Tea holds a special place in the hearts and cups of the people of Bangladesh. The country, nestled in South Asia, boasts a tea culture that dates back to the days of British colonial rule. Today, Bangladesh stands as the 12th largest tea producer in the world, with a thriving tea industry deeply rooted in its history and culture. In this article, we will embark on a journey through the tea fields of Bangladesh, exploring the main tea-producing regions, key industry players, and the country’s flourishing tea traditions.
Halda Valley, Chittagong. Tea pickers Rupali and Dilpi.
Brief History of Tea in Bangladesh
Historically, Bengal was the terminus of the Tea Horse Road connecting the subcontinent with China’s early tea-growing regions in Yunnan. Buddhist leader Atīśa (c. 982–1054) is regarded as one of the earliest Bengali drinkers of tea.
Tea’s roots in Bangladesh trace back to British rule when the East India Company introduced cultivation in the Indian subcontinent, in Bangladesh: Sylhet (1834) and Greater Chittagong (1840). The Assam Tea Company formalised in London in 1839, drawing investment from British and Indian entrepreneurs like Prince Dwarakanath Tagore, Babu Motilal Sil, Haji Hashem Ispahani and others, which was later merged with the Bengal Tea Association of Kolkata. Robert Bruce’s discovery of tea plants in Assam in 1834 and the indigenous tea plant found in Sylhet’s Chandkhani hillock in 1855 spurred the industry’s growth. Early gardens like Malnicherra in Sylhet (1854) and Lalchand and Matiranga (1860) further expanded the tea landscape. The sector faced a setback during the 1860s depression, leading to the domination of big companies like James Finlay in Sylhet. Over time, a few local entrepreneurs emerged, although the industry remained primarily controlled by European companies. The post-1947 period saw shifts in ownership due to the partition, with West Pakistani capitalists gaining dominance. The Assam Bengal Railway played a pivotal role, transporting tea from the Surma and Brahmaputra Valleys to the Port of Chittagong for export. Notable entrepreneurs like Syed Abdul Majid and Nawab Ali Amjad Khan emerged, establishing their tea companies. British companies, including James Finlay and Duncan Brothers, dominated the industry, marked by the establishment of the Chittagong Tea Auction in 1949.
Baramasia Tea Estate, a unit of T.K. Group of Industries. CTC tea factory.
The Ispahani Family stands as a cornerstone in Bangladesh’s industrialization, marked by their substantial capital investment, particularly in tea. The family’s roots trace back to Haji Muhammed Hashem, who began their tea business in Calcutta, playing a pivotal role in the Assam Tea Company. Over generations, their business expanded regionally from Bombay to Madras and even extended to Cairo, diversifying trade in various commodities alongside tea. The establishment of MM Ispahani Limited in 1934 by Mirza Ahmed Ispahani was pivotal, propelling the company to become a leading exporter by 1947 in shellac, kapok, hessian, jute bags, tea, and chemicals. The family’s involvement in politics and diplomacy alongside their business ventures underscored their influence, with members holding key positions in the Muslim League, the Bengal legislative assembly, and even serving as a Pakistan ambassador to the USA. The corporate headquarters of the Ispahani Group relocated to Chittagong in 1947, a move that signified their commitment to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Their tea empire under MM Ispahani Ltd remains an integral part of Bangladesh’s tea industry, owning four prestigious tea gardens—Mirzapore, Ghazipore, Zarreen in Sylhet, and Neptune in Chittagong—producing around 2.5 million kilos of tea annually. Their gardens consistently rank among the top ten for auction prices at the Chittagong Tea Auction, solidifying their position as the largest tea trading company in Bangladesh and a pivotal force in the nation’s industrial landscape.
Halda Valley Tea Estate, Chittagong. An archive of Assam broadleaf tea cultivar from 1905 that are now mother trees to other clones.
The tea industry sustained major damage during the war of liberation in 1971. The Bangladesh government appointed a committee in 1972 to investigate the problems faced by the tea planters. Over time, Bangladesh’s tea industry has evolved, shifting from a major world exporter to a net importer, with a focus on the burgeoning domestic market.
Now, the industry boasts a heritage deeply embedded in the country’s colonial past, evolving from its beginnings into a thriving sector that not only sustains the economy but also contributes to the cultural fabric of Bangladesh. Bangladesh stands as the 12th largest tea producer globally (3% of world’s tea production), boasting 168 commercial estates. Challenges persist, including low wages for over 350,000 plantation workers, 75% of whom are women, many descended from tribal labourers brought by the British from India, like Bihar, Assam, and Tripura, as well as local indigenous tea pluckers. They are among the lowest paid in the country with a daily wage of 170 taka (about $1.54).
