When we think about where tea came from, China often comes to mind. China has a long history associated with tea, and it was where we British bought our tea for a while. Tea was not limited to China however. Its specific origin is unknown, though general consensus says it started in the area where the borders of Burma, India and China meet. Though barely any ancient documented evidence exists, what little does survive shows that historically Indians were aware of the potential of the plant, particularly those living in the north east near the country's modern borders. Rather than indulging overly in tea back then, Indians used various plants and spices to produce herbal teas, as they were interested in their wide variety of medicinal benefits.
The widespread cultivation and commercialisation of tea in India occurred when the British East India Company decided to create their own tea source, in order to compete with the Chinese monopoly. China demanded payment in silver for goods such as tea. Being able to only pay in silver, Britain started to trade in opium as a way to offset losses, and in cases resulted in outright piracy and smuggling. Initially Chinese authorities turned a blind eye to the trade as it was to their benefit, but eventually the amount of opium coming into the country was affecting the treasury along with the well being of the people, with a rise in opium addiction. They banned opium and started impounding and destroying opium shipments. This led to the First Opium War of 1839-42 and the Second Opium War of 1856-60, in which Britain and China fought over differences of opinion on diplomacy and trade.
The appearance of the British East India Company's tea plantations in India ran parallel to the rising tensions and eventual fallout with China. At first the planters tried to use seeds from Chinese tea plants to begin the plantations, but many failed. They turned to the hardier native variety, which quickly proved their worth. By the time of the Second Opium War, there were several dozen acres of tea trees growing in North East India, and by the end of the 19th century, tens of thousands of tons of tea were being produced and exported. Last year, India produced around 1.2 million tons of tea, putting it in second place behind China for tea production worldwide.
Despite the large quantities available to the Indian people, they never took to it with the same gusto that the British did. In the 1950s, the India Tea Board embarked on an advertising campaign to try and boost tea use within the country, which was successful in a way. Despite the fairly low amounts consumed per capita, India's large population means that roughly 70% of the tea now produced in India is consumed within the country.
Check back soon for a look at some of the teas India is famous for!