Imagine this: You’re tucked up under the covers, still pleasantly fuzzy with sleep. A soft rap at the door brings a steaming cup to your bedside. You stretch out your legs luxuriantly, taking a delicate sip of velvety, piping hot chai.
“Bed tea,” the name given to the cup of milky brew traditionally enjoyed on waking, is one of India’s most appealing coinages. In this country of over 1.3 billion people, hundreds of millions of tea-drinkers begin every morning with a fresh cup. Take an early stroll through any Indian city and you’ll see roadside chai wallahs, or tea stall vendors, hawking their own caramel-colored liquid concoctions.
Such is its cultural prominence that this past spring, after a 38-year-old man in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand with a history of domestic violence was arrested for the murder of his wife, reporters framed their coverage by seizing on a single detail: “She refused to serve him bed tea.”
The leisurely caffeine kick that fuels punishingly long work days is an enshrined tradition. Tea culture on the Indian subcontinent is sacrosanct, and India, the world’s leading producer of black tea, is famous for its prolific plantations, from the lush, brand name fields of Assam and Darjeeling down to emerging hilltop estates in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The majority of the country’s tea crop—almost 80 percent—is consumed domestically.
In City of Djinns, his chronicle of Delhi, Scottish historian William Dalrymple writes of his years of marriage that “One of the great pleasures of our life in India has always been being woken up on the dot of 7:30 every morning by Ladoo”—a servant—“bearing ‘bed tea.’”
The concept seems like a quintessential Indianism, but early morning chai is, in fact, a fairly modern concoction. Tea drinking itself only took off in India in the last half of the 20th century. It became widespread as recently as the 1960s and ‘70s. Britain first began cultivating tea plants in 19th century colonial India to compete with China’s tea production. Until then, herbal infusions were taken medicinally. Indentured servants harvested the crops, but British consumers enjoyed the finished product. Only during the Great Depression, when flagging sales resulted in over-production, did the British direct their marketing efforts to a captive market of Indians.
Britain’s Tea Market Expansion Board powered an aggressive PR blitz, plastering posters for tea over trucks and railway stations. As the habit took hold, the Mahatma Gandhi launched an anti-tea campaign, lambasting the leafy brew as an imperial intoxicant. But even he was no match for the chai juggernaut. After independence in 1947, Indian-backed tea campaigns co-opted the slogans of anti-colonial political movements. Turning Gandhism on its head, modish posters declared that “Tea is 100% Swadeshi,” (meaning indigenously Indian).
The advent of cheaper manufacturing techniques in the 1960s brought tea to the working classes, who soon caught on to the creamy, aromatic craze. India’s chai boom coincided with breakneck urban growth—and with the public’s mounting demand for consumer goods. Within swelling mega-cities, labor forces now depended on a steady drip of caffeine.
Now, bed tea is beginning to face a backlash. It outlasted Gandhi, only to fall prey to 21st century fitness gurus. Health sites now warn that it can upset empty stomachs and hinder iron absorption. “Bed tea is a taboo,” declared national news outlet NDTV earlier this year, after celebrity nutritionist Pooji Makhija advised morning chai-drinkers to switch to fresh juice or warm water.
Meanwhile, the Spiritual Science Research Foundation, a mystic think tank founded by a hypnotherapist from Mumbai, devoted an entire cautionary article to the “spiritual effect of having tea in bed.” Warning of “distressing vibrations in the mouth cavity when one gets up in the morning” and a heightened risk of being attacked by “demons, devils, and negative energies,” the article insisted on at least brushing first.
But, whether harmful to the gut or spiritually injurious, bed tea is proving a tough habit to shake. It may not have a very long history, but the country’s short fervor for morning chai has more than made up for lost time. Bed tea remains an integral part of India's cultural fabric, and a good thing for you to try in 2018.