What Is A Chai Wallah?

I took a trip to North India some years ago and I heard the word “wallah” more often than I thought was necessary. "Wallah" sounded like our local word for "nothing", which is "wala" (accent at the end of the word). You can see why it made me curious. I asked a local what it actually meant. All he said was, “wallah” means, ‘someone who does something’.

That was... vague.

But it satiated my curiosity anyway. So much so in fact, that it got me into the habit of using the word whenever I chat up locals. We would always get to the point of the conversation where I have to tell them all the Hindi words I knew. I'd usually say, "wallah wallah". ("Wallah" = nothing in my language. Get it?) Most people would simply smile politely, but one man actually did a rap that included the phrases, “pita wallah”, “chai wallah”, “[insert Hindi word here] wallah”. We all had a good laugh about it.

california-tea-house-camsy-ocumen-chai-wallah

This is the legendary rapper.

After leaving India, I forgot about that word and went on with my life. That is, until I saw this photo on Reddit a few weeks ago with the description, chai wallah.

(c) Tom Abraham DcruzIt rekindled my interest in the word so I went on a quest to find its meaning. Took me less than a minute to find out, though--thanks to Google for taking all the fun out of a good research since 2004.

On to this new phrase then!

Chai wallah is a Hindi phrase commonly heard in (of course) India. So what does it mean? Let’s approach it per word.

california-tea-house-what-is-a-chai-wallahThe word “chai” literally means tea in Hindi. Whenever someone orders a “chai tea latte” at a tea shop, they’re actually ordering “tea tea latte”. Now that’s something language and grammar nazis can whine about for months or even years to come! Next time you hear someone order “chai tea”...

Well. Please. Please. Stifle your laughter. Not everyone can be as cultured as we are!

“Wallah” on the other hand, is--as an old Indian friend once so eloquently explained--really just someone who does something. Or, as Google puts it, “a person concerned or involved with a specified thing or business” or “a native or inhabitant of a specified place”.

So “chai wallah” is quite literally, a person involved in making tea. They are everywhere in India -- from walking street peddlers to tiny tea stalls to even the most expensive restaurants. This is a country that just can’t get enough of tea.

Too bad I wasn’t such a tea whore back then! I did bring home a bag of darjeeling from an emporium in Varanasi, though. Then gave it away without even having a cuppa myself. Face palm!

How about you, what foreign tea-related phrases have you been curious about? I would love to hear about them and what they mean. Share them in the comment section below!

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