Last week, Federal Minister for Planning and Development Ahsan Iqbal stirred up a storm in a tea cup (pun intended) when he urged the nation to cut down on tea consumption as part of measures to help overcome the foreign exchange glut.
On the face of it, the minister's remarks make sense. He tweeted later that Pakistan is the largest importer of tea in the world, racking up an import bill of a whopping $589.8 million in 2020 alone.
Pakistan's love affair
But love defies all logic. And rarely has there been a love affair as passionate as Pakistan's romance with tea. A drink or ‘concoction’ that, according to some sources is nearly 5,000 years old, tea or chai as it is known in this part of the world, has cemented its position across the socio-economic fabric of Pakistan.
From references in contemporary poetry to the average drama serials, the customs, habits, institutions and set of ideas surrounding the milky concoction echo from the remotest of Pakistan’s villages to its largest conurbations. A new bride is judged on the basis of her tea-making skills. Business deals worth billions are conducted over a cup of tea. In fact, tea stalls have become the latest fad in upscale localities, offering customers an ambient atmosphere to sit for hours and sip their favourite drink.
But how was a relationship, as passionate as that between Pakistan and tea, brewed in the first place?
Like most cultural norms in Pakistan — like that of finding fairer skinned people to be more attractive — the answer lies in our colonial past. Before the colonial interjection is explained, however, let us take stock of the story of tea in Asia.
Many attribute the origin of tea to a 4,700 year-old legend in China during the time of Emperor Shen Nong. Others attribute it to an equally old Buddhist legend from India. Despite the contested origin, tea has been consumed as a concoction in many regions of the world including Central Asia, South Asia, the Mediterranean and the Middle East for aeons.
The earliest infrastructure that helped tea spread geographically was the Chamadao or Chamagudao — an ancient tea-horse road that led to Tibet, Burma and further afield. By the late eighth century, tea had become such a profitable business that “tea merchants commissioned Lu Yü, a poet and scholar, to write the first treatise on the subject, titled Ch’a Ching (The Classic of Tea)".
At the time, tea also had a presence in India, albeit much smaller. Though the beverage was commonly consumed in the port cities of the Indo sub-continent such as Surat — the very port the East India Company first landed on in India — it was never the drink of choice for the masses. The locals instead preferred indigenous beverages such as lassi [a yogurt-based refreshing drink] and various fruit juices. This status quo was maintained until the arrival of the British in India.
Tea comes to India
Tea was first introduced in Europe by the Dutch in the early 17th century. A fashionable, yet expensive luxury, the aristocratic circles of Europe took to the drink as it was believed to possess medicinal qualities. In this regard, the English aristocracy requires a particular mention.
In essence, tea became not only the drink of the European elite, but also became a symbol of all that was perceived to be good about them. Tea was the drink of the refined and cultured, a symbol of civilisation, and an ode to human progress. Gradually, the general European populace, particularly the British and the French, developed a taste for this concoction, making its trade extremely lucrative.
By the early 19th century, the British began importing massive amounts of tea from China, the then largest exporter of the commodity in the world. Fearing that their treasury would eventually run out of silver due to the expensive imports of tea — I bet Ahsan Iqbal feels the same — the British decided to switch tactics.
Having conquered much of India at this point, the British began trading Indian-grown opium with the Chinese merchants in exchange for tea to balance their trade with China and stop the silver outflow. This change of tactics was so successful that by the 1830s, the balance of trade now favoured the British, instead of the other way around. It was too good to last though.
With the opium trade becoming an economic and political problem for the Chinese, the Qing dynasty banned the open trade of opium and ordered the stocks of British opium present in Canton to be burned down in 1838. The British retaliated in 1842, leading to the start of the First Opium War, which then lead to the Second Opium War.
The wars eventually concluded with agreements that opened the Chinese tea trade to many global contenders, including the Americans. The British had now lost their absolute monopoly over tea. But something interesting had transpired before and during the two Opium wars.
Given the lucrative trade, the British, as early as 1757, had begun looking for places within the empire’s own territories to cultivate tea. Though there had been no luck for 50 years, in 1823, a Scottish major named Robert Bruce hit gold. He noticed that the tea plant was indigenous to the Assam valley in India and could potentially be cultivated there for commercial purposes.
The first shipment of Assam tea, produced from Chinese plants, was delivered to London in 1838 and later, the Assam Tea Company was formed. By the 1860s, other plantations were developed across India, most notably in Darjeeling. In 1881, the Tea Association of India was established to help the industry grow.
Tea mania had officially begun in India but was still strongly associated with the British or the Anglo-Indians — the latter term used for those with mixed Indian and British ancestry or people of British descent born or residing in India. However, the boom did not last long as the global tea market began saturating in the late 19th century. Until this time, that the British had hardly given any thought to the untapped potential of a large domestic (Indo sub-continent) tea drinking market.
