Kerala's chayakkada: How the tea shop has shaped politics, cinema and culture

It was in the 19th century that tea shops were first set up in Kerala, and since then, they have become an integral part of society, shaping popular culture and politics.
A tea shop in Kerala
A tea shop in Kerala
Written by:

A man standing behind a steaming pot, pouring hot tea from a steel mug to a tumbler, as a little crowd gathers around him in a random street in Kerala. As idyllic as this may sound, it’s not a picture from the past. The scene is still very much a part of what people in Kerala fondly call a chayakkada—the tea shop. What has changed over time is perhaps the presentation of it – the hanging banana bunches, the glass jars of sweets and snacks, blue benches placed inside and newspapers read aloud by men are now a rare sight.

“Those went away in time, the hanging plantains and the glass jars. What also changed is the cost of running the place,” says NS Pillai, who has been running the Sree Lekshmi Tea Shop in Vazhuthacaud of Thiruvananthapuram for 30 years. He moved shop from across the street, but that didn’t stop loyal customers from coming back to the place.

When COVID-19 struck in early 2020, for a lot of people – young and old – it’s the closing of chayakkadas that really hurt. Offices could wait, classrooms could be shut, but not the evening visit to the corner chayakkada. “It may be a few minutes in the evening, but it is something you look forward to, that little break between work. From the walk to the chayakkada, to holding the hot cups and sipping tea while looking at the street outside, commenting on someone who passed by or worked with you, discussing some current affair, making new acquaintances with other regulars, it’s just irreplaceable. Like someone said, the best things in life come so cheap. For a seven rupee tea, you get so much,” says Deepthi, a journalist based in Kochi.

Hari, an IT professional working in Bengaluru, wrote an Instagram post about his relationship with the tea shop and how he missed the twice-a-day visit during the lockdown.

"People who know me know how big and frequent a part of my daily life the visits to tea shops were. In Kerala [where I am from], tea shops are a cultural phenomenon. While at a tea shop, it's apparently always ok to hijack a random conversation, with complete strangers. Politics, local gossip, even technology and science fiction are discussed. Then there   are those hot sweetmeats that you get there. Tea is brewed in water and then mixed with milk, which for me is the right way to do it," he wrote.

Even as chayakkadas continue to charm the Malayali, the importance of tea shops to Kerala’s political culture and social relations goes beyond mere romanticism. From challenging traditional caste structures to reflecting—even reifying—gender roles, chayakkadas have played a role in how society and politics evolved in Kerala over a century. 

Where it all began

It was in the 19th century that the first of the restaurants or any eateries at all opened in Kerala.

“There was no tea shop up to the 19th century. There were ootuppuras but those were associated with temples, and only Brahmins got food there. There were kanjipurakal (porridge centres) in particular locations for the poor people,” says historian MG Sashibhooshan.

In those days, when caste discrimination was overt and unquestioned, travellers who came a long way from home could not knock on any door for food. Without any other option, they’d ask for people who belonged to the same caste as them and visit their houses for food.

“There was no restaurant in Kerala before 1815. Small restaurants [called tea shops in Kerala] began to open after the Nair Brigade (army of the erstwhile Travancore kingdom) was formed. Cantonment ground and University playground in Thiruvananthapuram all became their parade grounds. But during the weekends and the holidays, when they couldn’t go home, they had no other place to go to, except the military canteens. That’s how small hotels began to function later on,” Sashibhooshan says.

Later, in the 19th century, Gujarati hotels were opened for devotees from Gujarat who came to visit the Padmanabha Swamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram. The hotels used to serve Chapati. 
By 20th century, a retired army man who had come to Thiruvananthapuram from Punjab and was part of the Nair Brigade, opened a restaurant. "I read about that in the private diary memoirs of V NarasimhamThampy, head translator in a court," Sashibhooshan adds.

Towards the end of the 19th century, clubs too began to sprout. “The Trivandrum Club was formed in the 1890s — back then it was called European Club. There came a culture of going out to eat. In the same century, courts came to Kerala and clubs associated with the courts were formed, where light refreshments were served. In O Chandu Menon’s Sarada, a club for lawyers is mentioned,” Sashibhooshan says.

Earliest records of tea and coffee plantations in Kerala can be traced back to the early nineteenth century. By the end of the century, small tea stalls appear to have cropped up at least in the high-ranges where plantations brought in migrant labourers.

