Beyond oil refineries – Digboi, Assam
Every time I drive around Assam, I very attentively soak up its beautiful countryside view: green-blue-yellow houses, stretches of paddy fields and tea gardens, makeshift markets selling fresh catch from the river, and locals going about their slow life. The other day, however, my view suddenly altered from the open fields to a dense forest that seemed to extend for miles on both ends of the road. For a brief moment, I felt completely lost, wondering if we were going the right way at all. But soon, a modest sign board notified me of the spread of Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve, a part of the vast rain forest that has been on my “Places to visit in Assam” list for a month now. Excited, but aware that we could neither stop nor slow down, I sat back to enjoy the stretch. Soon, I consoled myself. More discoveries lay ahead.
I was on my way to Digboi, the most famous of Assam’s oil towns. Interestingly, the small town has a history dating back to 18th century that led to Asia’s oldest functioning oil refinery being set up there. Even though it lay mere 70 km from home, I had never before considered visiting it. But then, Madhan, a friend I had made during my trip to Spiti, happened to be in the last leg of his long sabbatical in Assam. We spoke briefly about the organisation he was volunteering for and I was intrigued. A day trip was planned.
In a pretty house in Indian Oil Corporation’s very quaint residential area, I met Peggy Carswell and her husband Kel Kelly. The extremely pleasant and talented couple runs Fertile Ground, an organisation that teaches Assamese farmers and tea producers cost-effective methods of organic farming. Kel told me that they arrived in Assam 18 years ago while looking to escape the tourist route of India. In Sadiya, a small town that caught their attention for appearing extremely distant and offbeat on the map, (in tow with concerned military protection for the two unexpected cheerful visitors) Kel and Peggy began their affiliation with the state. Every year, they leave their home in Vancouver Island and come down to personally oversee the progress of their work here. In their small demonstration garden, I met Pompi Ghosh, a local who has been training the Bodos (an indigenous community in Assam) ways of organic tea production for 8 years now. I probably wouldn’t have understood the concept had I not seen it being practiced in the tea garden I live in, wouldn’t have gathered its relevance if not for Peggy’s explanation of its benefits to laborers who otherwise receive only a small fraction of the profits of large-scale tea production in the state. In retrospect, I probably owed this understanding to not just these passionate people, but also to my beautiful countryside view.
From the garden, we followed a sign board directing us to the Digboi War Cemetery. It stood there, quiet and self-effacing in the corner of a patchy road, an ironic testimony to the traumatic World War II. To recall history, Digboi, owing to its oil fields and proximity to Stilwell Road that was used to pass supplies to China, was a threat to the advancing troops of Japan. The Britishers along with the Indian troops valiantly fought to protect it. A Military hospital was set up for the wounded soldiers and by 1943, thousands had lost their lives. The burial ground was built by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to honor the war soldiers and today, 200 graves rest here. A silent reminder of a dark history and of men, so brave and young.
We often travel miles, spend exorbitantly to learn and experience new things while such interesting lessons lie just miles away from us, waiting patiently to be discovered. India, after all, is full of surprises.
Have you explored your neighbourhood yet?
Both the nearest airport and railway station lie around 70 km away in Dibrugarh town. A taxi can be hired upon arrival.
Places to visit: Digboi Centenary Museum, Digboi War Memorial. A drive through Indian Oil Corporation’s residential area is also recommended. Since this won’t take more than half of your day, consider visiting Margherita, explore the tea gardens nearby or drive further to Stilwell Road.
Where to eat: If you aren’t looking for something fancy, Hotel Galaxy is a good option (Rs.250 for a meal for two). Nimis Bakery for snacks and sweets.
Note: You will need to spare another day to visit Dehing Patkai rain forest. Visiting hours is between 9 am to 4 pm and Jeeps are not provided for so you’ll have to take your own vehicle inside and ask for a guide to accompany you.