Tea cultivation in India has somewhat ambiguous origins. As with China, it appears that the original use for tea in India was medicinal. Some Chinese tea might have been brought to India by the silk caravans that traveled from China to Europe centuries ago, but a variety of Camellia sinensis is also native to India, and grew in the wild long before its true worth was realized. The extent of the popularity of tea in Ancient India is unknown as there is no substantial documentation of the history of tea drinking in the Indian subcontinent for the pre-colonial period.
Commercial tea plantations were first established under the British Rule when the native variety of Camellia sinensis – Assamica – was discovered by Scotsman Robert Bruce in 1823 in Assam.
The story goes that a local merchant, Maniram Dewan, introduced Bruce to the Singpho people who were drinking something very similar to tea. The Singphos plucked the tender leaves of a wild plant and dried them under the sun. These leaves were also exposed to the night dew for three whole days after which they would be placed inside the hollow of a bamboo tube and smoked till flavours developed. Bruce sampled the leaf decoction and found it to be similar to tea from China. By 1840, the Assam Tea Company began the commercial production of tea in the region.
Chinary tea plants, which were first tried out in Assam, were later tested in high-elevation regions of Darjeeling and Kangra, and it was here that they grew far more healthily. By 1847, an official tea plant nursery was established in Darjeeling.
Beginning in the 1850s, the tea industry rapidly expanded, consuming vast tracts of land for tea plantations. By the turn of the century, Assam became the leading tea-producing region in the world.
Assam and Darjeeling are now household names, and breakfast teas tend to blended with some Indian varieties. The addition of spices like star anise, cardamom, cinnamon and ginger to make Masala Chai, served with milk and sugar, was also popularised during British rule in India and is now an established drink around the world.