A chaiwala (also spelled as chaiwalah or chaiwallah; Hindi: चायवाला, IAST: chāyvālā; Urdu: چائے والا, cāyvālā) is a person who prepares, sells or serves tea on streets or small roadside shops in the Indian subcontinent. They are an integral part of subcontinent culture. Chai is the Hindi and Urdu word for “tea”, as in masala chai, and wala indicates the person performing the task, so chaiwala is a street seller of tea.
Chaiwalas, as an entrepreneurial group, tend to move from different regions of India to run their small business in major cities. They boil a mixture of water and milk, often with spices or a spice mixture called Chai masala, add tea leaves and sugar and then strain the tea into containers or a tea kettle. They usually serve tea in a small glasses or unglazed clay teacups (kulhar) but, in the modern era, they have started to serve tea in plastic cups. Traditionally, tea was made in brass vessels. The hygienic safety of tea prepared in this manner is disputed.
In the 1955 film Shri 420, the hero (Raj Kapoor) brings the heroine (Nargis) to a road-side tea stall. The chaiwala insists on receiving a payment of two annas (anna is 1/16th of a rupee) for the two cups. The scene serves as a prelude for the famous song “Pyar Hua Ikrar Hua”, during which the chaiwala is shown sipping the tea from a saucer (which was common among the unsophisticated people). In the 2009 drama Slumdog Millionaire, the lead character, Jamal Malik (played by Dev Patel), is a chaiwala in an Indian call center.
The 2021 children’s book Chaiwala! by Priti Birla Maheshwari “Sweetly captures a slice of Indian life.” while telling the story of a little girl’s experience getting chai with her mother at a train station in India. The book is published in Canada by OwlKids Books and illustrated by Ashley Barron.
The press has noted several successful chaiwalas: They include:
- Former Chief Minister of Bihar and RJD Chief Lalu Prasad Yadav stated that he was once a chaiwala.
- Laxman Rao of Delhi, author of 24 books
- Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated that in his youth he worked as a chaiwala for his father, and used to serve tea to the customers of his father’s tea-stall outside the Vadnagar railway station. In 2015, an RTI query was filed asking “whether there was any record, registration number or official pass issued to Modi allowing or entitling him to sell tea on trains and at stations”. The Indian government responded that no such information is available.