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History of Tea: Fascinating Story of Chinese Emperor Shen Nong & How it Came to India!

Over the years, tea has emerged to be one of the most preferred and the most consumed beverages in the world. Served with either milk or water, drank either chilled or even hot, tea can be sipped anywhere at any time. Black tea, Green Tea, Chai, and many more varieties of tea. Starting as medicinal herbs in the Oriental world, the tea made a long journey of appreciation and success all across the globe.

Story of Origin

There is a Chinese myth regarding the concept of brewing the tea. The emperor, who goes by the name Shen Nong was boiling plain water in a pot. Some leaves from a nearby wild tea tree, flown by air, fell into the pot of boiling water.

The color and aroma of the boiling liquid got altered. The emperor, out of curiosity, drank it, and he felt rejuvenated and warmed. He named it" ch'a," meaning "to investigate."

Another story says that Emperor Shen Nong used to taste the medicinal properties of various herbs by testing on himself. Some of the herbs turned out to be poisonous, and the emperor would use the tea leaves to heal himself.

A third legend says that there was an Indian originated Buddhist scholar named Bodhi- Dharma. He was the founder of the Zen school of Buddhism. He was meditating in front of a wall for nine long years to prove his Zen principles.

However, he fell asleep during the concluding periods of meditation. In disgust, he cut off his own eyelids and threw them on the ground. The first tea bushes grew from that point where the butchered eyelids were lying.

In the mausoleum of Emperor Jing, who hailed from the Han Dynasty, there are indications that tea was drunk by the emperors of that dynasty from the 2nd century.

However, people treated the tea as a medicine back then. In work, THE CONTRACT FOR A YOUTH by Wang Bao, there is mentioned that youth used to boil and fill the bowl with the tea.

Thus we find a reference to how drinking tea was already in practice. The pioneering record of tea cultivation is also found in the era of Emperor Xuan of Han. Tea cultivation mainly took place in the Meng mountains.

Lu Yu, a Buddhist monk, hailing from the Tang Dynasty, composed the Ch'a Ching ( Classic of Tea Treatise). He made a list of the varieties of teas, their preparation, and their importance.

There were spiritual implications in his writing that reflected the religions of the time, namely Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. The teachings of Lu Yu in his book revolved around the traditional tea ceremony.

Only after the 8th century did the popularity of tea increase in China, the people found tea more than just medicine. It became a beverage having refreshing properties. Tea plantations expanded. Strict rules were enforced regarding the cultivation of tea.

Young maidens were made to tend the tea leaves. They were prohibited from eating strong-smelling food items such as garlic or spices so that their hands don't smell of them.

In the year 1391, an issue was decreed by the ruler that only loose tea would be taken as a tribute. Hence the production changed from cake tea to lose leafy tea. The loose tea entirely replaced the powdered tea by the end of the 16th century.

Journey of Tea

The tea made its journey from China to various other Asian countries. Dengyo Daishi, a Buddhist monk, took back some tea seeds while returning from China to his own country. However, some records reveal that Saicho was the first person to introduce tea to Japan. The tea gradually became popular among the Buddhist monks who used to drink it before long hours of meditation.

There were small tea plantations in their monasteries. Eisai, a Zen monk, popularised the notion of grinding the tender green tea leaves into a fine powder. It was called a matcha. It was prepared with Chasen (bamboo whisks). The tea plantations in Japan, however, did not grow before the 13th century.

In Korea, tea offerings were made to the spirit of King Suro in 661te offerings of tea was a quite popular tradition in the Buddhist temples during the rule of the Goryeo Dynasty. Tea was offered to the spirits of the respected monks. However, they used to provide pressed cakes of black tea in the ceremonies. The Buddhist monks brought the tender and delicate variant of tea in Korea.

The Russian Tsar Alexis received a gift of tea from China in 1618. What happened next is that the Russians became addicted to this new beverage, and tea became an exclusively popular drink in Russia.

Around 6000, camels carrying 600 pounds of tea entered Russia every year to fulfill the demands of the tea lovers in Russia. It took nearly one and a half years to cover the distance of 11,000 miles. Later, the Trans Siberian Railways reduced the distance and the time significantly.

In the early 5th century, tea got introduced in Tibet by the Chinese. The topography of Tibet forbade the cultivation of tea in the land, and thereby large quantities of tea were traded through yak caravans.

The popularity of tea reached such an extreme level in Tibet that it became a form of currency. The compressed tea was the most popular form of payment. Tea remains a staple diet in Tibet to this day. People consume around 40 glasses of tea almost daily. The traditional tea has yak butter and salt added to the boiled tea leaves and the liquid.

The tea traveled to Europe through the Portuguese and the Dutch in 1610. King Charles II of England married the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza. The new queen had brought with her loads of pure Chinese tea.

An ardent tea lover herself, the queen served tea to her noble friends. Gradually the smell of the tea spread from the wings of the palace to the sheds of the masses.

There are historical records that prove that the concept of drinking tea was prevalent in India as early as 750 BC. A vegetable dish of the 16th century had tea leaves as ingredients alongside garlic and oil. However, the commercial tea plantation was started during the colonial rules under the British.

The climate of the Northeastern parts of India favored the cultivation of tea. Gradually, tea made its entry even in the meanest of Indian households. It rose from the position of a mere beverage. It has become an art of the culture, an emotion, and a habit.

Any Indian public always welcomes a cup of tea at any hour. Nearly 200 years ago, a Scottish adventurer and biologist, Robert Fortune, smuggled the tea seeds from China to Darjeeling in India.

However, there are variations of the story that say that it was Dr. Campbell who had brought the Chinese tea seeds from Kumaon and planted them in Darjeeling. The commercial tea plantations in Darjeeling was started in the 1850s.


Tea has played a crucial role in shaping the Asian culture for years and centuries. With its hundreds of variations and thousands of ways of preparations, tea is one of the most loved beverages in the world.

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