How Tam-Brams went from being scared of Coffee to owning it

Why You Should Read This

  • Filter coffee is considered an iconic symbol of South India – of Tamil culture, to be specific.
  • But historically, the drink has been associated almost exclusively with Tamil Brahmins.A minority who constitute roughly 3% of the total population of Tamil Nadu.
  • This paper, written by A.R. Venkatachalapthy in 2002, points out that when the use of coffee first spread across India under British rule, many Tamil Brahmins strongly opposed it. But by the time India became independent, they had wholeheartedly embraced coffee, infused it with their own characteristics, and had even begun to use it as a marker of their social superiority.
  • We have condensed the original 7400-word paper into a 1,200-word summary. You can read it in fullClick on each point to dig deeper and get the complete picture.
  • in 6 minutes or skim itRead only the numbered points. in 1 minute.

  1. In the 17th century,…around the same time Shivaji was forging the Maratha Empire and barely a couple of decades after the Taj Mahal had been built… coffee arrived in India for the first time. But it was only two centuries later that Indians began to acquire a taste for the drink.
    • Coffee had originally been brought to India from the middle east.
    • But the increase in its popularity was closely tied to the expansion of British rule, under which large plantations were created to cultivate cash crops for export.
  2. Coffee was regarded as a symbol of the modern era. By the early 20th century, it had become a daily habit in the Tamil-speaking regions of South India, especially among the westernised Brahmin middle class.
    • Initially, coffee was associated almost exclusively with Europeans.
    • However, over time, the desire for coffee among the native population began to grow.
      • While newspapers from the time noted that there was demand for the drink among all sections of Tamil society, it was only the richer upper castes that could afford to consume it regularly.πŸ˜’
    • The new beverage began to replace traditional drinks that had long been consumed in the region such as neeragaramA drink made by fermenting the water used for cooking rice or other grains. and palayatu.Leftover rice soaked in water overnight and consumed the next morning.
  3. But coffee faced strong criticism too. Traditionalists amongst the Brahmins worried that the foreign drink was a threat to their health – and to their culture.
    • Public figures connected coffee to a number of medical concerns, including poor sleep and appetite, diabetes, constipation, and increased infant mortality.
    • Coffee was compared to alcohol, with some arguing that it was even more addictive than beer and arrack. Gandhians nicknamed it “kutti kal” or “the junior alcohol”. 🍺🀭
  4. The best examples of the moral panic created by coffee came from public discussions about its effects on women. Writings from the time were gripped with the fear that through coffee, the West was corrupting Tamil women and preventing them from performing their main functions – caring for their families and upholding traditions.
    • A leading women’s magazine spoke of how coffee had “entered all homes, wreaking havoc.” It worried that old women who drank coffee were forgetting home remedies to illnesses and rushing to doctors instead and that young women who drank it had become weak and unable to nurse their children with breast milk as a result.πŸ€¦β€β™€οΈ
    • A book about the evils of coffee personified the drink as an immoral woman whose lure was preventing other women from observing religious fasts.πŸ€¦β€β™€οΈπŸ€¦β€β™€οΈ
    • A letter published in Gandhi’s weekly newspaper, Young India, lamented that the “greatest obstacle” in the way of the non-cooperation movement in Madras was the addiction of “a very large number of high class Brahman ladies” to coffee.πŸ€¦β€β™€οΈπŸ€¦β€β™€οΈπŸ€¦β€β™€οΈ
  5. Despite the opposition, coffee continued to grow in popularity. For the Brahmin middle class, drinking coffee became a matter of pride β€” a symbol of their progress.
    • Brahmins who had been exposed to western thought through education, moved to cities, adopted modern professions, and accumulated wealth through them, used coffee to position themselves as different from, better than the rest of Indian society.
      • Positioned in opposition to coffee was another modern beverage, tea, which was associated with the poor, illiterate, working classes. It was priced lower and served mostly in roadside tea shops. Thus, it was looked down on, regarded as everything that the good and proper Brahmin coffee was not.πŸ€·β€β™‚οΈ
