Although the development of tea as a thriving industry in India has been more recent, historical records indicate the prevalence of tea drinking in India since 750 BC. In the 16th century, it was also observed that people in India were preparing a vegetable dish using tea leaves with garlic and oil.
The ultimate thrust towards commercial tea cultivation was driven by the incorrigible tea addiction of the British. Due to this addiction, they were buying it in large quantities from the Chinese. By 1750, they were purchasing millions of pounds of tea every year from China. Even though they managed to counterbalance it with the opium trade to some extent, it was obvious that their tea addiction was getting exorbitantly expensive and unsustainable.
This realisation led to a sustained effort by the British to understand tea production and cultivate the crop 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 was asked to make notes on tea in 1776, and he 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.
Meanwhile, Scottish explorer Robert Bruce made a startling discovery in 1823 when he found 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.
While 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.
Initially, the British felt that the Assamese plant was inferior, but they later realised that the Chinese variety was unable to survive the hot weather conditions in Assam. Eventually, they decided to go ahead with the Assamese plant and by 1838, the first consignment of 12 chests of Assam tea had reached London. Subsequently Assam Company - the first joint stock tea company - was set up in London and followed by other companies like George Williamson and Jorehaut Tea Company.
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 to plant Chinese seeds in Darjeeling that he had brought from Kumaon. Commercial plantations started in the 1850s and 113 plantations were set up in Darjeeling by 1874, covering 18,888 acres and accounting for a production of 3.9 million pounds.
The positive results from Assam and Darjeeling inspired many similar endeavours towards cultivating tea across the entire foothills of the Himalayas and other parts of India. By 1863, 78 plantations had been set up in Kumaon, Dehra Dun, Garhwal, Kangra Valley and Kulu. In South India, Dr Christie was the first to explore the potential of tea plantations in the Nilgiri in 1832. By 1853, India’s tea exports had reached 183.4 tons. They further soared to 6700 tons by 1870 and 35,274 tons by 1885.
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. Tea production has increased by more than 250 per cent since 1947 with the corresponding rise in area under production at around 40 per cent. India’s total tea production reached around 1,197.18 million kg in 2014-15. Of this, around 955.82 million kg (79.8 per cent) was produced in North India and 241.36 million kg (20.2 per cent) was produced in South India.