Chai with a Dose of Ayurveda!

Amit Sinha

Amit Sinha is a medical device professional. Originally from Kolkata, Amit now lives in the Philadelphia area. He visits India often to spend time with family as well as to work with the microcredit project that his nonprofit Prana International started.

Amit Sinha makes an unexpected connection with Prodip Pal, a chai wallah in Kolkata, and receives a healthy dose of advice about ayurveda.

He grinds the piece of ginger down with the handle of his disfigured knife. A pot boils in front of him.  The radio booms out a “Baul song”. The Bauls are Bengal’s unique troubadour community. It is 6:30AM in Kolkata – I wait for Mr. Prodip Pal to make his first batch of tea for the morning. Having stayed at the hospital overnight with my father, I had come across his little shop on the pavement as I walked around to find a cup of tea.


A chai stand in Kolkata. Photo: Resham Gellatly

A chai stand in Kolkata. Photo: Resham Gellatly


I try not to give into my trepidation of what the unsanitary handle and that piece of ginger could mean for my gastrointestinal system that has been weakened by living 22 years in America. But, this is my city!  I fondly remember those days when the thought of drinking tea from a street shop and its effects would not even have crossed my mind.

I realize, even when I lived here, I never experienced Kolkata like this.  Simple, mundane and yet beautiful.  I settle back as I watch the ginger being thrown into the boiling pot, some tea leaves (“tea dust,” for the puritan) follow, and Mr. Pal brews up a cup of tea that even the Queen might stop to savor.

There is a break in the singing and the radio announcer begins talking about herbal remedies. The great qualities of the “Teto Jhinge (bitter gourd)” and the “Misti Jhinge (sweet gourd)”. Mix it with some honey and milk and you have a concoction that can dissolve kidney stones in three days! Then there is the incredible “Notay Shag (leafy greens)”- eat it every day and it will take care of all kinds of skin rashes during the summer and a mixture of dried “Notay Shag” along with honey and cow’s milk takes care of a multitude of  ailments for women.

Chai served in bhar, clay cups commonly used in Kolkata. Photo: Resham Gellatly

Chai served in bhar, clay cups commonly used in Kolkata. Photo: Resham Gellatly


Mr. Pal lights up his “Biri (local cigarillos),” looks at me and says “Did you hear that?  People run to the doctor when they get a pin prick. All our health problems can be healed by natural leaves and roots. I have never been to the doctor. I apply leaves to cuts and scrapes”. He joins his hands and does the customary “Pronams (Namaste)” to the gods.

I vigorously nod my head to show him that I agree with him, as I struggle to communicate that I too believe in naturopathy, albeit very recently.  I ask him about his shop and how long he has been running it, as he takes a seat next to me. We make small talk. The occasional blast of horns form the Sunday morning cars interspace our conversation. A few people show up and order tea. I ask him for a second cup, not so much that I wanted it, but more to continue the conversation.

I am loving every moment! The sounds, the smells, this tête-à-tête with a man who has an entirely different reality than mine.  He is from Assam in northern India. He tells me of a time his brother broke his femur, they reset the bone and wrapped it in some thick leaves found in the mountains – his brother was walking in three days! I think, for now, it is best these inexplicable curative vegetation remain undiscovered, as it could mean some serious competition for my business developing implants for fractures, and might jeopardize the lives of people depending on a $40B industry.

I love my city! This to me is quintessential Kolkata, where even the local chaiwallah’s experience with 5000-year-old Ayurveda (natural healing) is something to ponder.

And yes! The chai was amazing!

Tins of chai, or cha in Bengali, in a Kolkata market.

Tins of chai, or cha in Bengali, in a Kolkata market. Photo: Resham Gellatly

Chai Wallahs: The Gateway to India, from English to Bengali

Cha tins

In India chai is consumed by people who speak so many different languages that it feels inadequate to write about the subject only in English. Fortunately we have friends to help us bridge the language gap.

Tanmoy Sarkar, an editor at Ei Samay, a Bengali language newspaper affiliate of the Times of India, encouraged us to write about our experience at chai stands in Kolkata. He then translated it and enhanced it, adding poetic flourishes in the tradition of Bengali laureates Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam.

Matir bhNare ananda biliye cha-bikretarai Kolkatar jadukar,” he titled our post, which translates roughly to: “The tea-vendors of Kolkata are the ultimate magicians by selling joy in earthen cups.”

Bengali blog post

Click here to see the post in Bengali at Ei Samay.  

If you can’t read Bengali, good luck with Google Translate. Or read our version in English below.

