The Railway Station Chai Wallah

Ravindra Bhalerao

Ravindra Bhalerao is a rail heritage activist and member of the Indian Steam Railway Society.

In this post, Ravindra Bhalerao writes about railway station chai wallahs of the 1970s and 80s. Although times have changed, with many passengers drinking chai provided by Indian Railways’ catering companies, station chai wallahs still occupy a special spot in travelers’ hearts.

For years the chai-wallah on Ajni platform served out steaming hot cuppas to folks. With its darkened walls and lack of electric lighting his stall looked dismal; it did not look inviting. Whether he did brisk business or not, I am not prepared to say, for Ajni was only a transit station, 3 kilometers south of Nagpur, built to serve the army of railway folk who lived in the railway colony here. The crowds were to be seen at the platform only a few times each day, as when the Kolhapur Express halted, or when the Kazipet Passenger called to pick up its load of night travellers. My morning visits to Ajni were often timed to coincide with the Bhusaval Passenger drawing in lazily behind a streamlined pacific. Even at this time, not many of the passengers would care to stop by the chai-wallah, so I conclude his profits came mostly from the cups he served to the station staff of this tiny station.

Tea stall at Gondia railway station platform in the 1930s. Archival photo courtesy of Ravindra Bhalerao / Narrow Gauge Railway Museum, Nagpur.

Tea stall at Gondia railway station platform in the 1930s. Archival photo courtesy of Ravindra Bhalerao / Narrow Gauge Railway Museum, Nagpur.


In striking contrast to the unfortunate vendor in Ajni is the tea stall at a large junction station. Here we may find activity at each hour of the day and night. The stall here is manned in shifts by two or more persons who have to remain on their toes throughout. The chai-wallah here is constantly amidst the bustle of the platform, amid the trains, amid the shouts and cries of frantic passengers when an express draws in. His station in life may be deemed as being of no great significance by some, yet we cannot do without him. He is constantly sought out by eager eyed folk looking for a sip of the cheering brew; at peak hours he is literally at the centre of a mob. At other times, as when the Mail has left, our chai-wallah is left alone in tranquility. The sun beats down on an empty line of carriages standing sullenly on one side; an engine a little way off lets out blasts of steam making a great noise as it prepares to move to a nearby line; a lone man chooses to have his cup of tea at this hour and is lost in thought as he leans against the stall; families may be seen lounging around on the platform reclining against trunks and bedrolls. Even at such times of lull when business is slack, and the platform is lifeless, the chai-wallah has to be prepared with his brew for the odd customer who may want his drink at this hour.

The Indian rail journey can be likened to a voyage by land, lasting as it does sometimes over three days. For the Sleeper coach passenger a journey of this duration can easily turn into a test of endurance, a battle against fatigue, poor food and monotony. He can hope to get respite from it all only by getting off the train at halts along the way. Then comes the mad scramble to fill up water bottles at the station tap. For the man who is sick of being on the same berth for over two days, who is tired and stiff, this is something like a blessing in disguise, for it allows him to stretch his legs, to be out in the open, to feel his feet are back on solid earth again. Having filled his bottle, he may be seen to return to his seat triumphantly. Now is the time to toast his success with cups of tea ordered through the window. “Kitne paise hue, bhaiya?” his wife cries out to the vendor alongside. “Teen rupye,” replies the man. “Jara jaldi karo, memsahab, signal ho gaya”. Even as the woman begins to fumble for the coins in her purse, the kids seated opposite let out a wail for some inexplicable reason. The drama is laden with tension. But the coins are passed through the window, and the chai-wallah moves on, satisfied with the deal, crying out “Chaa—ye….  chaa—ye…” The train jolts forward. The effect of this is almost miraculous, for the children settle down with peanuts and sandwiches and chai. There is a calmness now that nothing seems able to disturb. As the platform begins to slide back the family settles down in comfort. The Wheeler’s stall appears momentarily before passing out of view, as does the parcel booking office. And there, far ahead, amongst others, is the chai-wallah with his cups, his cries forever stilled, gazing open-mouthed at the train as it moves out on its onward journey.


Traditional clay cups used to be a quintessential part of every train journey.

Traditional clay cups used to be a quintessential part of every train journey. Photo: Resham Gellatly


A train journey can be quite inconceivable without tea. This is partly due to the ever present tendency amongst most of us to toast every occasion with a cup of tea. But tea has its therapeutic effects as well, some real, other imagined. It freshens up a man, clears his mind, envigorates the nerves, banishes lethargy, spurs him on to greater effort, improves judgement, helps breaks the monotony of routine. With so many advantages this simple beverage has to offer, it is not surprising that the tea stall vendor, or chai-wallah as he is known, has come to occupy a place of central significance on the railway platform.

