Monday, 21 October 2013

Tea Week 1: Legends About the Discovery of Tea

I can't believe it has been so many months since I have been blogging, but I have not come around to writing much about tea. Tea is my go-to  beverage for anything and everything. Teas can be soothing and calming and at the same time refreshing and rejuvenating. Coffee has a good buzz and I occasionally drink it when I need a buzz, like on Monday mornings. But my preferred cuppa is always a cup of tea. Since, I have not written much about my preferred cuppa till date, I am dedicating a whole week on my blog to tea.

Today, I was going to write about origins of tea: a basic history and the journey of tea from the green leaf of the plant to our kitchens ready to be brewed. As I was reading up on the legends, I realised that there are so many fascinating legends surrounding tea, its discovery and history. It is difficult to choose one and go with it, so I have changed my post today to just talk about these legends.

1. Indian Legends

Firstly, let me talk about what the history of tea has been in our country. The documented evidence regarding tea drinking in India has been recorded in the Ramayana and dates back to B.C. 750.

Ramayana: Earliest Documented Evidence of Tea Drinking in India
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 In Ayurveda, there is a tradition of using dried herbs such as pudina, mulethi etc for medicinal purposes. The Indian preparation of tea, 'chai' with its milky, sweet taste served as a perfect disguise for these punjent and bitter tasting herbs. This evidence trail however went cold for about a thousand years afterwards.

The legends re-emerged with Buddhist legends. They say that a Buddhist monk, who has been called Dharma Boddhisatva or Bodhidharma, decided to spend seven years without sleeping to contemplate about the teachings of Buddha and about life. In the fifth year of his penance, he almost fell asleep. So, he took some leaves from a nearby plant and chewed on them. The leaves, which were the leaves of a wild tea plant, helped rejuvenate him and thus, tea was discovered.

Legend of Bodhidharma's Meditation and the Discovery of Tea
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2. Chinese Legends

In Chinese legends, Shen Nong (an emperor, a herbalist, and also called the father of agriculture and herbal medicine) has definitely been credited with the discovery of tea around B.C. 2700. However, things get a little misty from here. There are various stories of how he actually discovered tea.

One story in the ancient Chinese medical book, called The Divine Farmer’s Herb-Root Classic, has it that he would taste about 100 types of plants each day to discover which were edible, medicinal or poisonous. Moreover, legend also has it that he had a transparent belly that would allow him to observed the effects of these plants (not that I believe this part much). When he had tea leaves, he found that these passed through his stomach and intestines, checking for poisons and clearing them out of his system. He called these leaves "Cha" which meant "checking for poisons" and thus tea was discovered. This seems to be an unbelievable legend, especially because of the transparent stomach bit. So, I searched some more and found two more believable stories about Shen Nong and the discovery of tea.

Shen Nong, the falling leaves, and the discovery of tea
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One story has it that Emperor Shen Nong insisted on drinking boiled water for hygiene purposes. Once when he was on a trip to distant regions of his empire, his party halted to rest. As per his preference, his servants started boiling water for his consumption when a few leaves carried by the wind, fell into the boiling water. They went unnoticed and the water was drunk by Shen Nong who found the beverage rejuvenating. This is the legend of discovery of tea by Shen Nong. In another version of this story, it is said that Shen Nong took a rest under a tree after a long walk and lit a fire to boil water. Some leaves of a tea plant fell into this water and rejuvenated him after having tasted 100 plants the day before. Shen Nong believed that he had discovered a medicinal plant that can help a person think quicker, sleep less, move lighter, and see clearer.

These versions are quite Newtonian, I must say!

3. Japanese Legend 

The Japanese legend about the discovery of tea talks of the same Buddhist monk Bodhidharma as the Indian legend. However, this version is a little more gruesome. According to this legend, Bodhidharma who had taken the vow to meditate and not sleep for seven years (some versions say nine years, either ways it is a long time!) ended up actually falling asleep. He woke up and was disgusted and angry at himself for falling asleep. This led to him chopping his eyelids off. These fell to the ground and the first tea plant grew there!

Bodhidharma of the Japanese Legend about the Discovery of Tea
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4. Korean Legend

According to the Korean legend, King Suro was one of the six princes born of an egg that descended from the sky. He married an Indian princess Heo Hwang-ok who brought with her a boatful of dowry. One of the gifts she got was tea seeds. And thus, tea came to Korea., from India.

King Suro and Queen Heo Hwang-ok
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