The Evolution of Chai in India

Welcome! This exhibit analyzes the increase of chai’s popularity in India during the twentieth century, and how it evolved from an upper-class colonial drink to a national staple favored by the masses in India today.

The word ‘chai’ is a transliteration of the word ‘tea’ in Hindi. There are slight variations in other Indian languages, but in general, ‘chai’ and ‘tea’ are used synonymously in India (Lutgendorf 2012, 11). Moreover, the word ‘chai’ in India most commonly refers to the complete concoction of the actual tea, from Camellia sinensis, milk, sugar, and spices (Dufrene, 46). This is part of what makes chai in India distinct, even from its early British colonial traditions. When Indians make tea, they add all of these ingredients together, for a distinctly sweet and rich cup (Collingham, 2006). So, in this exhibit, ‘chai’ refers to this drink, while ‘tea’ more often refers to the plant, or the tea itself as an economic product.

British colonists in India originally started cultivating tea to compete with the Chinese market. By the middle of the 1700s, tea had become extremely popular in Britain, and almost almost all of it was imported from China (Collingham 2006, 191). To combat this monopoly, the British started to cultivate tea in India. At first, it was a failure; they had no idea how to grow tea, and their poorly treated Indian workers did not know either (193). Moreover, they tried to grow Chinese tea plants, instead of indigenous Camellia sinensis plants from Assam, in east India. However, as they switched to growing Assamese tea and their knowledge increased, production expanded so that by 1900, only 10% of tea imported to Britain came from China, while 50% came from India, and about 30% came from Ceylon (British-occupied Sri Lanka) (194).

Clearly, the British colonizers had put in a great deal of effort to grow tea in their own colonies in India for British consumption. But this was only the beginning of their efforts in the subcontinent. They soon realized that the biggest market potential for tea was right under their noses, in India, untapped. People in northern India (where chai is most popular today) traditionally drank dairy drinks like buttermilk, yogurt, or plain milk, or just drank water. They only drank tea rarely, as a medicinal draught (192). So, they started a massive advertising and education campaign, running newspaper ads through the British-owned ‘Indian Tea Association,’ (195). They worked to convince grocers to stock more tea on shelves, and a small army of salesmen delivered liquid tea to offices in an attempt to cultivate its popularity. At first, this was slow going, as Indians were resistant, but by the First World War, the campaign had gained momentum. Tea stalls were set up in railways, factories, coal mines – basically, anywhere there was a captive market for thirsty buyers (195). They even attempted to teach Indians how to brew ‘proper’ tea, but Indian sellers kept putting their own spin on it, by putting in lots of milk and sugar. This appealed to traditional north Indian tastes, and it made an excellent calorie boost for hungry workers (196). By the late 1940s, even the homeless on the streets of Calcutta were drinking chai. Today, long after the British have left India, the chai stall is a cornerstone of every village and street.

In the coming pages, you can see examples of tea advertisements in India in the 20th century, as well as modern photographs of chai culture in India. 


Andie Mitchell, 2017

Prev Next