My sojourns through station land in the past revealed three categories of chai-wallahs at the platform. To begin with you have the vendor who holds charge of a built-up stall right in middle of a spacious platform. Grubby in appearance, his stall is nonetheless equipped with counters made of cement or stone slabs which the customer may lean against. These counters form a kind of cubicle with a small entrance on one side, inside which the man brewing the tea functions. Stacked on the slab may be found tins of sugar and tea, spoons, glasses and cups, pots of milk. For his supply of fresh water, he relies on a tap, failing which you will find matkas (earthenware  pots)  holding clean water, while waste water is disposed of in special buckets kept for the purpose. The station chai-wallah finds it easiest to brew his tea in an aluminium kettle with a well insulated handle, and on the more busy stalls, several of these kettles may be seen, some holding ready-made tea, others simmering on the coals. I have not found the drink here (or anywhere on a station for that matter) to my taste, but for an extra rupee you can have the chai-wallah add a little extra sugar with cardamom which lends a wonderful flavour to the brew.


Chai set-up at a train station

Chai set-up at a train station. Photo: Resham Gellatly


Then there are chai-wallahs who move around the platform with a trolley on wheels. These mobile vendors carry equipment that is near complete: cups, kettles simmering over ‘sigris’, tea leaves, sugar, milk, buckets of water. But as the trolley has to be pushed around, it still makes progress slow. To overcome this obstacle, the vendor often employs boys carrying around trays laden with cups and a steaming hot kettleful of tea prepared prior to the arrival of the train. With respect to mobility, these boys are decidedly at an advantage as they can move around speedily from one carriage to the next shouting out their wares.

It was with respect to these ‘itinerant’ vendors that an elder once cautioned me advising me to carry an ample supply of change with me on my travels. I was but a young lad setting out from home for the first time, and this piece of advice stood me in good stead in the years to come. The rule is to hand out the requisite coins through the window of the train, and never to pass on a note expecting the vendor to return the balance. He may make up an excuse and make off with the money.

No one would deny this is sound common sense, but it should not be thought that every tea-seller on the platform who asks a customer to wait till he returns with the change, does so from intentions that are not honourable. Quite on the contrary, many of these simple hawkers may be found to be honest in dealing with a helpless passenger. I can recollect an instance when I was travelling through the poverty-ridden area of Assam with a ticket to Delhi. The Mail arrived at New Bongaigaon early in the morning, and as I rarely if ever fall asleep while on a train, I was at the door looking for a morning cup. It must have been around 1 a.m., with no one in sight on the platform. I was offered tea in an earthenware cup which is a most welcome feature in Assam and Bihar as you need not trouble yourself over emptying the contents of the cup before the time is due. The man did not have the rupee note he had to return to me, so he said he would be back in a short while. For once, let me trust this man, I thought to myself, as I stood at the doorway of the carriage sipping my tea. Soon the whistle blew, and the train began to pull out. I leaned out through the doorway, a bit disappointed. The platform, well lit, but deserted at this hour, presented an eerie sight. The station bookstall wheeled past, and I was about to give up hope when I spotted a solitary figure standing a good way ahead looking for anyone who might be at the doorway of a carriage. It was the friendly chai-wallah who remembered he owed me a rupee. When he came abreast, I swung out an arm and with a quick movement whisked up the note he held out.

At the larger junctions we find that is is often the chai-wallah who has to fear the unscrupulous passenger. He has to keep a sharp lookout, for with a crowd of men pressing in for their cups of tea half of whom are only hanging about with no particular business in mind, it is doubly easy for the habitual cheat to filch a porcelain cup. Then too, even if there is no crowd around, there is always the passenger who may wish to carry his cup to the carriage opposite the stall to offer to his wife. Chai-wallahs are aware of the danger involved here, and at one stall at Delhi Junction I found the vendor would ask the passenger to deposit a sum of twenty rupees, to be later refunded, before he could carry his cup to the window of his carriage.

These days, most passengers drink chai served by railway employees on the train. Photo: Resham Gellatly


Taken in solitude, or while amongst a boisterous group of friends, a cup of tea always affords pleasure. And it seems to become doubly enjoyable if the tea is accompanied by a slice of cake or snacks of any kind. A chai-wallah on New Delhi station seemed to have guessed this and hit upon a novel idea to boost up his sales. Delhi is famed for its Britannia cakes, a range of light spongy cakes available in several pleasing flavours. “Dilliwalon ki pasand — Britannia Cake!” the ad would shout. This chai-wallah would offer his customer his cup while silently slipping two slices of Britannia cake into the saucer, unsolicited of course. If the passenger felt the cake was offered as a bonus he was sadly mistaken and he could find himself in an unpleasant situation at the end. One man was sharp enough to see through the chai-wallah’s trick when offered tea and cake in this manner and shot back: “Listen, I never asked you for this!”

