India is the original home of tea

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A Letter From Grandpa

By Niranjan Shah

My dear Snehi and Sohan:

D.P. Singhal, Professor of History at the University of Queensland, writes in “India and the World Civilization”: “Tea, the national drink of the Anglo-Saxons, is an indirect Indian legacy to Western civilization. It is also a favored drink of the Chinese, Japanese, Russians, and others. The original home of this shrub was Assam India, and from there in the third century A.D. it travelled to China and by the middle of the seventeenth century it appeared in England and attracted especially women who prefered them to the stuffy tea houses in the congested city. Scholars too were attracted. Dr. Samuel Johnson and Boswell lent distinction to these gardens.”

Assam Tea is a black tea named after the region of its production, Assam, in India. Assam is the world’s largest tea-growing region, lying on either side of the Brahmaputra River, and bordering Bangladesh and Burma (Myanmar). This part of India experiences high precipitation; during the monsoon period as much as 10 to 12 inches of rain per day. The daytime temperature rises to about 1030F, creating greenhouse-like conditions of extreme humidity and heat. This tropical climate contributes to Assam’s unique malty taste, a feature for which this tea is well known. Assam tea is manufactured specifically from the plant Camellia sinensis. This tea, most of which is grown at or near sea level, is known for its body, briskness, malty flavor, and strong, bright color. Assam teas, or blends containing Assam, are often sold as “breakfast” teas. English breakfast tea, Irish breakfast tea, and Scottish breakfast tea are common generic names.

Though “Assam” generally denotes the distinctive black teas from Assam, the region produces smaller quantities of green and white teas as well with their own distinctive characteristics.   Assam tea revolutionized tea drinking habits in the 19th century since the tea, produced from a different variety of the tea plant, yielded a different kind of tea.

Tea is one of the oldest beverages known to civilization. There are many myths connected to use of tea. Though the extent of the popularity of tea in Ancient India is unknown, it is known that the tea plant was a wild plant in India that was indeed brewed by local inhabitants of different regions. The first recorded reference to tea in India was in the ancient epic of the Ramayana, when Hanuman was sent to the Himalayas to bring the Sanjeevani tea plant for medicinal use.

Chinese legends credit a monk called Gan Lu, whose family name was Wu-Li-chien, with traveling to India during the Later Han dynasty, A.D. 25-221, to pursue Buddhist studies. Gan Lee is said to have taken seven tea plants home to China from India, which he planted on Meng Mountain in Szechwan. This story was later supported in an allegory on tea in the Ch`a P`u published long afterward, through which tea was first brought to imperial attention. According to another belief, when a Chinese Emperor Shen Nung sat serenely by a pot of boiling water, when leaves from a wild tea bush flew into the kettle. The ensuing aroma aroused the Emperor’s senses to the point that he sampled a cup of the exotic brew. To his delight, it tasted  wonderful,  and  he never again drank plain water.

Tea first reached Europe by 1609, gaining particular popularity in France, Holland, England, and Russia. By the mid-18th century, tea was being exported in great quantities to the colonies in America. Despite the huge taxes levied on tea in 1773 by the British crown and the subsequent dumping of tea in Boston Harbor during “The Boston Tea Party,” tea drinking remained, as it still does, a popular and relaxing activity. Japanese legends ascribe the origin of tea in China to the Indian monk Bodhidharma (ca. 460-534), a monk born near Madras, India, and the founder of the Ch’an (or Zen) sect of Buddhism.

— Grandpa’s blessing

Niranjan Shah, a civil engineer, who pioneered famous high-rise buildings in Baroda, is a broadcaster in India and the USA and a prolific writer. Under “A Letter from Grandpa.” he has been writing since 2002 on India’s historical, philosophical, and literary heritage. He can be reached at nshah32@hotmail.com

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