un Chai, the famous salt tea of Kashmir, is the beverage of every commoner in the valley, be it a student, a teacher, a labourer or a peasant, particularly during the lazy cold winter days. It is succour to the rich and the poor, to a Pandit and a Muslim equally. As popularly quoted by the British officer W.R. Lawrence, “For many, it is more of a diet than a beverage.”
Salt tea, with or without milk, is consumed in the entire Himalayan higher reaches. Added with butter, it is called Gurgur Chai in Ladakh.
When Kashmiri Muslims migrated to Punjab in the mid-18th century, they took Nun Chai with them but due to cultural influences, it got sweetened and is now called Shir Chai. Another similar sweetened version of Kashmiri Nun Chai is the Qaymak Chai served in Afghanistan.
But where did it find its origins?
You may be surprised to know that Nun Chai leaves are dried green tea leaves — the same green tea often marketed for its assumed health benefits by media and corporates.
Historians and researchers tell us that the use of the tea was originally introduced by the Chinese. It was during the reign of the mythological king Shen Nung in the year 2737 BCE when it was introduced in China. Encyclopaedia Britannica mentions the year 350 CE when it was described in the ancient Chinese dictionary.
It is believed that Nun Chai was mostly used in Southeast Asia which included areas of China, Northern India, Burma, Thailand, Indo-China and the valley of Kashmir. The valley, however, never produced tea. There is no mention of local production in any of the ancient works on Kashmir including Rajatarangini.
According to historian Hassan Kuihami, it is recorded that during the reign of Mirza Haider (Mirza Haider entered to attack Kashmir twice, once in 1532 from Zojilla and then in 1540 from Tosmaidan, and thereafter ruled the valley for 11 years), green tea would be imported to Kashmir from Yarkhand, Turkestan (Kashgar, Western China), which is why it is an important link of Kashmiri people to Central Asia. It was consumed by the aristocracy who were fond of it.
During the reign of Afghans, Black Tea got currency in Kashmir as they were fond of it. The common people regularly used the bark of yew, Taxus baccata (Poshtil), when tea was the luxury of the few.
During Hassan Kuihami’s time, a peer (saint) namely Noorshah of Patwan would blend the leaves of Rangresh herb, which was intoxicating, and used it as a substitute for tea. He would boil it in water and add salt and milk to it, making something very close to the present-day Nun Chai. Rangresh was used as a tea for some time by locals apart from other varieties like Majooli. As mentioned above, it was during the time of Mirza Haider that Kashmiris developed the tea called Nun Chai or Shir Chai.
W.R. Lawrence writes as early as the 1880s that, “The Kashmiris like their tea very sweet or very salt — the former known as ‘Kahwa’ and the latter as ‘Shir’ which is always mixed with milk, both made in Russian Samawar, which is a popular institution in Kashmir.” He also talks about the three sources of tea in Kashmir: Bombay tea from China, Hill tea from Kangra in Punjab and Green tea through the Lhasa and Ladakh.
According to the Global tea history, the tea has its origins in the Turkic region of Turkestan, dating back to the first and second century of the Kushan Empire, in Yarkand. After its import from Yarkhand, it went through a series of improvisations so as to suit the local tastes, one of which was the addition of milk. In modern human civilisation, the first mention of addition of milk to tea has been mentioned by Dutch traveller Jean Neiuholf, who found it a common practice in Canton, China, in 1655.
It is noteworthy to mention that Atkan Chai made with salt, milk and butter is still popular in some Muslim areas of China.
Hence, one can say that the tea was brought to Kashmir from Central Asian countries, later on from Dehradun in India and now from Assam, Siligudi and Darjeeling.
‘Chai’ is mentioned in Kashmiri literature at multiple places. There are elegies and poems written for it. Mullah Hamidullah Shahabadi, a Persian poet from Kashmir, while imitating Zahur’s Saqinama wrote a humorous poem, Chainama.
Give me tea, O Saqi, and let there be no delay;
let me have it bitter if milk and sugar are not at hand
Had Jamshed taken a whiff from this pot,
his slow-beating pulse would have run like deer.”
We find females singing folk songs at marriage parties while waiting for their cup of Nun Chai.
The Chai is usually taken twice a day, morning and evening. It can be taken with Czochwor, Czott, Kulchè or sometimes with Sott (sattu). Doctors have often warned about taking it in excess due to various health concerns. It is usually taken at home and hardly finds a way into the elite government offices where Lipton and Coffee are preferred for unknown reasons.
Suggested reading: Discourses on Kashmir