Travelling to new places can be exciting. But when the journey involves changing buses at a crowded terminals where all the signs are in a language you can’t read, you could use a helping hand. Fortunately in Indian bus stations, chai wallahs abound and act as de facto help desks when station workers cannot be found. We found ourselves in need of assistance at the Pollachi bus stand in the middle of a ten-hour journey. We had descended from the heavenly hills of Munnar, Kerala where we had been visiting tea gardens and cardamom farms and were en route to Kotagiri, Tamil Nadu where another tea estate awaited us. But first we had to find our bus. A constant stream of buses painted in marvelous colors poured through the station, slowing to a rolling stop as passengers packed in and conductors screamed their destination in nasal Tamil.
“Coi, Coi, Coi, Coi, Coiiiii!” It seemed every bus was headed to Coimbatore, not one to Kotagiri. Looking for help and a little caffeine, we turned to one of the station’s chai wallahs, Selu Kumar, who operates a modest stall from which he sells tea, coffee, and an assortment of deep fried vadas.
Having memorized the locations and timings of each bus departure, Selu Kumar pointed us in the right direction and sent us off on the next leg of our journey. But not before he poured us a glass of chai brewed with the trademark technique found throughout Tamil Nadu’s tea kaddais: straining a stream of black tea into the glass, adding frothy milk pulled with sugar, and topping it off with one more touch of tea.
With another hour to go before our bus to Kotagiri and thirsty for more chai, we decided to visit a few more of the station’s chai wallahs.
Kaliappal pours a steaming cup of milk.
Dhant Bani with a freshly brewed glass of strong tea.
Ravi heats milk and tea in separate tumblers over a pot of boiling water.
Gopalkrishna makes his chai frothy by pouring it from a height.
About 2700 years ago, Siddhartha Gautama sat under a pipal tree – now known as the Bodhi tree – in Bodh Gaya, attained enlightenment and became the Buddha. Today, under another pipal a hundred yards from the Bodhi tree, Buddhist monks sit cross-legged. They are not meditating; they have all day for that. They are here to sip tea at Manesh’s chai stand.
It was in Buddhist monasteries in China that tea first became a popular drink. For centuries, monks have consumed tea to help them concentrate on their meditation and stave off sleep. So it is no surprise that today monks throughout India flock to chai stands.
“We’re only supposed to eat two times a day, so tea really helps sustain me,” said Kunga Thukjay, a Tibetan monk raised in India. “I love the Indian tea with all the ginger and cardamom,” he said as he sipped Manesh’s milky brew – much better in his opinion than the traditional Tibetan tea served with salted yak butter.
Our trip to Hathlana would not have been complete without seeing how the villagers prepare their chai. Chachi brought us up to her roof and made us a special brew using fresh buffalo milk, tea and sugar.
Homer had his Muse. Dante had his Beatrice. Jay-Z has Beyonce. I have Jhumka Auntie.
My inspiration for writing about chai wallahs is a 5-foot tall Nepali woman who brightened every day for me during the year I taught English at Nav Yug School Peshwa Road on a Fulbright Fellowship.
The students made me laugh. The teachers made me fat. But it was Jhumka Auntie who made me feel at home and kept me going each day with her warm smile and warm adrak chai.
It’s a pretty common sight at Connaught Place in the heart of New Delhi – western tourists warily walking, bags clutched tightly to their chest, trying to speed past beggars and touts. Shouts of “Which country? Which country?” and “Come look my shop” fill the halls of C.P., as the complex is known, a magnificent circle of commerce built in 1933 to replicate the Royal Crescent of Bath, England.