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Behind Kolkata’s Clay Cups: The Bhar Wallahs of Kalighat

Kolkata’s streets are paved with bhar. Fragments of the handmade clay cups crunch underfoot on sidewalks, collect monsoon rain in blocked gutters and brighten dull gray train tracks with their dusky orange glow. Bengal’s dairy delicacies, lassi and mishti doi, are stored and served in bhar, but the earthenware shards littering the roads are most often remnants of piping hot cups of chai.


Years ago, bhar was the standard vessel for chai around the country. After slurping down the last sips of their brew, customers would ceremoniously smash their bhar against the ground, returning the clay to the earth from which it was made. It was the perfect model of sustainable consumption. But with the introduction of plastic, chai wallahs around the country abandoned bhar in favor of cups made of the cheaper and supposedly more hygienic material. Former Railways Minister Lalu Prasad attempted to revive the tradition in 2004 by mandating that chai be served in bhar in railway stations and on trains, but his effort largely failed. Today, the chai wallahs who walk the aisles of India’s trains sounding their trademark nasal call of “Chai! Garam chai!” carry plastic.

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Bakra Eid Biryani: An Old Chai Wallah’s Recipe

Goat's last moments

Bakra Eid is a time to spend with family, in prayer and, as the name would suggest, with goats. The Muslim holiday honors the prophet Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ismail in obedience to Allah’s command. Jews and Christians may remember the punch line from Sunday School: at the last minute, Ismail was replaced with a lamb, and father and son were left to feast on delicious kebabs together in the desert. Known as Eid al-Adha in Arabic, or Feast of the Sacrifice, South Asians call the holiday Bakra Eid – bakra means goat in Hindi and Urdu.

We were fortunate enough to celebrate Bakra Eid with our friends the Hussains in a Muslim neighborhood in Kolkata. The first item on the day’s agenda after the morning namaz was slaughtering four goats in honor of each of the household’s women. After the kurbaan (sacrifice) was performed on the Hussains’ terrace with the blessings of the local mosque’s imam and the help of a neighborhood butcher, we settled down to a hearty breakfast of goat brain curry, chicken stew, potatoes, and paranthas drenched in ghee. To aid digestion, we sipped sugary tea and listened to the sounds of the street – goats bleating before the inevitable, crows cawing as they contemplated how to get a piece of the action, and kids screaming with joy like the ones we witnessed sitting on a cow to hold it down for the butcher’s blade.

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Durga Puja in Kolkata: The World’s Greatest Street Party

Elephant at pandal

Durga Puja may be the world’s greatest street party. For five days, Kolkata completely shuts down to honor the Mother Goddess Durga and celebrate her victory over the evil buffalo demon Mahishashura.

Throughout the city, thousands of elaborate structures known as pandals are constructed to house larger-than-life idols of Durga slaying Mahishashura, flanked by her children Ganesh, Lakshmi, Saraswati and Karthik. Many artists spend all year coming up with themes for these pandals, which provide audiences with far more than a temporary temple – they transport visitors to other worlds with their captivating designs, from a typical Bengali village to Harry Potter’s Hogwarts.

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Adapting to the Times: An Urban Herder’s Story

For the better part of the twentieth century, IBM made its name selling commercial scales and punch card tabulators, and later, mainframe computers and calculators. But disruptive times called for the company to change business models and it adapted to become a leader in IT and consulting services.


Call Shivnat Rai Jadav the IBM of Central Kolkata. For the first 50 years of his professional life, Shivnat delivered milk to homes and businesses in and around Bara Bazaar, a vibrant patchwork of narrow bylanes and back alleys where over 50,000 merchants make a living right on top of each other. “We had cows and buffaloes here,” he waves his arm at the surrounding area. But ten years ago, Kolkata Police enforced a ban on urban grazing and Shivnat was forced to move his herd across the Hooghly River to the suburb of Belur seven kilometers north. 

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Monsoon Chai: A Respite from the Rain

Here’s a haiku for the season.

Don’t have umbrella.
Stuck in Kolkata monsoon.
We’re drenched. Dripping. Wet.

Walking through the city of Rabindranath Tagore, it’s hard not to feel poetically inspired. But when you’re walking in a torrential downpour, it’s hard to feel any other way than wet.

The heaviest monsoon rains are supposed to pass Kolkata by the end of September. But due to low pressure hovering over the Bay of Bengal, the City of Joy has been hammered by thunderstorms threatening to dampen Durga Puja festivities.

Victoria Memorial monsoon

We made two rookie mistakes resulting in the complete soaking of our clothes and belongings. First, we failed to realize that Calcuttans are quite sympathetic to the fact that it no one really gets anywhere in the rain. Ignorant and rushing make an appointment on time, we descended the steps of the Victoria Memorial, where we had spent the afternoon, into the deluge. Second, we did not bring an umbrella.

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