Reformer and founder of the Nair Service Society (NSS) Mannathu Padmanabhan notes in his autobiography that the only place to find something to eat in Kanjirapally during his first posting at a school in 1890s, was a tea stall run by Christian women which offered puttu, plantain fruits and black coffee to the daily wage workers who went to the plantations in the high ranges.

The secularism of a tea shop

Mannathu’s account of the author (a Nair), the headmaster (a Jacobite Christian) and an oppressed caste worker at the plantation relying on the tea shop — temporarily traversing their caste identities — is among the earliest of such mentions . The fact that the plantations—a modern cash-crop economy—facilitated such an environment needs to be noted.

Soon, tea shops were becoming crucial parts of the modern public sphere in Kerala which broke away from centuries-old caste-obsessions that disallowed members from different castes to socialise as equals. In 1917, Sahodaran Ayyappan formally inaugurated the Sahodara Sangham (Association of Brotherhood), by organising an inter-dining feast at Cherai. In the decade that followed, supporters of the Sangham took to tea shops and restaurants where they dined together with members of other castes, a custom unimaginable to conservative communities even at the time.

That the caste-Hindus saw the physical presence of different castes and their inter-dining in spaces like tea shops as a serious threat can be sensed from a speech made by the President of Purvaachara Samrakshana Sabha, which was formed to safeguard the traditional conservative customs. At their first meeting in 1919, he observed:

“If Sahodara Sangham is allowed to function for four years, the caste system will be destroyed. There is no other way so strong and effective than inter-dining to annihilate caste…all but me at home are well-wishers of the Sangham and it is my opposition that detains them from joining it.”

Tea shops emerged in Kerala’s public sphere as spaces where the traditional social relations were openly challenged. Anybody with money could, in theory, walk into a tea shop and be served tea and snacks.

Tea shop by a woman in Thiruvananthapuram / Photo by S Harikrishnan

During the early 20th century, Nambuthiri Brahmins had largely retracted themselves from the mainstream public sphere. Initially, they had also patronised separate coffee shops and restaurants segregated by caste. When restaurants and coffee clubs started to appear in Kerala in the 20th century, author and astrologer Kanippayur Sankaran Namboodiripad wrote on how there were separate ones for the Brahmins and non-Brahmins, and the general feeling that the hotels run by Nambuthiris, Tamil Brahmins or Saraswat Brahmins were more “clean and hygienic”:

“…there was no need for a sign-board to help differentiate a Brahmin Coffee Club from a non-Brahmin one. However, most Brahmin places would still have a board outside stating it. A container and a davara made of brass, clay or steel was used… in Brahmins hotels, and not glass tumblers”.

By virtue of automatically being spaces that necessitated interaction between the different castes, tea shops could not be controlled by dominant-caste Brahmins. Kanippayur’s account of restaurants in the cities suggests that even in the big cities where caste-based restaurants had existed for a while, economic unviability meant that they had to eventually give way to restaurants that were either owned by non-Brahmins, or hire employees of other castes for cheap labour. It was only by the 1930s that Nambuthiris made their presence in social spaces like tea shops, thanks to the spread of communist ideals which a section of young Nambuthiri men were drawn to.

Communist wave

A man selling tea during a Communist rally in Thiruvananthapuram

Communism began to take root in Kerala in the 1920s, and the early communists were quick to occupy the secular spaces like tea shops and reading rooms to educate the masses and shape a new culture of reading and engaging with political events of the day. Seventy-year-old P Achuthan who has worked with the Library Council for many decades recollects the formation of the library in his village in early 20th century:

“…when one speaks of a library in the rural areas, one must mention conversations from a tea shop. Even after drinking their tea, people would stay around. There used to be a tea shop next to the Desabandhu Vayanashala (a library). People would come there for tea but the newspaper reading would continue even after the tea was done. This was when my uncle came up with an idea. There was our land nearby so he cleaned it and set up a little shed with palm leaves, put a bench and brought newspapers. So people who finished their tea could sit on the bench nearby and continue reading.”

In his autobiography, late communist leader and freedom fighter K Madhavan remembered the tea shop in his village as the “central office” of political activism and political discussions when communism arrived in the village. It was also a space where people gathered for any updates on matters of importance: “If any problem arose in the village…people usually ran to Koman’s tea shop,” he wrote.

Tea and newspaper combo

Tanya Abraham, author of Eating With History: Ancient Trade-Influenced Cuisines of Kerala, talks about how chayakkadas first opened in villages. “Poor people who couldn’t afford newspapers began coming to the chayakkada which bought a copy every morning. It became a place where people met, had their tea in the morning and the newspaper got read aloud. A congregation happened where people talked and discussed politics. It started becoming popular and reached the cities. Initially there was only the chaya (tea), snacks came later.”

