A Ceremonial Cup of Tea

8 minute read

Whilst reading the memoirs of Margaret Williamson and exploring the collection of objects that she donated to MAA, it is difficult not to assume that she was both an avid tea drinker and collector of teaware. Her memoirs are replete with instances of drinking, serving, or being served with tea. Out of the 280 objects in the Williamson Collection at MAA, at least a third are associated with tea. Given that tea has been integral to social and cultural life in the Himalayan regions which she called home for at least five years, it is not surprising that she had an affinity for this substance and its associated material culture. 

Tea was at the heart of Margaret’s life, relationships, and experiences in northeast British India. When it was announced that she and Frederick were engaged to be married, the wife of the Dutch Ambassador in India, Jenny Wisser-Hoof, told her:

‘You don’t know how many chota hazri sets [morning tea services] were broken in Delhi the morning the announcement appeared’ (Williamson and Snelling, 1987: 56, emphasis in original).

During their travels between Sikkim, Bhutan, and Tibet, Margaret and her husband as well as their huge travel party (including 20 or so mules and 80–90 people) often took tea breaks. On their way to Bhutan in May 1993, for instance, the Williamsons were passing through Tibetan territory, and Margaret notes in her memoirs that hence, ‘it seemed appropriate to pause at the bottom for tea’ (Williamson and Snelling, 1987: 63). 

A collage of two images. In both images a group of people are having tea.

Figures 1 and 2. Left – George Sherriff, Frank Ludlow, Captain David Tennant, Margaret and Frederick Williamson pausing for tea at Chendebi, Bhutan on their way to Lhasa, Tibet. Photographed by Frederick Williamson in July 1933. MAA N.101062.WIL. Right – A ceremonial reception of tea by Rupon for French, Fletcher, Sinclair, Byers, and Bill Marshall (Margaret’s brother) on the way to Dongtse, Tibet. Photographed by Frederick Williamson in August 1931. MAA P.97893.WIL. Donated by Margaret Williamson. Williamson Collection.

Frederick was a British diplomat, which meant that his and Margaret’s travels often entailed visiting various religious and political leaders in Sikkim, Bhutan, and Tibet. On arrival to the residences of these leaders, the Williamsons were ceremonially welcomed with tea. For instance, when they visited the Tibetan Trade Agent in 1933, he first served them Indian tea (usually a brew of milk, water, black tea, and spices), and then བོད་ཇ་ (bod ja) (Tibetan yak butter tea, made from churning black tea, salt, and yak butter). Margaret writes that the latter was served ‘in little jade cups, though it had a film of butter that had to be blown away before one could drink it’ (Williamson and Snelling, 1987: 64). And when the Williamsons met Thubten Gyatso, then the 13th Dalai Lama, they were served Indian tea with biscuits, whilst the latter drank བོད་ཇ་ (bod ja) from a gold cup. 

A collage of two images. In both images a group of people are having tea. In the image on the right, a larger group is seen to be having tea in comparison to that in the image on the left.

Figures 3 and 4. Left – Margaret Williamson having tea with Raja Sonam Tobgye Dorji, his wife Rani Choni Wangmo Dorji, and a young boy, probably at a temporary camp set up for sports during the Williamsons’ second visit to Bhutan. Photographed by Frederick Williamson in September 1934. MAA N.130708.WIL. Right – Margaret and Frederick Williamson at tea with Jigme Wangchuck, the Maharajah of Bhutan, Ashi Phuntsho Choden, the Maharani of Bhutan, and the Mellors at Titagarh Paper factory in Kolkata in 1934. Photographed by Palden Thondup Namgyal OBE, the Maharajah of Sikkim. MAA P.97583.WIL. Donated by Margaret Williamson. Williamson Collection.

Since བོད་ཇ་ (bod ja) is thick and broth-like, it is usually drunk from wide cups or bowls, without an ear or teacup handle, and held from the bottom. Most Tibetans drink བོད་ཇ་ (bod ja) from wooden cups, but the wealthier and more aristocratic classes use teaware made of jade or porcelain, and monks and religious leaders like the Dalai Lama use teaware made of gold. The fact that the Williamsons were offered tea in jade cups by the Tibetan Trade Agent when they visited him in 1933 is telling of their status and the regard with which they were held in the region. 

A collage of two images. On the left is an image of a silver-lined wooden bowl. On the right is an image of a small bowl-like teacup with a cover and on a stand.

Figures 5 and 6. Left – A silver-lined wooden cup used for Tibetan butter tea. Tibet. Probably presented to the Williamsons as a gift. MAA D 1976.69. Right – A porcelain tea up with a stand and lid in brass. Engraved on the stand are the Eight Taoist Emblems including a fan, sword, castanets and a gourd amongst others. Depicted on the cup are the Eight Immortals of Taoism, each of whom is holding one of the Taoist emblems. Tibet. Collected by Margaret and Frederick Williamson, presumably given to them as a gift. MAA D 1976.135. Donated by Margaret Williamson. 

