Thursday, February 22, 2007

Tea and the Tradition of 'Beautiful Foolishness of Things'

"There is always a great deal of poetry and fine sentiment in a chest of tea."
--Daniel Johns

The thing I like best about Tea is the lush green tea plantations. I am not fond of the beverage myself but somehow I am always surrounded by people who can kill and get killed for a sip of good tea. In Indian tradition refusing a cup of tea is an insult to your host and not offering one to your guest is even worse. So invariably I find myself sipping 4-5 cups a day in office, in meetings and in social gathering. Few days back while passing through some of the most well known tea estates of Eastern India I was wondering how this “ just a drink” has affected traditions, cultures, economy of the world. The tired swear by its near-magical effect on the nervous system; the sedate by its energizing properties; the pessimist by its ability to cheer; the optimist by its sobering effect; the prosaic by its romantic appeal; the poet by its practical convenience and the scientist by its benefits to the human body….. To the lone drinker, the tea's subtle flavor and aroma serve to focus and calm the mind. Shared by two it acts as an unobtrusive third entity bridging the two poles of conversation. A simple cup of tea could contain the elements for the social, sensual and even the spiritual.
Tea has the distinction of being the most ancient beverage (after water of course) in the world. The Chinese have been taking tea for health and for enjoyment for thousands of years. No one knows what drew them to the glossy, green leaves of tea but a popular legend says that in 2737 BC the Chinese Emperor, Shen Nung, was sitting beneath a tree while his servant boiled drinking water. A leaf from the tree dropped into the water and the emperor decided to try the brew. The tree was a wild tea tree. The Emperor drank the resulting infusion and felt himself overwhelmed with a sense of well being. Tea was thus born.
Tea has been rediscovered a number of times since its original discovery. When tea was first discovered, it was only manufactured as a Green tea by the Chinese by steam firing the tea leaves. Pan firing it paved the way to Oolongs and Black Teas. The British discovered tea growing wild in Assam, India in the year 1823. Tea carries a carriage full of Tea Myths, tea stories, tea ceremonies, tea traditions .
And when I talk about people who can kill for a sip of tea I find evidence that they are not the first ones to feel so passionately about their cup of delight . It is said Honoré de Balzac had a small quantity of extraordinary tea that he saved for his very best friends. The tea was a fine imperial plucking offered by the Emperor of China to the Czar. A Russian minister reserved a part of the gift to offer his friend, the writer. It was also said that the caravan that carried this marvel to Russia was attacked and its members killed. The legend adds that any who dared taste this tea might become blind. Balzac's greatest friend, Laurent-Jan, never drank the tea without declaring: "Once again I risk losing an eye – but hell, it is worth it!"
I have heard various ways of brewing tea, tea ceremonies, various types of leafs, flushes and fragrances of tea but whatever be the ceremony , whatever be the leaf, the connoisseurs will vouch for the magic in every sip of tea. They will perhaps agree with Japanese scholar Okakuro Kakuzo who in 1906 wrote in his The book of Tea:

“Meanwhile, let us have a sip of tea. The afternoon glow is brightening the bamboos, the fountains are bubbling with delight, the soughing of the pines is heard in our kettle. Let us dream of evanescence, and linger in the beautiful foolishness of things."

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