History & Culture of Tea

 March 24 2014 

Bharati Krishan is the wife of Ashok Krishan the General Manager of the
McLeod Russell's Tingri group of gardens. She is a  history enthusiast and
enjoys studying history and this article is the result of  her efforts to
enlighten us. We thank her sincerely for sharing her knowledge.

HISTORY & CULTURE  OF TEA      by Bharati Krishan

The Singpho & Khamti tribes of  North-east India & North Burma have been
consuming tea since the  1200s.

Tea originated from China.  Chineseman by the name of Shien Non Shei one
took his family mountain  climbing. There he got thirsty. He noticed some
leaves had drifted onto his  feet & when he twisted these leaves he noticed some
juice from these on  his fingers. He tasted this juice,found it bitter &
surmised that it might  have medicinal properties & be able to quench thirst.
Shien Non Shei was  thus the first human to taste tea.

The first  written reference to tea being made & consumed appears in 350
AD. Kuo P'o'  updated an old Chinese dictionary & included tea as beverage
made of  boiled leaves. Tea in those days was made by boiling leaves ,adding
ginger  ,orange ,etc & the brew was used to treat ailments of the digestive & 
nervous systems.

In those days people of  interior China pressed tea into bricks & used
these bricks as currency for  a barter system amongst tribes of interior China.
From 350 to 600 AD demand  for tea far outstripped the supply of tea &
cultivation of tea by farmers  spread from the Szechwan district to other parts
throughout China.

The first written reference to tea being made  & consumed appeared in 350
AD. Kuo P'o' updated an old Chinese dictionary  & included tea as a
''beverage made with boiled leaves''.

Tea in the Classical era,from 618 to 907 AD  evolved into an art form. Tea
was now steamed,crushed,fired & set into  bricks. Tea was brewed by breaking
off piece of this brick & boiling it in  water.

690 AD to 1279 AD
Harvests began highly regulated procedures. Before the  harvest,sacrifices
were made to mountain deities. Specific days were earmarked  for the

In  1598, Dutch traveller,historian & merchant ,Jan Huyghen records how
people  of the East Indies consumed leaves of a tree with oil & chillies. He
did  not call it ''tea'' but his description of the tree is very much that of
a tea  bush.

In 1823,Robert Bruce found that  the local people of Assam, the Singphos
brewed a drink from the leaves of some  tree. He & his men negotiated with the
Singpho chief,Bishagaum & his  tribesmen to give them seeds & leaves of
this tree in exchange for money.  He wanted to have it examined scientifically
& identified. They kept  taking samples & kept having tea but failed to keep
their end of the  bargain . Bishagaum & his men were simple men,who were
felt cheated. So to  punish Robert Bruce & his men,they hacked the trees. Much
to their  surprise,they found that the trees grew back even better &
produced a much  crop of tea thus proving the discovery of the practice of medium
& heavy  pruning. This improvised tea garden of the Singpho tribe came to be
known as  Beesakopie !

Robert Bruce died  & it was in the 1830s that his brother Charles Bruce
took leaves of the  tree,sent them to the Botanical Gardens in Calcutta & had
them identified  as the ''camellia sinensis''but that of a different 'jat'
than the Chinese  variety.
In 1837,the British set  up their first tea garden at Chabua in Upper Assam
& in 1840,the Assam  Company started the commercial manufacture of tea in
Conditions were utterly bad. Plantations were remote,cut  off & without
roads. Local hill tribes & wild animals a constant  threat to life & property.
Machinery & material for factory ;  foodstuff & building material for the
workers was very very difficult to  procure.

But those  pioneering British planters persevered & with sheer grit their
superior  fire power ,overcame all kinds of hardships & set up  these tea 
plantations in very very adverse conditions.

Tea in India comprises the largest organised agriculture. 51 %  or 1/6th of
the world's total tea is grown & produced in Assam. It  supports 1 million
workers & their families.

While the British were doing pioneering work in  setting up the tea
industry of India , the Indian businessmen weren't far  behind. Maniram Dewan was
the first to attempt competing with the British. In  1839, the world's first
tea company was set up with Dwarkanth  Tagore,Rabindranath Tagore's
grandfather & Matilal Seal as its directors.  In the same year,several companies
that were formed were brought under the  Assam Company.

Tea  contains as much Calcium & is as good for bones as milk.
690 to 1279 AD - harvests became highly  regulated procedures. Before the
harvests ,sacrifices were made to mountain  deities . A specific day was
earmarked for the harvest

Tea was now picked to the beat of drums &  cymbals. It was young girls who
plucked & they kept their   fingernails nails a certain length so that the
leaves did not touch their skin  !
The harvested leaves were graded  & the best grades sent to the emperor. A
cake of high grade could be worth  a lot of gold while that of the highest
grade would be priceless . Tea was  made by breaking off a piece of tea
brick,grinding it to a powder;adding it to  boiling water & whipping it with a
bamboo whisk.

Tea rooms & houses were built to enjoy tea at a spiritual  & social level.
The art of making ceramic tea equipment developed a great  deal during this

1368 to 1911 AD Ming & Ching Dynastys
Tea  in this period became a beverage to be enjoyed by the rich & poor
alike.  It spread right through Asia ,Africa & Europe.
First written mention of tea in Europe was in  Gambattista Ramusio's book
''Voyage & Travels''. He was a secretary of the  Ventian Council of Ren & he
wrote about the health enhancing properties of  tea.
In 1606 the  Dutch East India Company imported the first shipment of
Chinese tea.

In 1773 ,a group of US colonists  protesting the taxing of tea by Britain
boarded a ship of the Dutch East India  Company & dumped the cargo of tea
into the sea. This event is known as the  Boston Tea Party & is the reason why
tea is not subject to import taxes  even today in the US.

Tea  now is being made from loose leaves. Different methods to process tea 
originated & so did different types of tea such as green,oolong &  black
Tea  today is the most widely consumed beverage after water.