“Turning to Roots” (Semi-Fictional Piece on the Origin of Tea)

It is a difficult task to grasp the fact that there are multiple legends surrounding the origin of tea when you are sitting at the table, clutching the morning paper and drinking your first, and hopefully not your last, cup of tea. After all, a beverage that has become such an essential part of your daily routine will rarely elicit a form of inquiry regarding its history, not on account of a lack of appreciation on your part, but a casual dismissal that is borne out of a fond familiarity. In that moment, all that matters is the taste, the aroma and, of course, the latest celebrity gossip.

However, more often than not, it is vital that we revisit tales, regardless of their authenticity, just so that we can understand the history of something so simple and, yet, so enchantingly elegant. From being served in thick ceramic glasses at roadside stalls to being personally poured for you in beautiful china at the fanciest of places, tea has come a long way from being a simple beverage and carved, for itself, an indelible mark in the lives of people around the world. While the stories differ significantly, it is interesting to note a common element in many of the legends that circulate the origins of tea; that of its accidental discovery. So, how, indeed, did something that was accidental become such an accepted part of our lives?

If a certain legend is to be believed, it happened in ancient China, around the latter half of 2000 B.C. Chinese Emperor Shen Nong, regarded as a man, who not only ruled in a shrewd and skilled manner but also as an individual with a scientific bent of mind, was out in the garden, boiling water. In a turn of events, that can only be attributed to pure serendipity, a leaf, from an overhanging wild tea plant, drifted into the pot of boiling water. The water, now infused with the flavour of tea, intrigued our protagonist and, as he drank, the Emperor discovered that not only did he enjoy the accidental brew but, upon further experimentation and research, found that it had medicinal properties. Now, it is almost impossible for someone to vouch or lend credibility to this tale. However, as mentioned earlier, it does one good to understand the journey of, what we so often consider, a simple brew.

For those inclined towards a more factual provision of evidence, the first documented mention of tea comes from southwest China. In the Shijing, the oldest known collection of Chinese poetry, the term ‘tu’ has been used to refer, to a number of bitter vegetables that were used to brew beverages, including tea. Additionally, there has been recorded evidence of the people of Sichuan presenting ‘tu’ to a King of the Zhou dynasty, the dynasty that followed the Shang dynasty. Actual physical evidence of the consumption of tea was first discovered in 2016, in the mausoleum of Emperor Jing of the Han dynasty, implying that tea brewed from the Camellia plant was consumed by the ancient rulers belonging to that particular dynasty. It is also interesting to note that several texts have been uncovered that contain prescriptions, penned by ancient Chinese healers, that allude to tea consistently being used for its medicinal properties. In our own country, the beverage has had a long storied history. However, unfortunately, apart from being used in the Himalayan region as a beverage, documented evidence has been difficult to come by, with the beverage seeming to only have taken hold the country’s populace once the British introduced tea-drinking here much later.

The next time you sit down with a cup of Halmari tea, pause for a moment and contemplate the incredible journey that this simple brew has taken. From being the drink of royalty, to being prescribed as medicine, to, finally, ending in a cup that only you seem to be holding.

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