History & Origin of Tea in India

India is the world’s largest consumer of tea in the world – and the second-largest producer of tea – including the world’s most popular tea varieties – like Assam and Darjeeling tea. However, the growth of tea as an industry in India has been relatively recent.

Origin of Tea – When did tea come to India?

Historical records indicate the prevalence of tea drinking in India since 750 BC. In the 16th century, a vegetable dish was also being prepared using tea leaves with garlic and oil. However, the credit for rediscovering tea and cultivating it at a commercial level goes to the British.

Tea Cultivation was commercialized by the British in India
Commercial tea cultivation in India was driven by the British who consumed tea in enormous quantities, which they bought from China. By 1750, they were purchasing millions of pounds of tea every year from China. Even though the British managed to counterbalance it with opium trade to some extent, they found that their tea consumption was exorbitantly expensive and unsustainable.

This realization led to a sustained effort by the British to understand tea production – and start tea cultivation in India.

  • In early 1774, Warren Hastings, then Governor-General of Bengal, sent a few select samples of tea seeds from China to his British emissary in Bhutan – George Bogle – for planting.
  • Noted English botanist Sir John Banks, who was asked to make notes on tea in 1776, concluded that the British must undertake tea cultivation in India.
  • Colonel Robert Kyd from the army regiment of the British East India Company also tried to cultivate Chinese seeds at the botanical garden that he founded (now named Indian Botanical Garden at Howrah in present-day Kolkata) in 1780.
  • In 1823, Scottish explorer Robert Bruce discovered a native tea plant that was growing in the Upper Brahmaputra Valley and being brewed by the local Singhpho tribe. Assamese nobleman Maniram Dutta Barbhandari Baruah (also known as Maniram Dewan) gave this vital information to Robert and his brother. Maniram went on to become the first Indian to undertake private tea cultivation in Assam.
  • Although Robert Bruce died before he could get the plant officially classified, his brother Charles Alexander Bruce dispatched the tea samples to the Botanical Garden at Calcutta on Christmas Eve of 1834. On closer analysis, these were officially classified as a variation of the Chinese tea plant (Camellia sinensis var Sinensis). This plant was named Camellia sinensis var Assamica (Masters) Kitamura.

History & Origin of Assam Tea

Initially, the British felt that the Assam tea plant was inferior. But later they realized that the Chinese variety was unable to survive the hot weather conditions in Assam. Eventually, they decided to go ahead with the Assamese plant.

By 1838, the first consignment of 12 chests of Assam tea had reached London. Subsequently (in February 1839) the Assam Company – the first joint-stock tea company – was formed in London. This was followed by the setting up of other companies like George Williamson and Jorehaut Tea Company.

History & Origin of Darjeeling Tea

Darjeeling was transferred to the East India Company in 1835, and the Chinese tea variant was deemed suitable for the region in 1841.

  • Dr. A Campbell was the first person to plant Chinese seeds in Darjeeling that he had brought from Kumaon
  • Commercial tea plantations in Darjeeling started in the 1850s – and 113 plantations were set up by 1874, covering 18,888 acres and accounting for a production of 3.9 million pounds

How Tea Cultivation Spread to Other Parts of India

The positive results of tea cultivation in Assam and Darjeeling inspired many similar endeavors towards tea cultivations across the entire foothills of the Himalayas and other parts of India – such as Kumaon, Dehra Dun, Garhwal, Kangra Valley and Kulu in the north – and Nilgiri in the south.

  • North India
    By 1863, 78 plantations had been set up Kumaon, Dehra Dun, Garhwal, Kangra Valley, and Kulu.
  • South India
    Dr. Christie was the first to explore the potential of tea plantations in the Nilgiri in 1832.

India Starts Exporting Tea

By 1853, India’s tea exports had reached 183.4 tons – and soared to 6700 tons by 1870 and 35,274 tons by 1885.

Tea Cultivation in India after 1947

Tea production in India has continued to prosper after 1947. The Marwari community played a key role in this regard, as many Marwaris took over tea plantations from British owners.

As per December 2013 figures, India has approximately 563,980 hectares of land under tea cultivation, and its largest tea cultivating states are:

  • Assam 304,400 hectares
  • West Bengal 140,440 hectares
  • Tamil Nadu 69,620 hectares
  • Kerala 35,010 hectares

Since 1947:

  • Tea production increased by more than 250%
  • Area under tea plantations increased by 40%

India’s total tea production reached around 1,197.18 million kg in 2014-15. Out of this:

  • about 955.82 million kg (79.8%) was produced in North India
  • about 241.36 million kg (20.2%) was produced in South India