THE Guimet Museum in Paris, which specialises in Asia’s cultural history and is the proud possessor, among some 20,000 rare archaeological objects, of a permanent collection of Gandhara art, is at the moment holding an unusual exhibition that began last week and is to continue till Jan 7.
Jean-Paul Desroches, the driving force behind this daring adventure, explains: “A museum show initially belongs to the domain of vision; you present the pieces and you give out the details verbally or in print and the message goes through the ear and the eye of the beholder. But here we’re talking about a refined phenomenon that is also a challenge to your smelling and tasting faculties. Choosing tea as a theme for an exhibition was far from being an easy task, but we had one strong point in our favour; tea has more than two thousand years of history behind it.”
As you pace through the mysteriously lit basement corridors of Guimet, your very first sensation is that of constantly altering perfumes emanating from a vast array of ceramic, glass, copper and carved-stone bowls that exhibit white, yellow, green, red and black tea leaves from various regions of China, Japan and India in their different forms and stages. You also learn that next to water, tea is the most heavily consumed liquid in the world.
All the varied appellations of this magical drink come from the same word ‘taai’ or ‘tchaai’ as it is pronounced with slight variations depending on whether you find yourself north or south of the Yangtze river that cuts across China west to east, from Tibet to Shanghai.
Given the immense popularity it enjoys all over the planet today, it’s hard to imagine how tea began its evolution as an exclusive drink of the nobility. Its earliest recorded accounts begin from the Tang dynasty, which lasted from AD 618 to 907 and poets and historians wrote about it at length.
But the practice of extracting the amber liquid was very different then from what it is today. Tea leaves were compressed as bricks which were later roasted on fire then crushed and dropped into boiling water. The procedure still prevails in Tibet and in parts of Mongolia.
The tea-drinking custom assumed its ceremonial form during the Zhong dynasty between 960 and 1270 when dried leaves were ground into a fine powder. This was then poured into hot water and whipped with a wooden or ivory beater till a thick, creamy layer covered the mixture. This second procedure is common in some parts of Japan today.
By the time of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) tea had turned into a thoroughly popular drink. Working folks had no time for meditation, poetry and ceremonies and teapots came into existence; the new, quicker way to obtain an infusion now required pouring boiling water over the tea leaves, covering the pot and waiting a few minutes before serving it; this is what we continue doing today.
‘Tea-time’, ‘Hotting the pot’, ‘Five O’clock tea’ and ‘Tea for two’ are expressions we all are familiar with and we mentally associate the whole idea with the British civilisation. Astonishingly, as you walk through the magnificent rows of cups, filters and pots, not to leave behind Chinese and Japanese manuscripts, paintings and engravings, you come to the conclusion that the West’s contribution to tea culture is practically zero.
Tea came to Europe, and to England, as late as in the middle of the 19th century. Then again, more than being a refinement icon, it was a commercial commodity, gradually making its way into the British and Irish upper class mores.
Though the Americans are not known to be devoted tea drinkers, their history came to be associated with tea culture in an unexpected way when in 1773 the British Parliament passed an act taxing tea shipments passing through the Boston Harbour, at that time still a part of the British empire. The American protesters, claiming they were not bound by laws coming from Westminster, boarded ships and dumped an entire cargo of tea into the sea. The event marked the beginning of the American revolutionary war two years later, leading to eventual independence and the creation of the United States of America.
However, what is known today as the “Boston Tea Party” came into existence only in 1834 and its international interpretation took an ironic turn in 1930 when Mahatma Gandhi found himself face to face with the British Viceroy following the salt protest march. Gandhi famously took out a handful of salt that he himself had produced in defiance of the British ban, and told Lord Irwin: “This will certainly remind you of the Boston Tea Party.”
The writer is a journalist based in Paris