Royal Pharmaceutical Society

A short history of tea in South Asia

Written by Museum Placement Students Kostantina Andrea and Baixue Shi

Tea has been grown and drunk in South Asia and many other countries for centuries. Shall we put the kettle on and explore its history?

Known scientifically by the botanical name Camelia Sinensis, the tea plant is branched into three main varieties, the Camellia assamica (Masters) (India), Camellia sinensis (L) (China), and Camellia assamica sub sp. Lasiocalyx (South Vietnam). A rather interesting theory suggests that tea travelled through the great rivers of South-East Asia following their courses ending in an area which became the meeting ground of Assam, North Burma, South-West China, and Tibet.

Turning the globe to the Indian subcontinent, we find Assam in the north of India, where tea drinking was prevalent and the plant cultivated by migratory hill tribes, namely the Khangtis, Singphos and Muttucks. However, the Indian tea industry developed by 1840 in Sylhet, a tea producing region now belonging to Bangladesh, after British colonial attempts to import and cultivate the Chinese product. The years following marked the coerced movement of numerous indentured labourers from impoverished districts of India. Still, gendered, ethnic and generational variation among workers on tea plantations alongside overwork, low wages, restricted occupational mobility and an unhealthy environment, explain why Gandhi labelled the plant as the ‘blood of the peasants.’

During the period of British rule, a tiny fraction of Indians would drink the beverage with a splash of milk. Yet, by the time of independence, many were experimenting with the infusion, sometimes brewing the leaves into milk alone along with spices such as ginger and cardamom pods.

In tandem with the benefits associated with the beverage, tea extract has been studied widely and a broad spectrum of its biological activities has been reported. Researchers have highlighted its antimutagenic, antitumour, antioxidant, anticoagulant, and antiviral effects, while tea drinkers swear upon its blood pressure and cholesterol regulatory properties. Recently, the Department of Tea Science from the University of North Bengal found that the photosynthetic parts of a tea plant from north-eastern India are rich in the ‘patchouli’ compounds, asserting the plant’s extended therapeutic properties and its valuable cosmetic and pharmaceutical applications.

Tea is one of the world’s oldest beverages and is still drunk all over the world – so enjoy your tea wherever you are!

The RPS Museum is now open - visit us to see our collection of botanical medicines and lots more!


Email newsletter

Want the latest pharmacy news and updates straight to your inbox?

Sign up to our regular newsletter for the latest guidance, news, events and CPD opportunities.

Sign Up