In India, tea is mentioned as a medicine in the Ramayana, the most important religious book dating from the 3rd century B.C. But we know little about the use or consumption of the beverage in the country until plantations were established there in the early 19th century by the British.
In 1823, an employee of the East India Company, Robert Bruce confirmed that the tea plant was indeed a native of the Assam area and sent seeds and specimen to the newly established Botanical Gardens in Calcutta. It wasn’t until 1833 that the East India Company lost its monopoly on trade and starting viewing India as a viable alternative for tea production. A committee was set up and they imported 80,000 seeds from China, and they started establishing plantations in North Eastern India. These Chinese tea seeds were propagated in the Botanical Gardens in Calcutta and when robust enough were transported some 500kms to the new plantations in Assam. However, it was in fact the native tea plants that thrived where the Chinese varietal perished in the harsh Assam heat. And despite arduous conditions for these early pioneers – this ‘new’ environment was hostile with harsh weather conditions, attacks from tigers, leopards and wolves not to mention raids from local hill tribes – their persistence paid off and under the shade of the jungle trees soon grew tract after tract of lush tea bush.
In 1858 the first shipments of Indian Assam were sold at auction in England with buyers describing it as ‘excellent’ in character. Around the 1850’s, the Assam Tea Company began to expanded from their successful industry in Assam’s Brahmaputra valley to the town of Darjeeling in the foothills of the Himalayas. Interestingly the Chinese variety of the tea plant that didn’t thrive in Assam grew well here. The climate of the Nilgiri Hills also suited the plant, and this area under tea steadily expanded. The teas of the Nilgiri hills are some of my favourite black teas.
Timeline of History of Tea in India
3rd century B.C
Tea is mentioned as a medicine in the Ramayana
Early 1st century
According to legend, the Buddhist monk who founded Zen Buddhism discovers that chewing on the native tea plant revives his energy enough to continue with meditation.
Documents written by a Dutch traveller Jan Huyghen van Linschoten, relate that the Indians prepared a vegetable dish using tea leaves along with garlic and oil and the boiled tea leaves to prepare a drink as well.
The British botanist, Joseph Banks, reports to the British East India Company that the climate in certain British-controlled parts of North East India, like Assam, was ideal for tea growing.
A Singpho King offers an English Army Officer a native tea drink as a medicinal beverage
Late 16th Century
The first Tea Garden is established by the British East India Company by the end of the 19th century after they take over tea cultivation in Assam. The Chinese varietal fails to thrive but the indigenous tea leaf remains successful.
The first twelve chests of Indian tea made from indigenous Assam leaf were shipped to London and at the London auctions.
Cultivation of tea started around the town of Darjeeling in the foothills of the Himalayas