In the early 1900s, the Tea Association of India set up several marketing campaigns to promote the domestic consumption of tea. However, these early campaigns failed to reap any significant rewards until the First World War.
During the war, tea was promoted in the Indian army and the Raj’s government offices, among other institutions, as a drink that energised the mind and the consumption of which was seen as helping the glorious empire fight back its enemies.
The increased consumption of tea, when considered as an economic phenomenon, helped the British Raj in the form of taxes that could be used to fight the war. But more importantly, this very consumption also transformed tea into a symbol of Britishness and hence, civilisation and progress.
Moreover, to encourage consumption among the masses, tea stalls were set up in factories, mines and railway stations. However, it was not until the 1950s that tea truly became the drink of the masses, courtesy of a revolutionary invention — the Crush, Tear and Curl (CTC) machine, which converts the leaves into small, hard pellets. Simply put, the CTC machines allowed tea vendors to mechanise part of their production process, allowing the beverage to be sold at extremely cheap prices. As a result, tea became a fast-moving consumer good that started being consumed by all.
What is ironic is that the very same chai that the colonisers introduced and then profited from became so appropriated by the region, it is now considered an exotic beverage in the West. In recent years, tea has joined the growing list of commodities repackaged and sold to consumers in the West at inflated prices — remember Paul Smith’s infamous “Robert Sandals” or the Peshawari Chappal as it is known here. Today, you will find various iterations of the beverage being served in high-end cafes across the Western world — the bizarrely named chai-tea-latte at Starbucks is one such example.
Herein lies the paradox: tea was adopted here was because it allowed the locals to imitate their master — the British. Yet, by selling the chai-tea-latte, exoticising the milk-tea and its consumer, the logic is being turned on its head in the West for profit.
A drink for the masses
If you have read this far, you may have arrived at the conclusion that the beginning of this love affair was based on simple economics — tea was cheap, so tea became popular. This may have been one of the considerations, yes, but the real magic lay in the marketing campaigns by post-partition tea associations, the planters and the traders, which cemented its position in the heads of Pakistanis and Indians alike.
After partition, tea, besides being available for cheap, was now packaged with a nationalist zeal. Both newly created nations suffered from an identity crisis unable to define for themselves what it was that made them into a nation. It was in these moments of crises that tea associations, planters and traders decided to pitch tea as a national symbol.
Tea, the concoction that was now being served everywhere, is what united these nations, for it was a drink that everyone consumed. It was marketed as a symbol pure from race, religion, culture and ethnicity — it was purely a national symbol. This theme, which is prominently visible in the Indian and Pakistani tea ads from the 1960s, is one of the reasons why Pakistanis and Indian continue their love affair with chai.
Socio-culturally, to drink chai was equated to being Pakistani. Chai stopped being British and was quickly understood by many to have always been indigenous to the Pakistani culture. To reduce a few cups of chai every day, as the minister suggests, then is roughly equivalent for an average Pakistani to abandon a part of themselves — a part that in its truest essence is the symptom of a colonial hangover.
This brings us to another other reason for this socio-cultural love affair. To market this huge surplus of cheap tea, various campaigns did not only rely on nationalism but also took inspiration from the discourse that surrounded tea during the colonial era.
For instance, tea, which was a symbol of progress during the colonial period, also reflected progress in the newly created nation of Pakistan. Tea, which was a symbol of British hospitality, also became a symbol of Pakistani hospitality. Tea, which was the official drink of the British corridors of power, also came to dominate Pakistan’s corridors of power — drawing rooms, the autak, the offices of government babus.
Tea then, in essence, was Pakistan’s continued love affair with its master, the British. It was a memory, a dialectic, that the nation could latch onto to legitimise itself through the gaze of the coloniser itself.
Though it may seem otherwise, this essay is not an attempt at questioning the indigenousness or localness of tea, or even its ultimate colonial associations. Instead, it aims to demonstrate the story of a complex love affair that, like so many other Pakistani love affairs, is the product of our alien colonial past.
And yet, it is not love that is likely to diminish anytime soon, especially not at the behest of a minister.
The information for this essay has primarily been gathered from these sources:
- Tea: A golden history by Helen Saberi
- Making tea in India: Chai, capitalism, culture by Philip Lutgendorf
- A thirst for empire: How tea shaped the modern world by Erika Diane Rappaport
- Bhadra, Gautama. From an imperial product to a national drink: The culture of tea consumption in modern India. Tea Board India, Department of Commerce, 2005 [For images]
- Nongbri, Natasha. "Representing Tea, Creating Consumers: Tea Advertising in Late Colonial India." In Materiality and Visuality in North East India, pp. 129-150. Springer, Singapore, 2021.