The railway platform is a hive of activity. A station master making entries in his register, porters scurrying about with luggage, a crowd of men at the station tap, the hurried transaction over a cup of tea, the shouts and cries of vendors advertising their wares, all this and much more add charm and romance to the Indian train journey. Railway enthusiasts are not known to spend their hours exploring the chai-wallahs and other vendors at the station; they would rather usefully employ their time in gathering details on the trains and engines they fancy. I for my part, had a similar tendency all along, when one day I found myself bored stiff exploring the yard and a thousand tonnes of steel rolling on wheels on parallel lines. My preoccupation with trains had come to a sad end, I thought, but a few days later, I got an opportunity to watch a short film made at a railway station. It was not a professional production, but was made well; it showed scenes on the platform, then on to the yard, an engine shunting a line of carriages, a solitary man sipping his brew at a tea stall, and various other scenes. I am glad I watched this film. It brought a warm glow to my heart; it rekindled my enthusiasm for trains as no visit to a locomotive shed could. And in a marvellous way it came home to me that the charm of the railway which I hold so dear, comes as much from the hustle and bustle of the platform, from the shouts and cries of the vendor selling sweetmeats and tea, indeed from the whole army of uniformed men who run the station, as it does from the trains and engines I love.

This post originally appeared on Railways of the Raj

Life on the tracks in Kolkata. Photo: Resham Gellatly

Life on the tracks in Kolkata. Photo: Resham Gellatly

Help in a Cup: Bus Station Chai

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.

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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Back to School: Returning to My Favorite Chai Walli

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.

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Academic All Nighters at the Tea Stall

Raman Sharma

Consultant at McKinsey & Company.

Midterm exams are beginning in colleges across the globe. ‘Tis the season for students to pull all nighters and to procrastinate. What better way to procrastinate than with a philosophical debate over a cup of chai?

Raman Sharma, a graduate of the prestigious and hypercompetitive Indian Institute of Technology, knows this as well as any. Currently a consultant at McKinsey & Company, he took a break from advising clients to share this memory of his favorite campus chai wallah.

Wanted to share a very special chai place which will always be memorable for me and a lot of other people from my campus. I did my undergrad from IIT Kanpur, where there is this small marketplace called ‘MT’ which has a couple of chai shops along with 2-3 paan and cigarette shops, a bike repair shop and a general store. In the middle of the compound is a small temple beside which there is a bit of an open area and a raised platform. The place has been a hub for morning tea and breakfast, cigarette supplies and evening snacks for ages. It’s the first eating place that opens in the morning on the campus and is often the final destination of a long all nighter for all students. At the same time, you’d find a groups of professors enjoying their morning tea after the morning walk. 

The place had such a charm that people even had loyalties to their particular chai shop based on the type of chai they liked. People would come in groups but would get chai from their preferred chai shop. Like a typical chai shop in Uttar Pradesh, the shops also had jalebi with curd, pakodas and namkeen to enjoy with chai. Not to mention the shops entertained credits, which would be cleared once or twice a semester. One would often spend hours debating various topics ranging from curriculum, grades, professors, research topics, hypothetical extreme ideas to politics, elections, music and even some campus gossip over several cups of chai and devotional songs playing in the background.  It’s a one of a kind social hub. 

Recent scenes from Delhi University, where famous chai wallahs are a gathering space for students. The campus plays host to many sorts of wallahs, from bike rickshaw wallahs shuttling students to scale wallahs who weigh them.

Riding High on Chai

The Free Souls Rider motorcycle club

The Free Souls Rider motorcycle club

Few people have visited more chai wallahs in India than the members of the Free Souls Rider motorcycle club. The Delhi-based group consists of 900 bikers who ride by the motto: “Biking is the way to nirvana. We live to ride longer and ride longer to live longer.” Their Harleys and Hondas have covered the country, recently completing the Himachal circuit with its hairpin turns through the Himalayas.

Of course the journeys would not be possible without chai. “We stop for chai every hundred kilometers,” said Ved Prakash, one of the group’s administrators. “It keeps us going and gives our butts a rest.”

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A Friendship Forged in the Alleys of Connaught Place

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.

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Cell Phones and Chai: A Boon for Business

Philip Lutgendorf

Professor of Hindi at University of Iowa and President of the American Institute of Indian Studies.

Philip Lutgendorf might know more than anyone about the history of chai in India. Professor of Hindi at University of Iowa and President of the American Institute of Indian Studies, Lutgendorf spent a year in India researching chai on a Fulbright-Hays faculty research award. He submitted this anecdote of a chai wallah he met about ten years ago in Delhi whose business was revolutionized by cell phones:

I went to Old Delhi to buy some Hindi books at Star Publications on Ansari Road. Outside, on the arcaded pavement, a chai wallah had set up his stand. Nothing unusual about that, but the man was. He was smartly dressed, with a sport jacket, loafers, sunglasses tucked into the opening of his shirt. He could have been a moonlighting university professor! And he had a mobile phone (not so common in those days) hanging on a cord around his neck. While he was making chai for me (excellent chai, made to my request, with fresh ginger) his phone rang and I realized he was taking an order from a nearby office. Soon a little boy was running off with the usual wire basket full of brimful glasses. He remarked to me on what a boon the phone was for his business. This vignette, at that time, seemed to epitomize to me the changes wrought by the coming of cell phones and the emergence of a new middle class, even among very small entrepreneurs like this man.

- Philip Lutgendorf, Professor of Hindi, University of Iowa