Bangladesh Tea Traditions and Culture
Some of the street tea stalls in Dhaka.
Bangladesh can have incredibly hot summer days and yet, the first thing anyone will ask you as soon as you step into their homes is, “Cha khabe? Want some tea?”. Different types of tea, including Doodh Cha (milk tea), Rong Cha (black tea), Lembu Cha (lemon tea), Tetul Cha (tamarind tea, sometimes salt is added, too), and Ada-Cha (ginger tea), cater to diverse palates of locals and are ingrained in the fabric of Bangladeshi daily life. Around university, I observed iced tea and bubble tea also being rather popular. Doodh Cha being one of the most favoured teas and can be accompanied by ‘biskut’ (biscuits) to be dipped into the tea. Contrary to what most people associate Bengali tea with, masala chai is yet to gain popularity here and spices are added quite rarely to the sweet milk tea. Variations of milk tea can be also witnessed: condensed milk, cashews, floating sesame seeds, and layer of cream.
Notably, the seven-layer tea Sat Rong Cha (সাত রং চা) is a unique creation in the tea-growing town of Sreemangal, served in a transparent glass with seven distinct layers of tea. Tea is made in multiple permutations of concentration, tea leaf variety and adjuncts such as milk, sugar and flavourings and when combined separates according to density, ranging from syrupy sweet to spicy clove. Romesh Ram Gour, the operator of a tea shop “Nilkantha Tea Cabin” in Sreemangal, Moulvibazar, is the inventor of the drink. They pride themselves in the fact that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has sampled this tea in 2012, as well as that their drink was published in several local and foreign TV channels and newspapers, such as “The Guardian”.
In Dhaka, tea stalls are ubiquitous, perfuming the air with the scent of brewing tea from dawn till late night. Boiling in blackened kettles over open fires, the strong brew is poured into cups, then enriched with condensed milk and sugar, vigorously stirred, and served. From bustling roadside stalls catering to weary pedestrians to more structured bamboo huts along food streets, these spots offer a taste of ‘tong er cha‘—street tea stalls that are not permanent and move around in between the city’s hustle.
Doodh cha when visiting someone would be typically served in a porcelain cup with a handle and saucer, perhaps due to the British colonial past and its influence. On the streets, nevertheless, the cups encountered are more diverse: glass, earthen clay, plastic or paper.
Tea Producing Areas
Tea-producing districts include Moulvibazar (90 estates), Hobigonj (25), Sylhet (19), Chittagong (also known as Chattogram now, 22), Ponchogar (8), Rangamati (2), Khagrachori (1), Thakurgaon (1), as well as Naogaon, Brahmanbaria, Dinajpur, Lalmonirhat, Nilphamari, and Bandarban. The Moulvibazar District has the most tea plantations in the whole of the country (around 91 tea estates). Sylhet, located in the picturesque Surma Valley and its lush tropical forests, stands as the heart of the country’s tea cultivation. In Sylhet’s vicinity, Sreemangal, often is dubbed as the “tea capital” of Bangladesh. Additionally, Chittagong, known for its coastal and mountainous landscapes, hosts around 21 tea estates contributing significantly to the country’s tea production. Kazi & Kazi Tea Estate (KKTE) was the first local company to set up a tea garden at Tetulia in Ponchogar. Over the years, it has earned a reputation of producing organic tea.
Tea pickers on a lunch break, Halda Valley.
- The Bangladesh Tea Board, established in 1977 under the Tea Ordinance, oversees tea laws, production, and auctions, and has expanded since its inception. With roots in British and Pakistan rule, specific acts regulated tea plantations, evolving post-independence through the Tea Ordinance. The Board, governed by government-appointed and board-appointed members, relocated its headquarters from Dhaka to Chittagong’s Bayazid Bostami road. The Tea Research Institute and Project Development Unit focus on technical, economic, and developmental aspects of the tea industry.
- The Bangladesh Tea Research Institute (BTRI), established in 1973, functions as a key research centre. Previously the Pakistan Tea Research Station, it transformed into BTRI post-liberation. Situated near Sreemangal with substations in Moulvibazar, Sylhet, and Chittagong, it specialises in disciplines like chemistry, crop production, and pest management. Collaborating with various institutes, its scientists conduct programs enhancing tea quality, productivity, and disease resistance. BTRI disseminates findings through publications like the Tea Journal of Bangladesh and hosts training courses, with significant achievements in developing high-yielding clones and advanced processing methods.
- Tea Traders Association of Bangladesh provides real-time auction information, catalogues, and comprehensive data about market trends, price fluctuations based on supply and demand, tea production, and traders’ activities. This resource aids both buyers and sellers in formulating strategic decisions through detailed analysis.