Back then, tea shop owners didn’t have land of their own and would put up a stall in the poramboke (unsurveyed land), MG Sashibhooshan says. There would be white sand inside and benches and desks placed over this, a shelf for snacks; breakfast items like dosa, idli and puttu would be on display.

Snacks in a tea shop in Punalur / Photo courtesy - Sheela PR

Sashibooshan recalls, “The patriarch of a family wouldn’t go. But a non-earning adult male member would go. He would be the rebel who wanted an audience to hear him out. At the chayakkada, history, politics, cinema and the local gossip were discussed. An equivalent space for women was the kulakadavu (pond side where they bathed). I was in class 5 when a man ran a tea shop in our compound in Krishnapuram and I went to listen to their conversations. It was a time Kerala’s literacy rates and reading habits were growing. I heard people having tea talk about the 1959 Vimochana Samaram. Flags of the political parties of Congress, Praja Socialist Party, Muslim League and the Communist Party of India would hang on the side of the chayakada. The Congress had just formed an alliance with the Muslim League in Kerala and their flags hung side by side.”

Once, he says, when Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru passed by Kayamkulam and saw these flags of the Muslim League and the Congress hanging together, he wanted it changed. The All India Congress Committee had not then agreed to such an alliance.

“That day’s discussion at the chayakkada was on why Nehru had asked to remove the flag,” the historian adds.

Reporting in the 1920s, The Sphere, a British publication, published a picture of a tea shop in Malabar with the following text:

“There are hundreds of such tea shops all over Malabar. The Malabari is as much addicted to tea drinking as the Russian. In normal times the tea shop is a rendezvous for all the village gossips, who discuss the most vital questions of the day, the price of rice, and the chances of a good monsoon. They are seen here drinking out of a variety of glasses and cups.”

- (thread)

"The Sphere" published 8 photos in 1922, on "The Trouble in the Moplah Country"; pictures of "military operations, and other aspects of life" in the region. That 1 of the 8 pictures was of a (1/4)#Kerala

— Ala (@ker_ala) October 13, 2020

In his book on Malabar from 1967, Canadian biographer George Woodcock notes that in his travels across south Asia or Japan, he had never seen anything like the little tea shops of Kerala in the mornings…

“...crowded with coolies scanning the newspapers or listening while others read them aloud. More than 40 newspapers in the Malayalam language are published in Kerala; they are read and discussed by people of all classes and castes.”

The tea shop established itself as the nerve centre of activity in Kerala, shaping its politics, art and culture in the twentieth century.

Tea shop cosmopolitanism

The introduction of alien political ideologies and the creation of a political ecumene also often pulled events of international news into the chayakkada discussions. Writer and critic MN Karassery shares a memory from when an American academic visited his village in the 1970s, and was astonished to witness the locals involved in a heated debate regarding former President John F Kennedy's daughter's name! What was interesting was that the debate was not between someone who knew the name and someone who didn’t, but between two people, both of whom thought that they had the correct name.

Babuettan, who set up a tea shop near the famous Paragon Restaurant in Kozhikode four decades ago, recalls: “Back then, we had crowds that would spend a lot of time as they had tea...not just here, really the Indian Coffee House was a left-leaning space that shaped many friendships,” he says. He believes that such vibrant political engagements were common across the tea shops in the city and are what eventually drew him closer to active politics and nurture many friendships.

The wall of a tea shop in Ayyanthole, Thrissur / Image by S Harikrishnan

In cinema and literature

Late P Kesavadev, renowned Malayalam writer, wrote in his 1949 novel Branthalayam about the conversations that happened in a small village in Kerala. Advocate O Harris wrote on the Facebook page Kayamkulam News, "At the bottom of an Aanjili tree (wild jack), there was a small tea shop in Puthuppally, Kayamkulam, where Kesavadev lived. Kesavadev adapted the conversations of the people who gathered there into his novel." The character of Abdu reads out the newspaper loudly for the benefit of the others.

In Kesavadev’s Kannadi (The Mirror, 1961), his unnamed protagonist is presented to the reader as a revolutionary spirit who “can be seen prowling through the narrow by lanes like the wind...entering the homes of labourers...loitering near tea shops and paan-shops.”

Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai’s epic novel Kayar mentions the first of the tea shops cropping up in a village in Kuttanad.

