Darjeeling Second Flush leaves for this morning's cup. Photo: Sreyashi Dey, 2010
A part of my collection of teapots. Photo: Sreyashi Dey, 2010
The history of tea cultivation in India dates back to 1823 when Robert Bruce discovered tea plants growing wild in Upper Brahmaputra valley in the state of Assam in northeastern India. My father-in-law, who lived in that region for almost two decades, recently commented that the first tea garden in India, called "chabua" (or cha/tea planted) was started in 1831 and is about 25 miles east of Dibrugarh on the main trunk road to Tinsukia, and that it should be producing tea even now. In May 1838 the first Indian tea from Assam was sent to England for public sale. India produces several different varieties of mainly black tea. Darjeeling is a beautiful town nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas. With its cool and moist climate, rainfall patterns and terrain, it is a premier tea growing region of the world. The fine and delicately flavored tea from its famed gardens is exquisite and distinguished, enjoying a place of pride similar to champagne among wines. The Assam region, the land of the great river Brahmaputra, tigers and the one-horned rhino, is home to rich, full-bodied, bright and strong teas. The Nilgiris or the Blue Mountains of southern India produces some wonderfully fragrant teas, with great body and brisk liquor.
Temi tea from Sikkim, similar to Darjeeling First Flush. Photo: Sreyashi Dey, 2010
While it would not be accurate to say that all tea drinkers in India are connoisseurs, or even know the differences between a Darjeeling or an Assam tea, it is no less than a lifeline for millions. Tea or chai is an ubiquitous drink for Indians, available on street corners, on trains, roadside eating joints and in people's homes. What people commonly drink in all these places when they are outside the home or traveling is a concoction made out of some kind of tea leaves, granules or powder, and boiled in water with milk and sugar. Thick and syrupy, it may occasionally have an added flavor of freshly grated ginger or spices such as cardamom, although the relatively high price of spices often precludes its use on street corners or in roadside eateries called dhabas.
On a cool February morning, the chai-wallah at the street corner of my parents' home in Kolkata makes tea for her customers. Photo: Sreyashi Dey, 2008
Train travel in India and tea have an intimate connection. Tea sellers or chai-wallahs abound the railway platforms and the trains, including moving ones. They carry their wares in a metal pail - a large tea kettle with steaming hot chai and a stack of tea cups, either made of clay or more commonly, plastic in this day and age. They are not shy about getting business, enticing travelers to drink their tea with their characteristic "chai garam!" call which means "hot tea!" They can often be seen running alongside a moving train and thrusting the little cups of tea in the hands of the train passengers through the windows. They still manage to get the paid somehow, even if it means collecting the coins the passenger would fling on the floor of the platform in return for a hot cup of tea...almost an unwritten code of honor between the tea seller and the customer.
A tea cup on the window of a train moving through rural West Bengal.
Still capture from my friend Sandeep Ray's wonderful film "The Earnest Years"
In 2007, my friend Charlee Brodsky, a distinguished photographer and a professor of Photography at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, made a trip to India with me. One of the things she was particularly struck by was the little clay teacups used by street vendors to serve tea in. These eco-friendly cups are beautiful to look at and add a special earthy flavor to the tea. Charlee was quite taken by them and was determined to bring some back home with her. She asked a tea vendor to sell her some of these cups (without the tea) and he was quite heartily amused at this unusual request! Later that day, she happened to find a naturally beautiful composition of three clay teacups on the ground, among leaves, twigs and stones, now filled with rainwater. Here is her photograph of it and it is one of my favorites.
Photo: Charlee Brodsky, 2007
I can just smell the tea these little cups once held, the damp earth after the rains and the lovely fragrance of the wet clay cups!