- Bangladesh Tea Association, established post-liberation in 1972, succeeded the Pakistan Tea Association. Representing tea estates in Greater Sylhet and Chittagong, it’s a non-profit organisation advocating for owners and labours. Serving as a crucial link, it connects the tea industry with related sectors, governmental bodies, and regulatory entities.
Baramasia Tea Estate, a unit of T.K. Group of Industries.
In Bangladesh, the tea auction system is integral to the industry’s functioning, particularly the Chittagong Tea Auction, established in 1949, where teas from across the country are sold weekly. Overseen by the Tea Traders Association of Bangladesh, this auction, conducted every Monday, involves seven authorised brokers. The process begins with tea sent to bonded warehouses, then sampled and tasted by trained assessors. Subsequently, catalogues are prepared, setting tentative prices and shared with buyers before auctions. Beyond Chittagong, recently new auctions have emerged in Sylhet and Panchagarh, yet Chittagong’s auction remains the largest and most influential, attracting traders seeking quality tea for retail and consumers.
Rangapani Tea Estate, a unit of Elahinoor Tea Co. Ltd.
Fortunately, we had the chance to explore numerous tea estates in Chittagong and Sylhet. Additionally, we hosted several tea events, providing me with an insightful journey through Bangladesh’s tea scene.
Halda Valley: Pioneers of Speciality Tea in Bangladesh
Some of the specialty teas that we got taste and see the processing of: Silver Needle, Da Hong Pao, Golden Eyebrow, and Long Jing style teas.
Halda Valley Tea Lounge in Dhaka. We were kindly hosted by MD Shamim Khan, who courteously invited us to visit their Chittagong tea estate.
Halda Valley stands out as a vibrant tapestry for specialty tea production. Notably, they are renowned for its distinctive BT2 cultivar and pioneered the cultivation of Chinese tea varieties—CV1 and CV2—dedicated solely to green tea and oolongs. Since 2014, they’ve invested in Chinese production machinery and regularly welcomed Chinese tea masters to train local producers in crafting specialty teas like Silver Needle, Golden Eyebrow, Long Jing, lightly oxidised ball-rolled oolong, and Da Hong Pao. They are also aiming to open their own tea laboratory facilities. Embracing a commitment to excellence, Halda Valley champions a zero-waste ethos, utilising self-made compost and natural fertilisers while promoting biodiversity by cultivating dragon fruits, oranges, mangoes, and other fruits within the estate. During our visit, Symon Biswas, MD Kashem, MD Zia Uddim, and Mohshin Hoissain graciously guided us through Halda Valley’s specialty tea facilities, CTC factory, tea gardens, nurseries, compost areas, and zero-waste management initiatives. Conversations with garden and factory managers highlighted climate change as a significant challenge, with a notable drop in annual rainfall impacting tea production. We spoke of the lush wildlife surrounding and within the estate, which includes deer, monkeys, snakes, porcupines, peacocks, wild boars, and kingfishers. Now, Halda Valley underscores their commitment to modern branding through thoughtful packaging and substantial investments in producing top-quality teas. It is truly inspiring to witness this pioneering mission of doing things differently to reinvent and elevate the craftsmanship behind Bangladeshi tea.
One of the three Halda Valley’s tea nurseries and the hand-picked tea buds. Generation to generation of tea pickers learned to pluck only one bud and two leaves, hence, they had to be retrained for speciality tea production and the plucked leaf price per kilo was adjusted accordingly.
Chinese cultivar, Halda Valley.
T.K. Group’s Tea Estates
Mr. Robiul Hossen Zuwel kindly guided us through several CTC factories and tea gardens like Rangapani, Baramasia and Elahinoor within the T.K. Group’s Tea Estate. In the photo, Baramasia Tea Factory and manager Shafiul Alam Chowdhury.
T.K. Group’s tea estate encompasses an expansive 8,000 acres of tea gardens situated in Chittagong. The management of these vast tea gardens encompasses a multitude of responsibilities, akin to managing a small country, where the company provides essential facilities to their workers like housing within the estate, hospitals, markets, schools, and even places of religious worship like hindu temples and muslim mosques. We met a 90-year old retired doctor Mr. Nirod Chokroborty, who still practises medicine due to his heart’s calling in the medical facility situated next to a hindu temple. Mr. Shafiul explained the professional hierarchy within the estate: each group of 40-50 tea pickers has a group leader known as a Sardar, with babu overseeing their work, followed by assistant manager and then manager—a hierarchy somewhat resembling a pyramid.
