hard lovers of Indian Chai wouldn’t know that Chai was not considered a healthy drink as late as the 1940s. In 1942 Mahatma Gandhi wrote a booklet named Arogya ni Chavi (Key to Health) in Gujarati (also translated in Hindustani आरोग्य की कुंजी & Key to Health in English). In this booklet, Gandhi ji talks about drinking habit of Tea, coffee and Cocoa and its supposed ill effects on human body. In the booklet he himself confesses his prior indulgence in drinking of tea and coffee, but encourages complete abandonment of this habit for better health. Gandhi ji goes on to add that –

The tea leaves contain tannin which is harmful to the body. Tannin is generally used in the tanneries to harden leather. When taken internally it produces a similar effect upon the mucous lining of the stomach and intestine. This impairs digestion and cause dyspepsia. It is said that in England innumerable women suffer from various aliments on account of their habit of drinking tea which contains tannin.

The original pages of what he wrote about tea, coffee and cocoa in Hindi is given below (including the cover page) –

cover page of arogya ki kunji

Chai coffee and Cocoa
From Gandhi’s booklet ‘arogya ki kunji’
Tea, coffee and cocoa
From Gandhi’s booklet ‘arogya ki kunji’

Despite Mahatma Gandhi anti-tea pronouncements on health grounds and sympathy to the plight of exploited tea garden workers ( Gandhi called tea as the blood of tea garden workers), the clout of the tea companies and the subsequent governments succeeded in  promoting tea drinking in the Indian domestic market making Indians one of the biggest producers and consumers of tea by 1980s. This was mainly fueled by aggressive marketing and promotion of tea as a drink full of qualities such as stimulant, freshness, energy, satisfying and a beneficial social beverage.

Old Newspaper Advertisements

Some of the newspaper advertisements from that era are presented below –

This Hindi print advertisement for Lipton tea published in 1942, describes tea as a ‘festive drink’ which must be offered to all on the festive occasion of Diwali as it has become a tradition to do so.

Lipton Hindi print advertisement
Lipton Hindi print advertisement

The following print advertisement in Hindi by S. Miller & Company for their tea in a newspaper published in 1942. The advertisement describes Miller tea as the world’s best tea, and the best drink of every household. 

miller tea
Miller tea Hindi print advertisement

Another one is from the 1980’s when drinking tea was portrayed as promoting vigor, strength, and bravery.  It is a printed advertisement for Lipton tiger tea, where an Indian tea drinker with a handlebar mustache is confronting a wild tiger with a tea cup in his hand. 

lipton hindi tiger
Lipton tiger tea Hindi print advertisement


Looking back a little further one would wonder, what Indians might be drinking before the advent of tea as a social drink. One would believe that butter milk (Chaach), yogurt drink (Lassi) in summers, and warm milk in winters must be the choice of beverage which ruled the roost in older times. It is important here to mention that long before the introduction of Chai in India, Paan (betel leaf with areca nut), Surti / Khaini (dry leaf tobacco), and Bidi (rolled smoking tobacco) were the consumables over which social intercourse took place for many centuries. Then came the big leveler – Tea.

References –

Bhadra, Gautam. From An Imperial Product To A National Drink. 1st ed. Calcutta: [Centre for studies in social sciences [etc.], 2005.

Hohenegger, Beatrice. Liquid jade: the story of tea from east to west. New York, NY: St. Martins Press, 2006. 

Lutgendorf, Philip. “Making tea in India.” Thesis Eleven 113.1 (2012): 11-31. 

Arts, Old Indian. “Old Indian Arts.” Old Indian Arts. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 June 2017.

Gandhi, M. Arogya ki kunji, Gandhi Heritage Portral of Sabarmati Ashram Preservation and Memorial Trust, Ahmedabad, 2017