If the Williamsons were greeted with tea on arrival, then they were also bid farewell with a ceremonial offering of tea amongst other food and drink items. For instance, when leaving Paro in Bhutan in June 1933, the Penlop (governor) of Paro bid the Williamsons farewell with an offering of tea and saffron rice. When bidding farewell to Jigme Wangchuck (Maharajah of Bhutan, 1927–1952), they were offered tea and saffron rice as well as presents including a silver cigarette box (for Frederick), three gold rings studded with turquoises (for Margaret), and ཁ་བཏགས་ (khatas, traditional ceremonial scarves in Tibetan Buddhism). 

A collage of two images. In the image on the left, a man is standing, holding a teapot up to his left shoulder. In the image on the right, a group of people are having a tea, with someone sitting on a mat on the floor behind them.

Figures 7 and 8. Left – A man holding a kettle in his left hand to serve ceremonial tea to the Williamsons on arrival in Paro in 1933. Ha, Bhutan. Photographed by Frederick Williamson. MAA P.96611.WIL. Right – Margaret and Frederick Williamson having farewell tea with Captain David Tennant and Jigme Wangchuck, the Maharajah of Bhutan (on the table) and Bahadur Norbhu Dhondup (seated on the mat) before leaving Bhutan and approaching Tibet. Photographed by Raja Sonam Tobgye Dorji. MAA P.87166.WIL. Donated by Margaret Williamson. Williamson Collection.

Several studies may already abound on the topic, but from a simple reading of Margaret’s memoirs, it appears that tea was an important aspect of gift-giving in the communities and cultures of Sikkim, Bhutan, and Tibet. As I alluded to above, the Williamsons were presented with tea, food and drink items as well as other objects at every social encounter. On arriving in Bhutan, for instance, the Maharajah’s brother, Dasho Gyurme Dorji, gave them tea, saffron rice, cheese, and barley beer. On parting, the Maharajah himself gave them tea, saffron rice, a cigarette box, three gold rings, small ivory bowls lined with silver and ཁ་བཏགས་ (khatas). On meeting Dragshul Trinle Rinchen (Sakya Trizin (head of the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism), 1915–1936), they were presented with tea, rice, and sweets. On parting, they were presented with ‘an attractive charmbox, two pairs of stirrup irons and a bridle, some brick tea and sugar cane’ (Williamson and Snelling, 1987: 154). In return the Williamsons also offered presents which often included weapons and ammunition. Some of the presents which they received were donated by Margaret to MAA. 

An engraved silver box.

Figure 9. A silver cigarette box with a hinged decorated lid, featuring some of the ashtamangala (eight auspicious symbols) of Buddhism including a conch shell, fish, and a parasol. Tibet. Presented to Frederick Williamson as a gift. Donated by Margaret Williamson. MAA 1988.489.

A collage of two images. Image on the left is of a portable shrine with some writing in Tibetan script on the front. Image on the right is also of a portable shrine with the same writing on the front.

Figures 10 and 11. Left – A charm box inlaid with the seed syllable or monogram of Kālacakra (rnam bcu dbang ldan). It is believed to be one of the best known symbols of the Kālacakra system of Vajrayana Buddhism. The seed syllable on the box is made of gyu (turquoise) and ju ru (coral).  MAA D 1976.35. Right – A charm box inlaid with the seed syllable or monogram of Kālacakra (rnam bcu dbang ldan). The seed syllable is surrounded by the ashtamangala (eight auspicious symbols) of Buddhism. MAA D 1976.114. Both probably presented to the Williamsons as a gift. Tibet. Donated by Margaret Williamson. 

Tea is a substance that has held and gelled the social fabric of Sikkim, Bhutan, and Tibet, enabling the creation as well as the sustenance of social relationships. Margaret, of course, was familiar with this property of tea. It has been at the heart of social life in Britain as well as in South Asia, and in fact for a much longer period in Britain (since the mid-1600s, when it was popularised by Catherine of Braganza, wife of King Charles II) than in South Asia (since the early-1880s, when the British introduced the commercial production of tea into India in an attempt to break the Chinese monopoly on tea). 

Presumably, Margaret used her awareness of the social significance of tea to forge new relationships as well as strengthen existing ones. One of the ways in which she did this was through organising tea parties for women and children in Sikkim, Bhutan, and Tibet. About one such party, she writes in her memoirs: 

‘We held our children’s party on 2 September [1933]. Our young guests were due to arrive at half past two but the first of them began to show up at eleven and Norbhu had to keep them at bay for three hours while we frantically got on with the preparations, in which we were kindly assisted by Jigme and Mary-la Taring, Dinghcha and several other Tibetan friends. Over forty children came and had great fun and games. We laid on a treasure hunt for them, a potato race, musical bumps, an egg-and-spoon race (with real eggs, which, thankfully, they mostly managed not to break!), a sack-race and a thread-and-needle race. Then there was a huge tea complete with fruit jelly, which they had never seen before and which caused a great deal of merriment! Afterwards we took them inside for a cinema show, putting on Fritz the Cat and Charlie Chaplin, which caused more hilarity. They were all presented with prizes and eventually they left–with enormous reluctance!–around half past five, each child carrying away a little package of the resourceful Pinjo’s excellent toffee.’ (Williamson and Snelling, 1987: 117).

