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Nunchai: Tracing its origin and routes

A tradition that warms our mornings and evenings
12:00 AM Apr 04, 2024 IST | IQBAL AHMAD
nunchai  tracing its origin and routes

Although we have lost many traditions to the new social order,  but there are few traditions deeply rooted within our social and cultural order.  If we talk of our traditional food culture, hak te bate (rice and vegetable) still serves the staple food for most of the Kashmiris.


And they have not yet forgotten the most favorite tea - Nun chai, the salt tea. Since times immemorial it has been making our mornings and evenings warm.


Scholars, while tracing tradition of the salt tea, say that it is peculiar to all the people from the Gobi desert to the people living across the Pir Panchal. They all had a common method of making and serving tea.

The tradition of taking Namkeen chai, Salt tea, is very popular among Kashmiris. It is regularly taken twice a day,  in the morning and then in the afternoon. It used to be served in a special copper tea pot locally called Samovar. Although,  it is taken throughout year, but it has got its own taste in the cold season. In winters it not only gives you a special taste, but also keeps you warm.


In olden times when there was deficiency of milk it was often taken as a black tea. Later on when milk production increased in the valley, people used to add milk to this tea. Some times to increase its flavor, almond or walnut powders are also added.


Originally introduced in China this pleasant beverage has acquired worldwide acceptance. But the people of inner Asia use salt instead of sugar to prepare it. Addition of a little bicarbonate of soda gives it a pink color. Whether one takes it with roasted wheat, rice or maize flour – satu-,  or with bread, it tastes alike. But when it is taken with Kashmiri kulcha or bakerkhani, it definitely has a special taste.


Baron Schonberg, a European traveler, while experiencing the common habits of Kashmiri and Tibetan people says: “with the inhabitants of Tibet as well as with those of Kashmir, Kashmiri tea is an article of daily use. This tradition has travelled now beyond the Pir Panchal and Kashmir. The migration from valley to different places at different times introduced this salt tea culture in those cultures as well.”


In fact tea has never been cultivated in Kashmir and has always been imported here from other places. In ancient times it was imported from Chinese  markets, later on it was imported from the plains of Punjab.

As history records, till late 19th century, tea to Kashmir was imported from China in bricks. P N K Bamzai, the reputed historian of Kashmir, in his history of Kashmir, has recorded Srinagar-Sonamarg – Kargil-Leh route, where from Chinese articles were imported to Kashmir.

The introduction of this type of tea is recorded to have been introduced here by those traders who had arrived here from across the Pamirs.

These traders arrived here for purpose of trade and are learnt to have introduced the usage of tobacco and salt tea in Kashmir. This tradition was also encouraged by those Kashmiri merchants who had been crossing the Pamirs to sell their Kashmiri products.

Mirza Haider Dauglat, the Kazak general, popularly known here as Mirza kashgari  is also credited with having introduced this beverage to  Kashmir. PNK Bamzai, while  providing the trade figures writes as late as 1920, that when cheap Indian tea was imported via the Jhelum Valley road in Trucks, 108 mounds of this commodity valued at Rs 17,323. General  Knight, another European traveler, who visited Ladakh in 1891, says that in this ravine we met a caravan of Tibetans who were on their way from Lhasa to Kashmir with a number of horses laden with brick-tea.

In China this brick-tea was manufactured at Ya-Chou in the’ province of Sichuan for overland transit to Tibet. Baron Hugel, another European traveler on his visit to certain olden markets to Srinagar, found products of central Asia on the stalls of these merchants.

In one of the shops he came across thirty-two pieces of brick tea brought from the interior of China by way of Akbu and Turfan. He also met some natives of Central Asia in Srinagar who informed him that the caravans took about 28 days from Srinagar to reach to Kashgar, from Kashgar to Yarkand five days, and from Yarkand to Bukhara ten days. It estimated to about 35 to 40 days.   This was the ancient trade route   which connected Kashmir with China and central Asia. And besides other things the tea was also imported from this route.

This route lost its trade importance only when trade adopted the Jehlum Valley road and things came to this land from the plains of Punjab. The Chinese brick tea was also replaced by the Assam tea which arrived here from the tea market of Amritsar.

These days we have varieties of Assamese salt tea available in Kashmiri markets which mostly arrives here from the tea markets of Amritsar and Delhi.

Although, the routes of this trade have changed over time, but its habit and preparation methodology has not changed, nor has its popularity diminished. It has been making our mornings and evenings delightful. let us also not discourage this tradition.

(The writer is a senior Archaeologist)