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Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Teatime in Tajikistan

by Sarita Dasgupta

Anytime is teatime in Tajikistan! I discovered this when I stayed with friends in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, in September-October 2016. Incidentally, the nation had completed twenty-five years of Independence on 9 September, so Dushanbe was in a celebratory mood. The streets and parks were lit up at night, and I noticed that the colours on their flag were the same as on ours!
At the statue of A.A.Rudaki
Like in the whole of Central Asia, tea is the most popular beverage in the country. Every meal begins and ends with a cup of tea, and the brew is drunk throughout the meal as well. Green tea is known as ‘kabood’ or ‘zeliony chai’ and tea with milk is called ‘shir chai’.

This universal habit of tea drinking is responsible for the tea stalls and stands in places like Hissor Fort which are frequented by locals and tourists alike, and the popularity of the tea house – the ‘choykhana’ – where people gather over cups of tea and snacks like ‘sambusa’ and ‘shashlik’, exchange pleasantries, and watch the world go by.
 Choykhana Rokhat
The oldest ‘choykhana’ in Dushanbe is the open-plan Choykhana Rokhat. It is an attractive place with columns, decorated ceiling and a grand staircase. Tables are set along a gallery which overlooks the main street – Rudaki Avenue. (Here I must mention that this extremely long, central street, as well as a beautiful park located on it, are named after the 9th century CE Tajik poet, Rudaki, considered to be the first great literary genius of the modern Persian language.)

Choykhana Rokhat has an indoor restaurant as well, which has beautifully carved wooden pillars holding up an ornately carved and painted wooden ceiling. Musical evenings are held outdoors in pleasant weather, and sometimes weddings too. I met a retired government official, nattily dressed in a suit, tie and Tajik hat, proudly sporting his decorations, and drinking a leisurely cup of tea with his friends. He was curious to know where I came from, and when told that I hailed from India and that I had spent most of my life on tea estates, he happily took a photograph with ‘the lady from Hindustan who grows tea’! (It would have been too tedious – and probably lost in translation- to explain that the nearest I’d come to growing ‘tea’ was nurturing camellia plants in pots and drums, so I let it pass.)
With a Tajik gent at Choykhana Rokhat
The Choykhana Saodat, also on Rudaki Avenue, is newer and less frequented, I found. Although different from the Choykhana Rokhat, it too has a decorated ceiling with a beautiful chandelier, and a fountain in the front courtyard.

The newest and grandest Choykhana in Dushanbe is the Kokhi Navruz, situated near the Hyatt Regency Hotel on Prospekt Ismoili Somoni. (Somoni was another larger-than-life figure who ruled the area around Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in the 9th century CE. The Tajik currency is named after him.) Kokhi Navruz was recently completed and although the restaurant hadn’t started business when I was there, one could go on a conducted tour of this magnificent building. The decorated ceilings, chandeliers, cupolas with paintings of eminent Tajiks, fountains and lake give it an air of grandeur more in keeping with a palace than a tea house! Although, tea is worthy of being drunk in a palace too!
Choykhana Kokhi Navruz
Interestingly, there is a very popular ‘choykhana’ at the Palais am Festungsgraben in Berlin (Germany) called the Tajikistan Tearoom. After being displayed in the Soviet Pavilion at the Leipzig Fair in 1974 (when Tajikistan was The Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic and still a part of the Soviet Union) it was donated to the Society for German-Soviet Friendship and moved to its present location.

Tea drinking is a centuries-old practice around the world. It has a rich history and, in many countries, it is steeped in tradition. In the Central Asian countries like Tajikistan, tea is more than just a drink that quenches thirst – it is a basic necessity! They believe that “teatime doesn't end when the pot is empty; you carry it in your heart.”
Lunchtime is tea time!

Meet the writer:

"As a ‘chai ka baby’ (and grandbaby!) and then a ‘chai ka memsahab’, I sometimes wonder if I have tea running through my veins! 

I have been writing for as long as can remember – not only my reminiscences about life in ‘tea’ but also skits, plays, and short stories. My plays and musicals have been performed by school children in Guwahati, Kolkata and Pune, and my first collection of short stories for children, called Feathered Friends, was published by Amazing Reads (India Book Distributors) in 2016. My Rainbow Reader series of English text books and work books have been selected as the prescribed text for Classes I to IV by the Meghalaya Board of School Education for the 2018-2019 academic session, and I have now started writing another series for the same publisher.

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Happy reading! Cheers to the spirit of Indian Tea!



Roma Circar said...

As good as travelling without a ticket, Sarita! Loved this travelogue. Hope your bags are packed for another trip!

Aloke Mookerjee said...

Wonderful recount. You have done what the country's tourism authorities have not been able to so far. I now want to visit Tajikistan!! Thank you.

Unknown said...

Loved your story Sarita, especially the lines 'teatime doesnt end when the pot is empty, you carry it in your heart'! You have a flair for writing, my friend! If ever I have the luck to go to Tajikistan, I will head for the Choykhana first!!!

Chris Hull said...

I have known you a short while, yet you have taken me on a journey far away! Your writing educates, entertains, and transports us into your journeys. Many thanks for so eloquently bringing your readers along!

Sarita Dasgupta said...

Thank you Roma, I'm so glad you enjoyed the 'trip'!

Sarita Dasgupta said...

Thank you! I do hope you can visit one day.

Sarita Dasgupta said...

Thank you. I hope you do visit a choykhana one day soon!

Sarita Dasgupta said...

Thank you for your message, Chris. I'm so glad you enjoyed reading my stories and that they took you on virtual journeys.