And it is more than two thousand years old! No comments on taste but truly a marvel in preservation…

What was an attempt to explore the burial rituals and preservation techniques applied centuries ago in China, archaeologists have stumbled upon an accidental treasure — the buried stash of the emperor’s favourite tea!

The emperor in question is from the Han dynasty, Jing Di, whose mausoleum stands in modern day Xi’an in China’s western expanse. Over the course of excavation which began in the 1990s’, many valuable treasures had been discovered including pieces relevant to the evolution and trade along the Silk Route that connected China to the Middle Eastern and even the far European nations.

Among the other discoveries made at the site, there are pottery figures, forms of weapon along with chariots complete with horses.

Courtesy: Guinness World Records

“The discovery shows how modern science can reveal important previously unknown details about ancient Chinese culture,” Dorian Fuller, Director of the International Center for Chinese Heritage and Archaeology in London, who was not involved in the study, tells The Independent. “The identification of the tea found in the emperor’s tomb complex gives us a rare glimpse into very ancient traditions which shed light on the origins of one of the world’s favorite beverages.”

And here’s where the story become interesting!

It is common knowledge that tea was first cultivated and consumed in China but experts have always wondered exactly when the beverage gained popularity. The present stash discovered at the burial site along with the ambiguous mentions to the beverage dates back to 59 BC, stirring new theories on when tea came into being as a beverage.

So far, we had known that the oldest recorded tea in history was 1,000 years ago in China. The Tang Dynasty monarchs who ruled between the 5th and the 7th century have been credited for making tea a regal beverage. But how did the evolution of tea take place is yet a mystery and this latest discovery adds a new layer to the story.

The tea discovered at the site has been identified as unopened tea buds, according to a report in the Smithsonian Magazine . It is believed to have been a fine tea and dates back to almost 141 BC. It also shows that the Chinese monarchs always had a very fine sense of tea and encouraged the evolution of the tea varieties by consuming a lot of it.

The discovery of the tea in the burial site has also led to speculation of what was being traded along the famous Silk Route at the time. “This indicates that one branch of the Silk Road passed through western Tibet at that time,” said the researchers. The previous oldest record of tea having been carried along the Silk Road into Tibet, central Asia or southern Asia from China, was from the Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD). “These data indicate that tea was part of trade of luxury products, alongside textiles, that moved along the Silk Road around 2,000 years ago and were traded up into Tibet,” the study said.

The fossilized tea has been placed at museums in China. In 2016, small bits of the tea, that had already been recognized by the Guinness World Record as the world’s oldest, was exhibited at Hanyang Mausoleum Museum in Xi’an, capital of Shaanxi Province.

And while we wait to get a clearer picture of exactly when and how tea made its journey from the garden to the emperor’s beloved treasure chest, there is more news coming in of the very first shipment of tea in England.

No, not London, but Yorkshire!

Tudor-Jacobean Temple Newsam House

A recently discovered note asking for a ‘China drink’ to be delivered to the Tudor-Jacobean Temple Newsam House in Leeds has come to light.

The oldest known reference to tea or ‘tee’ before this discovery was that of diarist Samuel Pepys who noted, “I did send for a cup of tee (a China drink) of which I never had drank before”. The present note from Leeds is dated December 8, 1644, putting it 16 years before Pepys journal entry! The ‘China drink’ in question was priced at 4 shillings for a bottle and was described as the drink that left a bitter aftertaste, like a medicine.

And medicine it was.

It is speculated that a mysterious sickness of one or more people in the House was the reason for the request for the medicinal ‘China drink’. The orders were repeated on December 15, 18 and 21. Clearly the drink had a good effect on the patient.

In another mysterious close to the episode, there is no information on what the sickness was and whether it was cured by tea.

What makes both these stories so interesting? What did the mighty Chinese emperor Jing Di have in common with the mysterious sickness in Leeds? Tea, you’d say. And rightly so. But beyond the leaf, the fact that tea’s magical properties — its flavor and natural goodness — have withstood the tests of time. Tea triumphed!

While in China, Jing Di can be credited with making tea an integral part of royal treasure and hence propelled the production of tea which tea plantation owners presented with flourish to their monarchs. These customs and rituals found their way to Japan and as word spread, the East India Company arrived on Chinese shores thousands of years later and ferried the tea to England where they proved to be a soothing balm to the sick.

This incredible journey marks just one more chapter that is waiting to be explored in the great tea adventure.

Susmita Mukherjee


Vahdam Teas

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