It’s not just pretty. Chai Jaai, Srinagar, is a great example of repurposing a heritage building for contemporary use
If you’ve been to Kashmir, you will know that kahwa is ubiquitous there, their lightly brewed green tea topped with saffron strands and slivered almonds. Synonymous with Kashmiri hospitality, everyone will offer you a cup wherever you go. At the other end of the spectrum is the noon chai, the Kashmiri pink tea that is brewed for hours and is, according to some, an acquired taste.
When it gets chilly outside, there is nothing better than curling up indoors with a pot—or a samovar—of tea and watching the world go by. And there’s no better place to do it in Srinagar than at Chai Jaai.
Literally meaning ‘tea house’ in Kashmiri, Chai Jaai operates out of the premises of the legendary Mahatta Studio which was established in 1918 by two brothers from Rawalpindi, Amarnath and Ram Chander Mehta in the elegant, colonial-style Dhanjibuoy Building on The Bund overlooking the Jhelum River. They even established a photo lab on the Jhelum River for ease of developing photographs.
The studio was renamed ‘Mahatta’ in the 1920s because the British found that easier to pronounce. It had branches in many cities including Delhi. Amarnath’s grandson Jagdish Mehta passed away in 2016, marking the end of an era in the history of Indian photography.
In its heydays, the studio’s clients included the British residents of Srinagar, royalty and other well-heeled folk. Some of the most iconic images of Kashmir, and indeed India, were shot by the studio. These include elegant portraits of locals and pictures of royal hunts and visiting dignitaries.
The cafe is Roohi Nazki’s brainchild and took shape after she had conversations with Jagdish Mehta and was touched by his love for Kashmir. Nazki returned to Srinagar in 2015 after living in Mumbai for several years where she worked for an e-learning company. Inspired by the quaint tea rooms of the Cotswolds, which she had visited on a trip to the UK, Chai Jaai is a tribute to the English as well as Kashmiri cultures of drinking tea.
Chai Jaai has all the charm of an English tearoom, combined with the innate sense of hospitality that Kashmiris have. A wooden staircase takes you up to the first-floor tearoom, from where there are beautiful views of the Jhelum River. The cheerful interiors are warm and welcoming and the place is always full, so expect to wait a bit before you get a table.
A vast range of exotic teas is on offer, from oolongs to Earl Grey, delicate white teas to robust blacks. Served in chintzware, it’s all by the pot, which gives you about three cups. Food includes popular eats like pizzas, sandwiches, and all-day breakfast items.
If you order a day in advance, you can have the full English high tea experience, complete with buttered scones. There’s a Kashmiri version too, which comes with an assortment of local breads. The cafe is popular with locals and tourists alike.
Another part of the studio has been converted into a non-profit, cooperative art gallery and serves as a platform for emerging artists. It’s a great way to keep a heritage building alive, which may otherwise have been shuttered up or fallen into disrepair. Let’s raise a cup of tea to that.