Soon, the importance of tea shops in society also began to reflect on screen. In the 1954 film Neelakkuyil, a local tea shop was at the centre of activity. Award-winning film critic CS Venkiteswaran in his piece 'Tea shops in Malayalam cinema' wrote about the film, "Most of the characters are trapped in their own space and time. But the tea-shop stands in their midst as the only modern and secular space, a space where hawkers, fishmongers, peasants and the local postman appear regularly as in a photo session. The tea-shops with an occasional rush hour also provide a counterpoint to the quiet and uneventful life of the village. It is not a coincidence that the protagonist Sreedharan Nair (played by Sathyan) appears not even once at the tea-shop, while Shankaran Nair, the postman (played by P Bhaskaran) makes it his favourite hangout. The only other ‘high born’, we come across there, is a member of a declining tharavad. For him the tea-shop is a trading centre where he can sell the things he has spirited away from the tharavad.”

Watch: Song from Neelakkuyil

Venkiteswaran points out that in those years, when people of the oppressed caste were denied entry to many spaces, the tea shop became the one place where no one cared about your caste or religion as long as you had the money to pay for your tea. In that way the protagonists of the film – a dominant caste man and a Dalit woman could only get together in their dreams. “But these scenes are fantasies, whereas the tea-shop is real,” Venkiteswaran writes.

Tea shops continued to play this role in Malayalam cinema through the decades, and in recent films like Drishyam, Ustad Hotel, and Maheshinte Prathikaram. In Maheshinte Prathikaram, the tea shop is where Mahesh learns about the recession in the Gulf and the return of construction workers, a crucial point that drives the film’s plot. In Drishyam, the tea shop opposite the police station is where crucial shades of the main characters are revealed to the audience through confrontations between them.

Hotel Fathima from Drishyam

No place for women

Just as bars in Kerala are still not welcoming of women, chayakkadas for the longest time remained a jaunt of the men. Even now, in a group of 20 outside a tea shop, you may find two women if you are lucky. As we see from Mannathu’s note, women have, however, found space as employees in some tea shops, especially if they served some food and snacks.

“Some of it changed in the last 20 years with the setting up of eateries by Kudumbashree (state’s women empowerment programme). But those shops lacked the culture of chayakkadas where you sit and talk lazily or simply hang around. That’s another indicator of the lack of public life of women,” says Venkiteswaran.

The customers in these eateries continue to be predominantly men, and any change to the masculine nature of Kerala’s public sphere remains slow. Tanya Abraham says it’s true that while the chayakkada culture is ingrained into the Kerala society, not many women still go.

A lasting habit

“Over the years, it has become a very integral part of the culture of Kerala, the point of a lot of discussions. The chayakkadas had popped up when there was no TV or radio and if you want to have tea outside of home, it was the only option. But of course, it was not just a point of tea but of conversations, of politics. Political parties have emerged from such congregations,” Tanya says.

At the Manaveeyam Veedi on Sunday, the corner tea shop has as usual become busy by half past five, an hour before sunset. This is the capital city’s famous spot for cultural gatherings and in the last 20 years, it has emerged as a hangout zone for the young and old. Vijayan, who is in charge, says the shop has been around for two decades, run by his brother-in-law Pushpan and himself.

Tea shop at Manaveeyam Veedi

“Before that it used to be run by two old men on the other side of the road. We used to help them with things and one day they sold it to us. In all these years, nothing’s really changed. People kept coming for their tea, loyal old customers and new young people, crowding around the nearby trees, talking, or simply enjoying the evening,” Vijayan says.

In recent years, tea shops have also taken up space on news channels in Kerala during election periods, with some stepping outside the studios and into the tea shops, reading rooms to initiate discussion on the ongoing local issues in the area, and for a ‘heady brew of politics, music and, of course, tea’, especially around the time of elections in the region. They are sure to get something out of a tea shop.

Even as post boxes slowly became relics of the past, telephone booths disappeared and internet cafes faded into near oblivion, the chayakkada has stood through the decades, watching, shaping and reflecting the society that it sees around it. It is for this reason, perhaps, that they continue to hold a special place in the Malayali mind.

This story was written as a collaborative effort between a TNM employee, Cris, and a TNM Member, S Harikrishnan. 

S Harikrishnan is a post-doctoral researcher at Dublin City University and a founding editor of Ala

Cris has been a feature writer for 10 years now and likes to write about culture, cinema, history and last heard, a bit of politics.

Related Stories

No stories found.
The News Minute