There are stories upon stories weaved into the traditions behind the ritual of chai. Complex and intrinsically tied to its cultural origins in Hindu India, the folklore of chai dates back over 5000 years ago to an ancient royal court. But the chai tea that we know and enjoy today as the milky sweet beverage has undergone transformation since it first originated in South-East Asia. Technically known by a different name, chai tea is masala chai, meaning “spiced tea” (“masala” meaning spices, and “chai” meaning tea) in Hindu. As stories about the origins of masala chai help to colour its purpose, we explore a short history of masala chai and showcase how we have embraced it vis-à-vis Raj’s Whole Chai Tea at Gewürzhaus.
The traditional masala chai and its ritual and tenets – to heal, to share, and to come together–hold strong at Gewürzhaus. The character behind our Raj’s Whole Chai Tea and Raj’s Majestic Chai Masala is a real person that Gewürzhaus co-founder Maria encountered on her travels in India. So, we take the story to the backdrop of Banaras, in India.
Banaras, known by its recent name Varanasi or its older name Kashi, is in the Ganges Valley in North India. Author Mark Twain wrote of Banares that it "is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together". His sentiments remain true: Banaras is one of the world’s oldest and holiest cities. For pilgrims, for Buddhists and for Hindis, it is a place of pilgrimage, as the spiritual capital of India. It is said if you want to die, go to Banaras.
There is a Hindu belief that if Hindis die at Banares, they might be able to attain moksha, a state of nirvana, sooner. Hindu scriptures write that dying at Banares and being cremated along the ghats that sit along the banks of the river Ganges will allow them to break the cycle of rebirth and attain salvation. The city itself is a harmony of contrasts. It may be a source of salvation for Hindu, but historically it was also a centre of education and travel for religions such as Buddhism and Jainism. It still has large Muslim populations living there and there are more than 20 Christian churches. People may go there to die, but the people who live there are teeming with a curiosity and wonder for life.
Nowhere is it more visible than alongside the Ganges. The Ganges river, a majestic, big and wide thing, runs through the city and is considered its lifeline. The steps leading down to the river are very steep. Alongside it span several kilometres of ghats, sacred riverfronts and embankments made of concrete steps where pilgrims perform religious rituals. The ghats are used for bathing, where individuals perform puja (devotional homage and prayer), and ceremonies and cremations. Full of ritual and ceremony, there is equal parts life and death at the river.
Just back from the steps of the mighty Ganges, in the centre of Banares, is where Maria first encountered Raj. Raj, who was then 14 years old, was instantly as curious of her as she was of him. The young boy struck a deal – he would become their unofficial tour guide of Banares if he could practise his English with Maria and her husband. The adventure began. From one uncle’s house to the next, Raj escorted the couple through the teaming, narrow alleyways that make up the city of Banares.
From beautiful silks to secret potions, the visitors saw and sampled the ancient city through the eyes of a local. “Could we see a cobra charmer?” Maria requested of Raj, having read about an upcoming cobra festival. “Yes, no problem,” said his silk-selling uncle and left the sweltering shop they had been sitting in. The visitors made themselves comfortable on the small bench in front of the silk shop in the narrow alley of the old city. After a few minutes, Raj's uncle returned towing none other than a cobra charmer.
The cobra charmer carried a hessian sack, which he placed on the ground less the half a metre away. He reached in and pulled out two flat woven baskets with covers - the snakes, for sure. There was not much ceremony; he simply dumped them down in a fashion that indicated he had done this many a time.
Once in the crouch position, he began to play a mystical-looking instrument that sounded something like a bagpipe. His cheeks puffed up and down as he pushed wonderfully strong tones out of the object. As he played, he waved the pipe around above the baskets, and then, bam! He flicked open the first lid. In it lay a curled up snake, its head barely moving at the commotion. The snake charmer jabbed at it, attempting to incite some aggression in the animal, a tactic which worked instantly: the snake moved into the classic cobra position, its head and neck flared out and its body arched outward. The second basket was flicked open, and herein lay the black cobra. By now, people had gathered around to watch, some murmuring that yes, this was the black cobra. The visitors starred in fascination. The second cobra was bigger and stood taller than the first, slightly more aggressive and prouder. By now, several onlookers had thrown a coin or two towards the charmer. Maria and her husband quickly got together the change they had and passed it to Raj, who handed it to the charmer.
But the amount of change apparently wasn’t enough – the offended charmer shut his baskets, put his pipe aside and began a verbal assault on the visitors in Hindi. To abate the aggressive charmer, Raj's uncle settled the underpaid bill by buying the charmer a cup of hot chai from a passing chaiwallah. Maria and her husband, too, received a little clay cup filled with the hot liquid. Raj pulled out a jar from his pocket and began sprinkling a spice into the cups: his family’s very own chai masala, a delicious concoction of ground clove, cinnamon and other spices.
To this day, it was the best cup of tea Maria had ever tasted. The impression Raj and their adventure made on her inspired the creation of Gewürzhaus’ own family chai recipe, complete with base tea and spice – Raj’s Whole Chai Tea – and the delicate masala for sprinkling - Raj’s Majestic Chai Masala. Through the story of Raj, our masala chai invites you to slow down and indulge in a slow ritual against the fast-moving world.