In ancient times, the term ‘chai’ did not mean what it does today. It referred to a concoction made using herbs and spices, like the traditional ‘kadha’. However, chai and kadha were different from each other in terms of brewing time and herbs/spices used. The origin of chai is shrouded in hundreds of years of history. There are numerous versions of the story of how the first cup of chai came about.
One story tells of a Buddhist monk, possibly Gautama Buddha himself, who was on his way to China. During this journey, he was observing the ritual of non-sleep. Upon chewing some wild leaves, he feels refreshed and energized, so he decides to bring them back with him. Others believe it was developed by King Harshavardhana to remain alert and keep himself fresh during long court hours.
Another legend talks of Sanjivani Buti, and its concoction, which was used to bring a comatose Lakshmana back to life in the epic Ramayana. This is said to be the first time chai came about. What’s fascinating is that the shrub that finds mention in the tale is similar to the Camellia Sinensis, which is a tea shrub discovered by the British in Assam in the year 1823.
In fact, chai was becoming increasingly popular back in the day, for its healing properties. Such was the fondness for the refreshing beverage that King Ashoka assimilated it into his peace treaties and court culture. This culture then percolated down to the common people and gained further fame.
With the passage of time, milk and sugar were added to the popular beverage. Around this time, with growing trade, invasions and colonisation, it became the elitist, go-to drink for office-bearers. In 1833, when the British lost their tea market to China, they looked to India. The premium quality teas from India were then taken away and the left-overs of dusty and darkened leaves were sold to vendors, made into tea and sold. This became the regular chai. Later on, when William McKercher discovered CTC, the prices went further down and with that tea became affordable and was soon served in cafes, eateries and so on. That is how tea soon became the national drink.
Over the past few decades, tea has evolved further. It was subjected to the cultural and regional diversity of India which resulted in a wide range of tea variations. Some of the most popular ones are- Chilli Chai, Ayurvedic Chai, Malabari Chai, and Cutting Chai. Chai originated in India and slowly found its way into every household across the country. India truly is a nation of tea-drinkers and tea-lovers!