Discovery of chai
5000 years ago when a couple of leaves from a nearly wild plant blew into his pot of boiling water, little did the Chinese emperor Shen Nung imagine the extent of popularity of the resulting brew. He felt what every person sipping this simple yet potent drink feels even today, a warm feeling, inherently calming in nature. One of the ancient legends around the story even suggests that in search of medicinal herbs and grains the emperor accidentally got poisoned 72 times when finally green tea leaves blew into his mouth and revived him. The legends related to him discovering tea are many but whether or not his poisoning was cured by it, the enthralled emperor named this brew "ch'a", the Chinese character meaning to investigate or check, which is actually the origin of the Indian word for tea, which is chai. It must have been a stroke of fate for this invigorating plant to be discovered by Shen Nung himself, who was also known as the inventor of agriculture or the ‘Divine Farmer’. For he was the one who taught the people to use medicinal herbs, plough the earth, grow crops, harvest vegetables and be one with nature; so who could have been a better person to introduce this natural herb-like brew, calming in nature; thus connecting us with ourselves. The significance of tea didn’t just stop with Shen Nung, it went on to intrigue other emperors as well. Hundreds of years down the line, a Han Dynasty Emperor even proclaimed that a special written character illustrating a man between wooden branches and grass must be used to denote tea, symbolising the balance this plant bought in humankind with mother nature.
Our tea culture
Culturally the practice of drinking tea has been more of an activity and a reminder of a break in routine for people. In a country as diverse as ours, a warm cup of tea is a commodity that’s consumed as seriously as a ritual. Whether it’s chamomile green tea for the health-conscious millennial, kadak Assam tea for the tradition-loving elders of the family or black tea for the pressed for time student trying to stay awake. Whether it’s various variations of tea across different states, generations, eras or groups of people; the list is endless but the one thing that remains constant is this rich aromatic beverage. And it has good reason to stand the test of time, the temperature of this liquid makes a person sip it slowly, compelling them to consume it in a mindful, self-aware and calm manner; and to step away from their busy routines even if it’s for a short while every day, almost ritualistically. For families spending evenings together in the living room, old friends catching up on all the missed out gossip from the past years, daily wage labourers from construction sites huddled together in the chilling winters, women from the domestic workforce sitting in a circle in the airy parks, or just a couple reading the newspaper in the morning; a cup of Indian masala chai with sweet baked goods adds a necessary flavour and completes these beautiful times.
A sip of tea to relax!
The aroma and nature of tea are instantly relaxing and soothing for an individual. A cup of tea itself acts as company for a person wanting a comforting break; and it can even act as a uniting factor between a group of co-workers, employers and subordinates, road trip travellers on the highway or even teachers in the staff room at the end of an exhausting day; as when the group mindfully sips on a cup of warm tea, everyone becomes an equal even if it’s for a duration of those ten minutes.
Crossing over invisible boundaries
The preference for tea almost has a character of its own, even in the case of the most basic Indian tea, every individual has a specific preference; some like it extra strong, with cardamom, a specific amount of sugar, no ginger or with milk and so on. And almost anything and everything goes with tea, classic tiger biscuits, samosas, paranthas, the aptly named tea cakes and so on. What to pair with this beverage itself reveals a lot about the preferences of the individual consuming them apart from the time of the day of consumption. The conversation surrounding every individual's preference in a group can often be a great icebreaker or a transcender of boundaries, depending on the need of the situation, because these preferences despite being so specific to every individual are still so heard of, that they instantly hit home making the flow of conversation completely inclusive and easily understood by all.
A cup of tea as the solution
Tea first started getting imported into England in the 1600s and became a raging commodity instantly. Being an imported luxury, only the wealthy could afford to drink it, even the least expensive pound of tea would be worth a labourer’s monthly wages. These prices made it an elitist activity at the time; even the practice of serving tea in a particular manner became a symbol of social status and intellect, such that aristocratic families had paintings commissioned showcasing them consuming tea. The excessive demand for this precious commodity made the British East India Company begin mass-scale production and cultivation in Assam, where they grew a thicker leaved, premium tea variety. In no time at all Indian tea gardens started dominating the global trade and tea became a household name across all regions. The English language, given by the British stayed true to its ancestors, dividing people into classes and groups; but tea which started initially as a divider of classes as well, popularised commercially by the same group of rulers to date failed to do so; and just went on to unite those very groups of individuals.
Conclude the day with tea
So if it’s scorching hot where you are, have a cup of hibiscus herbal tea to cool your system and if it’s raining incessantly then just take a break, fry some pakodas and have a steaming hot cup of classic age-old masala chai.