    • Coffee consumption was just one of the many cultural practices that this newly-emerging class of Brahmins was using to showcase its progress towards modernity. The results of their desire to set themselves apart from the rest of Indian society were also visible in cinema, literature, music, and drama of the time.
  6. Crucially, as it adopted coffee, the Brahmin middle class also transformed it completely. They created a range of rituals and practices around the consumption of coffee that had nothing to do with the original drink and everything to do with the religious, cultural, and caste practices of the drinkers.
    • The Brahmin middle class established a very specific and rather demanding process for the preparation of coffee.
      • Beans were supposed to be freshly roasted and ground each time. And once the decoction was made from it, fresh warm milk was added along with just the right amount of sugar.
      • Chicory was frowned upon and milk could only mean pure, unadulterated cow’s milk.Coffee made with pure cow’s milk, referred to as “degree coffee,” is popular to this day in Tanjavur and Kumbakonam. Anything less than that was considered “a sign of cultural and moral degeneration.”πŸ₯΄
      • This form of coffee consumption bore little resemblance to how the Europeans originally went about it.
    • Coffee became the ultimate mark of hospitality. Not offering a cup to guests began to be regarded as an insult. And the harshest way to condemn a family was to call their coffee bad.
    • Even the act of drinking coffee had prescribed norms that could be used to separate the high from the low. The appropriate way was to take it piping hot in a small tumbler and to sip it in tiny amounts at frequent intervals. Doing it any other way was to invite scorn and ridicule.πŸ™„
      • The metal tumblers that are now commonly associated with South Indian filter coffee were first introduced around the time. The rim of the tumbler allowed Brahmins to drink coffee without touching their lips to it, thus protecting them from the impurity and pollution that their caste associated with shared utensils.πŸ™
  7. By the 1920s, coffee culture had become firmly established in Tamil society, giving birth to a new institution – the coffee hotel. In these establishments, Brahmins shared space with people from other castes, prompting fresh moral outrage from traditionalists within the community.
    • The coffee hotels, which served also served tiffin,but never tea! had become important as places to close deals, to entertain friends, or to simply take a break from homemade food.
    • Brahmin traditionalists decried these hotels as “unclean”. According to them, the cups were reused without proper washing, the milk was adulterated, the waiters and cooks were dirty, and the general lack of tidiness contributed to the spread of diseases.
      • But while they spoke of health and sanitary concerns, what seems to have really upset them was the breaking of traditions that prohibited different castes from dining together.
        • Although they were run by Brahmins, for a mostly Brahmin clientele, members of other castes also visited these hotels. And more than actual dirt in these hotels, Brahmins appear to have been concerned about the presence of supposedly “unclean” lower caste people in these shared spaces.😣
  8. This resulted in the creation of new methods of preserving traditional hierarchies even in these so-called modern spaces.
    • There were designated areas within the hotels reserved for Brahmins.
    • As Periyar pointed out, these hotels typically had three signboards…
      • One, indicating the area for Brahmins.
      • A second, marking the area for Shudras.
      • And a third one, warning Dalits, lepers, and dogs not to enter.
    • Over time, these reservations in hotels were abolishedHowever, the legacy of these discriminatory establishments is carried on by coffee hotels with the word Brahmin in their name, which though fewer in number, continue to exist to this day. due to opposition from anti-caste activists.

Source text: ‘In those days there was no coffee’: Coffee-drinking and middle-class culture in colonial Tamilnadu
Publication: The Indian Economic & Social History Review
Author: A.R. Venkatachalapathy


Note: This summary reflects an argument put forward by one scholar in one paper that we think would be interesting or useful to discuss. It does not represent academic consensus on the topic, which is always growing and evolving. If you would like to know how other scholars have built on or critiqued the arguments presented in this paper, click here to see some of the works that cite it.