Senior assistant manager Mr. Robiul, who has been in the tea industry for 12 years already, has expressed concern that it is challenging to compete with the Indian tea market since their yield per acre is significantly higher than in Bangladesh. He commented that since Chittagong has the highest elevation tea gardens in the country and the soil is rich here, the teas here are famous for their aroma qualities, while Sylhet teas are renowned for their tea liquor. And when speaking of harvests, the first flush (after the first rains in March to mid May) is considered to be the best and is mainly for export, while the monsoon comes in second and the second flush produces the most yield.
Baramasia Tea Estate, Manager Bangalow Photo: Robiul Hossen Zuwel.
Bangalow interior. Photo: Robiul Hossen Zuwel.
According to Mr. Robiul, each tea estate boasts its own charming and uniquely beautiful Bangalow. There are various types, including the Manager and Assistant Manager Bangalows, which are provided free of cost by the company for employees to oversee the estate. Additionally, there are Guest Bangalows and those for the Managing Director or Director. Some Guest Bangalows retain elements of British style, but they are seldom seen firsthand as tea gardens are usually off-limits to the public. Mr. Robiul jokingly advises caution about ghosts if one gets the opportunity to stay overnight in a tea estate!
Sylhet and Sreemangal: The Capital of Tea
Tea fields next to the railway, somewhere around Moulvibazar after the Lawachara National Park before reaching Sylhet.
Sharmin and Rehnuma Sultana delved into exploring tea tourism in the country and focused their research paper on the potential of Chittagong’s tea estates as a tourism destination. However, while in my personal experience Halda Valley and T.K. Group extended warm hospitality, yet seemed somewhat perplexed about the concept of tea tourism in Chittagong, beyond business-related visits. Meanwhile, Sylhet and Sreemangal boast numerous tea resorts such as Sreemangal Tea Resort and Museum, Keowachora Tea Resort, Tea Heaven Resort, and the Bangladesh Tea Research Institute Guest House, among others. We personally stayed at Oronner Din Ratri near Finlay Tea Estate. I would recommend this area, nestled close to Lawachara National Park, for its abundant tea gardens, serene villages, and tranquil guest houses and cottages. Interestingly, Bangladeshis themselves tend to take their vacation either in Sylhet Division, the home of tea, or Cox’s Bazaar, home to the world’s longest natural beach spanning 120 km.
James Finlay’s Tea Estate in Sreemangal.
Cultural Exchange Alongside a Cup of Tea
Mukit Anis, BRAC University lecturer and maestro of marketing, facilitated a cultural exchange discussion over tea, gathering myself (Latvia) and international students from various backgrounds: Karma (Bhutan), Moses (Uganda), Mariam (Syria), Rout (Nepal), Malika (Afghanistan), along with local Bangladeshi student Eehsan. Our aim was to explore how tea could bridge cultural gaps and bring people together meaningfully. Over cups of Kagoshima zairai wakoucha from Nishida Haruna-san (Nagasaki, Japan), we delved into discussions about culture, music, food, and our experiences in Dhaka. Mariam shared yerba mate, a popular drink in Syria, served in a small glass with a bombilla infused with spices like cardamom. This vibrant fusion of cultures holds the potential for an upcoming short film, inshallah.
Tea Tasting in Dhaka
Mishael Aziz Ahmad, Mukit Anis, Orchid Changma, and myself hosted an event at the trendy “BBQ Express” restaurant. We showcased teas from across the globe: Chinese Liu Bao and Dan Cong, Vietnamese Sheng Puerh, a selection of Japanese teas, and Silver Needle from Sri Lanka, among others. Notably, homemade roasted houjicha from Wazuka, made in collaboration with Kyoto Obubu Tea Farms in December, emerged as the crowd favourite.
Bonus layer of Bangladeshi culture: music and tea! “Chol mini Assam Jabo” by Arko Mukhaerjee is a folk song echoing the traditional melodies of the working class in the tea gardens situated in the northern parts of Bengal, India, bordering Bhutan and Assam. The tribal people of Manbhum were taken as cheap labourers to toil in the tea gardens near Gorumara, Chapramari, and other regions of North Bengal. The same song can be found in the Santhali tribal belts of Bengal as well, where tribals were essentially taken in enslavement to work in the tea estates of British India. Consequently, the song narrates their aspirations of seeking a better life by fleeing to Assam. Youtube link HERE.
A big thank you goes out to Mukit Anis & Nemeera Ahmed, and their family, Sajid, Sadita Ahmed & family, Robiul Hossen Zuwel (T.K. Group Tea Estates and team), MD Shamim Khan (Halda Valley and team), and Md Masnun Hossain Zaif for their incredible support and assistance throughout my 5-week stay in Bangladesh. Your unwavering support made this tea exploration in Bangladesh possible and immensely valuable.
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