A collage of two images. In the image on the left, children are being served tea and food items by a woman in traditional Tibetan dress. In the image on the right, children are shown to be enjoying tea and cakes.

Figures 12 and 13. Left – Children being served tea and food at a children’s party in the garden of Dekyilingka (now the Dekyiling Tibetan settlement in Dehradun, India). Photographed by Frederick Williamson. MAA N.103703.WIL. Right – Children having tea and food at a children’s party in the garden of Dekyilingka (now the Dekyiling Tibetan settlement in Dehradun, India). Photographed by Margaret Williamson. MAA N.103704.WIL. Donated by Margaret Williamson. Williamson Collection. 

And about a party that she organised for women, Margaret writes: 

‘The ladies’ party was held on 19 September [1933] and was attended by twenty-three Lhasa ladies and about a dozen children who for some reason or other had been unable to come to the children’s parti. The ladies looked most  picturesque in their colourful clothes and exquisite jewellery. Most of them wore their hair in the Lhasa style, built up into two pinnacles on a triangular frame decorated with seed pearls and corals. One of two, however, sported the Gyantse style, which is more elaborate, incorporating a semi-circular hoop with various parts, again all decorated with pearls and corals… We began with a cinema show and then Pinjo laid on a sumptuous tea. Lhasa ladies used only to mix in very restricted circles and so this occasion was a great novelty; it allowed them to meet and talk with others whom they would never in the normal course of things have an opportunity to meet. They all appeared to enjoy themselves immensely and many came to call on me later.’ (Williamson and Snelling, 1987: 118).

A collage of two images. In the image on the left, a few women are standing in a garden enjoying tea and conversation. In the image on the right, a group of local Tibetan women are sitting and enjoying tea and cakes.

Figures 14 and 15. Left – A ladies party in the garden of Dekyilingka (now the Dekyiling Tibetan settlement in Dehradun, India). Several small groups of women stand talking to one another and Margaret can be seen in the background. Photographed by Frederick Williamson. MAA N.103774.WIL. Right – Invitees to the ladies’ party in Lhasa, Tibet seated at tea. Photographed by Margaret Williamson. MAA P.97070.WIL. Donated by Margaret Williamson. Williamson Collection.

Clearly, these parties left quite the impression on those who attended them. Margaret tells us that the children’s party was ‘the talk of Lhasa for months to come as nothing of the kind had ever happened there before’(Williamson and Snelling, 1987: 118). More significantly, she recounts that approximately 40 years later, when she was invited to the coronation of the fourth king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuk (reigned from 1972–2006), she was approached by a Tibetan monk who had attended the children’s party in Lhasa in 1933, and who told her that he still warmly remembered the occasion. The ladies’ party also proved to be quite the success, enabling not only Margaret but also the women attending to forge relationships with each other, which they otherwise would not have the opportunity to do. Indeed, both parties were so successful and left such an impression that they were even mentioned by Jigme Taring, a lifelong friend of the Williamsons, in his foreword to Margaret’s memoirs. 

‘Peggy was very popular among the ladies of Tibet and to her is furthermore due the credit for organising the first ladies’ party, with guests drawn from different tiers of society. She also gave the first children’s party ever held in Lhasa, an event that was thoroughly enjoyed by all those who attended it.’ (Williamson and Snelling, 1987: 8).

Although certainly a gathering of people, I personally think that Maragaret’s parties also featured the interaction of two to three different tea-drinking cultures. Photographs of the parties often depict women and children having both བོད་ཇ་ (bod ja) in wide cups or bowls and Indian or even English tea in tea cups with handles, and with cakes and scones. 

A collage of two images. The image on the left is a close-up of the different teacups used in a garden party for children, to serve tea to them. The image on the right is close-up of the same thing, but in the context of a tea party organised for local Tibetan women.

Figures 16 and 17. Left – Detail of a photograph of the children’s party showing tea served in both tea cups with handles and a wide cup without a handle. MAA N.103704.WIL. Right – Detail of a photograph of the ladies party showing women drinking from both tea cups with handles and a wide cup without a handle. MAA P.97070.WIL. Photographed and donated by Margaret Williamson. Williamson Collection.

In fact, the archive of Williamsons’ photographs is ripe with examples of people having Tibetan, Indian, and/or English tea, often together, in the respective teaware. I have shown two examples above (figures 19 and 20). But if you were to scroll up and look through the images in this blog post, then you can see more examples of people drinking different brews of tea in different teaware.

Margaret’s memoirs are also ripe with examples of Frederick and her being served with different types of tea, and often consecutively. For example, I noted above that the Tibetan Trade Agent served the Williamsons both Indian and Tibetan tea, one after the other. I wonder then, if it might be possible, to suggest a reading of Margaret’s life and experiences in the Himalayas as also the interaction of different tea drinking cultures, and the consequent visual and material archive of her and her husband’s as the evidence of it? Or, would this be too left-field a suggestion?


Williamson, M. D. and Snelling, J. (1987). Memoirs of a Political Officer’s Wife in Tibet, Sikkim, and Bhutan. London: Wisdom Publications.


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