We’ve made our way to the easternmost corner of Assam, to a sleepy town by a rainforest called Digboi. It’s Asia’s first oil town and has a blend of technology and jungles.
Digboi | Assam | North-east India
We’re staying with my cousin Umi and her husband Abhjit who manages safety in the oil refinery and live, with their daughter Ruhi, in a grand old stilted bungalow that harks back to a bygone time.
You can just picture an old colonial type sitting on its waxed hardwood-floor verandah, shouting instructions to staff, sipping a GnT and looking out across the trees to the Patkai hills on Burmese border.
The weather here is cool when the clouds are out and, as with most rainforest climes, thunderstorms are common.
Nights are filled with crickets chirping and a motley entourage of insects congregate on lit walls. In the day, deer, hornbills, woodpeckers, and more, coexist with humans to the tune of birdsong.
The elephant in the room
There are also troupes of wild elephants in the vicinity and a few days ago a herd of wild elephants made their way up the drive threatening to enter the Umi and Abhijit’s house, keeping them awake, worried and housebound. There’s a good reason the British built these bungalows on stilts. To keep unwanted guests like tigers, leopards, snakes and mother-in-laws out.
On the plus side it does present a good excuse for being late for work. ‘Sorry I’m late,’ you might say, ‘There was an elephant in the room.’
‘What was the elephant in the room?’ your boss might ask.
‘ It was the elephant … in the room.’
Our romantic notion of elephants doesn’t tell the whole story
We in the west have a romantic notion towards elephants. Babar, Nellie and Dumbo have created this image and it’s true they are beautiful creatures to be protected but in places, especially in Assam, they can be a nuisance.
My cousin from central Assam suffers dawn raids from herds of 50 plus elephants that trample his crops, raid rice barns and worse, drink huge vats of apong, moonshine rice country wine. An elephant on a bender must be a terrifying prospect.
On balance, it’s probably fair to say that we are more of a nuisance to them, shooting them, chopping down their forests and building on their trackways. There must be a middle ground for peaceful coexistence.
How Digboi got its name
The popular theory is most likely the incorrect one. This says that Digboi was named so because the drillers shouted orders to their workers, ‘Dig Boy Dig’. It’s a little convenient isn’t it and too perfect a story to be true?
There’s actually an old rivulet here called Diboi Nallah, without the g, that gives perhaps a more realistic explanation.
Things to do in Digboi
Umi drove us around the small town, it’s really a refinery with a town added, no cinemas, no bars, and only one restaurant (if you want a pizza you need to get to Tinsukia, you can’t even find them in the nearby town of Margherita. Imagine that, no Margherita pizzas in Margherita. I wonder if there’s a cocktail bar there).
We visited the golf links which dates from 1930 and was used as an airfield in the Second World War (there’s a runway on the 5th fairway) and has an old photo gallery in the club house.
The Digboi Club dates from 1922 and is a place for relaxation for employees, it has a billiard room and a big hall, badminton courts and a bar which we went to in the evenings; it was a very quiet place, serving gin without tonic and beer without, well, without beer.
The hospital dates from the 1930s and was instrumental in reducing malaria in this area. Medical care is free for employees, and for non-employees in the reception there is a huge lit-up sign of prices for medical care.
It’s a bit like a price sign you might see in a fast-food outlet like a KFC but instead of prices for a two piece chicken meal with fries or a zinger burger it says prices for haemorrhoids or hernias.
A child birth costs about £20, more if it’s a c-section but they don’t do Deliveroo. There was nothing on the menu I fancied so we moved on to the museum.
How oil was discovered in Assam: on an elephant‘s leg
How oil was discovered in Assam: on an elephant‘s leg
In the 1820s, during the Anglo Burmese wars, when Assam belonged to Burma, a British army officer called Wilcox, noticed the smell of petroleum and bubbles rising in jungle swamp. Hopes grew. Later, a series of manual drillings met with chequered outcomes.
In 1881, the breathrough happened. Railway engineers laying tracks from Dibrugah to Ledo, noticed that one of their elephants, used to pull timber, had come out of a swamp with its legs shiny black with oil. The company acquired the land rights and started to drilling. Thus Digboi was born.
How do people get dentures down their throats?
The Digboi Museum recounts the story of how oil was discovered and the town built. It’s the first museum I have ever been to (and I’m a museum geek) where visitors are asked to remove their shoes. It’s a technical museum full of contraptions used in the oil industry and there’s a life-sized model of men drilling manually for oil just like the pioneers would have done.
There are adding machines from the 60s; a lawnmower from 1936 used at the golf club. There’s something that resembles a multi-coloured jukebox from afar but is actually is adorned with tubes of oils of varying colours, like furnace oil, turpentine, crude oil, and the more odd ones like jute-batching oil and ‘Indopaste’, whatever that is.
Most curious of all was the section on medical equipment used at the hospital. These ranged from a 1950s Pelvimeter, that looked like forceps, and used to measure the pelvis (I wonder what’s wrong with a tape measure); a tonsil guillotine; something that looked like a large metal whisk but was labelled ‘Murphy’s Rectal Dilator. Use: to dilate rectum. 1950’.
Perhaps most bizarre of all, there was a set of Irwin Moors Scissors.
‘Use: For cutting dentures in the oesophagus. 1950’.
This begged a further question but I left it at that.
It’s great to have family all around Assam because they can show you the place. 12 year old Ruhi was on school holidays and was due to meet a friend but she had decided ‘we were nice’ and would spend the day with us on a stroll.
We walked around the perimeter of the barb-wired wall of the refinery to our left and on the right were patches of ferns, touch-me-nots, and a cordoned-off road where tragically, a woman, two weeks earlier, was trampled by a wild elephant whilst looking for firewood.
Naturally, Digboi sits in rainforest, swamps and grasslands in the foothills of the Patkai range bordering Burma. It’s the start of the 2 million square kilometre Indo Burma bio-diversity hotspot.
It must have tough for those early prospectors drilling for oil, coming in to the trackless jungle, one month’s travel from the then Indian capital Calcutta with nothing to occupy them in the evening except the sway of a hammock.
You could say those men were living lives that both were boring in the day and boring at night.
In the afternoon we visited the War Cemetery, a beautifully maintained graveyard with brass plaques with graves arranged in order of religion and nationality. It was shocking and poignant to see the ages of the fallen many in their 20s.
Close-by here, 80 years ago, the allies fought to push back advancing Japanese armies back in to Burma, in what was known as ‘the forgotten war’, its theatre a malarial jungle, monsoon rains and brutal prisoner of war camps. This cemetery really was ‘a corner of a foreign field that is forever England’. It’s a sad yet beautiful place.
In the evening Abhijit drove us down to the nearby town of Margherita even smaller than Digboi. I found out there was no cocktail bar in Margherita, and the most interesting tourist attraction is the Coal Museum which adds some interest for children by having a selection of dinosaurs in its forecourt. I suppose it’s tough for any museum curator to make coal interesting.
Margherita was named by Italian engineers working in Assam over a hundred years ago, after the then queen of Italy. While the people of Naples named a tri-coloured pizza after the queen, I wonder what she thought when she found out she had a coal-mine named after her in a remote part of a rival empire.
We enjoyed the sleepiness of Digboi and catching up with my relatives and we left next day; Donny had sent us his driver to take us to our next stop, the ancient capital of Assam, the place of Kings, Sivasagar.
‘Digboi, the oil town in the rainforest’ first appeared on http://www.heyloons.com
This post is part of the blog series