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Opinion | How teas led the way for trains

The enduring romance of tea and trains goes back to a time when posters with recipes went up on station walls

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

It has been a while since I took an overnight train journey but if memory serves me right, the chaiwallah’s refrain goes chai-a chai-a chai-a, with kaapi punctuating the call in the south. I am not a fan of railway tea—its only redeeming feature is that it’s piping hot. And yet, several historical sources report that by the 1930s, the Indian Tea Association (ITA) claimed that “a better cup of tea could in general be had at the platform tea stalls than in the first-class restaurant cars on the trains".

Explaining the close relationship between trains and tea, Arup Chatterjee, author of The Great Indian Railways: A Cultural Biography, says the establishment of the ITA in 1881 coincided with a decade of railway expansion. The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, the first mountain railway in India, was actually built to transport tea from Darjeeling and the Assam valley. The line between Siliguri and Kurseong opened on 23 August 1880. Over the next six years, it was extended to Darjeeling Bazaar. Today, we know it as the Darjeeling Toy Train.

In a blog post, “The Tea Junction", Niladri Gupta, who used to work at Assam’s Tocklai Tea Research Institute, says the railway line arrived in Assam in 1880, to transport tea and coal from Makum to Dibrugarh. In 1903, another line linked Assam to Chittagong port (now in Bangladesh) via Barak Valley.

The railway line for the Nilgiris was proposed as early as the 1850s but construction only began in 1891. Completed in 1908, it connects Mettupalayam with the tea country of Coonoor, going up to Ooty. Also called the Toy Train, it offers picturesque views of the blue mountains.

Kerala got India’s first monorail in Munnar, in 1902, to transport tea and other commodities. It had a small wheel on the track, with a larger balancing wheel on the road, and was pulled by bullocks. Tea went from Munnar to Top Station by monorail, downhill by aerial ropeway to “Bottom Station" at Kottagudi, and by cart to Tuticorin port. Incidentally, the regional office of Kannan Devan Hills Plantation (KDPH) is housed in what used to be the Munnar railway station.

The Darjeeling and Nilgiri railways are now Unesco World Heritage Sites.

But what has made the association of tea with trains such a strong national memory? Both Chatterjee and Lizzie Collingham (author of Curry) write about the ITA’s 1901 railway campaign to promote tea drinking. Contractors were handed tea and kettles to make and serve tea at major junctions—mostly in Punjab, Bengal and the North-West Frontier Province. They were told how to brew tea. Posters with tea recipes went up on station walls. In a fascinating story of how chai came to be, these vendors chose to make tea with milk and spices, closer to their palate preferences.

Tea drinking had well and truly arrived in India, even if only on trains and at railway stations. Unwittingly, it sealed the relationship between tea and trains for many of us, making it a saga of enduring romance and happy nostalgia.

Tea Nanny is a weekly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry.

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