As my website host (WordPress.com) couldn’t handle to take the load of any more words on my blog about the details of my exploration of Assam and asked me to break the content into a different page so this is another blog post of my continuation of exploring Assam after Duliajan. The previous post can be found in the following link:
The next morning I started on my drive to Margherita – the last league on my journey of exploring Assam and the place where I had spent my childhood days. My mother had another 1 year of service left as the CMO of the NECF Hospital at Margherita and my father who had retired from his services in 2013 was staying at Margherita with my mother and they were to shift to Guwahati in another year or so. I thanked my uncle and aunt at Duliajan for their generous hospitality and they told me that they would be coming to Margherita on the coming Sunday as they had planned long since to visit the Singpho Villa Restaurant near Margherita that served some authentic Singpho cuisine and they wanted to try the special boiled pork and fish recipes here. I welcomed them and ensured them of my presence to host them at Margherita the coming Sunday. The drive from Duliajan to Margherita via Digboi is one of the most pristine drives in Assam as one has to cross the beautiful forest reserves of the Dehing Patkai Forest reserve that continues to stretch up to Digboi. The tall green canopy of trees are a wonder to view along the drive and no wonder Assam is a land of rich biodiversity that can be seen and experienced across Upper Assam – a land of rich biodiversity and natural resources like coal and petroleum along with the lush green cover of tea gardens as well.
I continued on the drive with my side window glass open and enjoying the fresh air and the soulful chirping of birds. The roads are narrow but in good condition as not many heavy trucks ply on these roads. These roads are mostly used by the people of Duliajan travelling to locations like Digboi and Margherita which are not much in number because there is another main road that connects Duliajan to Dibrugarh and most of the people use that road stretch to get access to other parts of the country via the Mohanbari airport at Dibrugarh. After about an hour I reached the Legendary Oil town of Assam at Digboi. I started to feel nostalgic as this reminded of my days of school here at Digboi in Upper Assam and all the long drives from Tipong to come to Digboi every morning at 5 AM and yet I enjoyed the experience at that time. Although I had explored the length and breadth of the place during my schooling years here yet as it was many years back and I decided to come to Digboi again to explore the places of interest and write about it in this article so that you can also get an opportunity to read about this wonderful place. It was still in the morning time I decided to treat myself to some hot puri sabji at the sunrise sweets hotel located near the Digboi bus stand in Upper Assam. The sunrise sweets and Sharma sweets are two of the very popular fast food joints in Digboi and serve hot sweets and snacks to the hundreds of visitors that come here every day. The Sharma sweets is known for their sweets and with an oil rich town the money has never been a concern at Digboi in Upper Assam as many of the locals here are employed with the Indian Maharatna Company of Indian Oil Corporation Ltd. under the Assam Oil Division.
The erstwhile Britishers had accidently discovered oil in the 1800s during their explorations in search of tea and mineral resources in Upper Assam and since then Digboi has never looked back in terms of advancement in the fields of oil explorations and oil refining. The Digboi oil refinery Is the oldest in Asia and is in operation even today refining lots of oil and transporting it across the country as well. Oil exploration and drilling are mostly carried out by the Oil India Limited and the Oil and Natural gas Corporation of India (ONGC). OIL had their operations in Digboi while ONGC had operations around Nazira near Sivasagar in Upper Assam. Coming back to Digboi as the town has a good standard of living, the place is home to various food joints and other business establishments that cater to the needs of the people who reside here. I stopped at sunrise sweets and ordered myself a plate of puri sabji and the famous tea here. The shop opens early in the morning as the night busses stop here to unload goods and also the passengers alight down and so as the bus stops here for a while people take the opportunity to drink tea here. Also the day busses that ply from areas like Jagun and Margherita to towns in others parts of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, the passengers of these busses too make a stop here for tea and snacks.
The plate of puri sabji I had ordered came to me soon and along with it the piping hot cup of tea as well. The food tasted as it was so many years ago and the fresh hot puris made with rad flour was so very delicious indeed. After this I started on my drive to Margherita to go to my mother’s quarters at the Dehing Colony area in Upper Assam. The roads from Digboi to Margherita was good and in sometime I crossed the Digboi club that was established in 1935 and today served as a recreational club for the officials of the IOCL and had facilities of lawn tennis, swimming pool, badminton and various other games. I was scheduled to meet one of my friends at Digboi who owned a business and as his father was an official of IOCL we would be visiting the Digboi club once I visited Digboi soon. I crossed Golai and Powai to finally reach the Segunbari area in Margherita. Lots of memories from my childhood came back to my mind and the many years spent in these beautiful areas of Upper Assam that are rich in tea gardens and biodiversity forests as well. I reached home at around 12 and my mother had just returned from her morning shift at 11.30 AM and she welcomed me home. My mom was scheduled to leave for work again at 3 PM and so at home we generally have our lunch at 1 PM and my parents rest for a while and then my mom goes to work again while my father stays back home after his retirement from services. My father was the CGM of the NECF (CIL) and he had led the company from 2007 to 2013. He had joined his services in 1976 and since then spent his life working in the coal mines of the erstwhile Makum coalfields rising in ranks from trainee engineer to the Chief General Manager. Apart from his four years served at Asansol in West Bengal he had spent most of his work life in the areas and coal mines around Margherita at Ledo, Namdang, Baragolai and Tipong. He was responsible for taking NECF from a loss making unit to a 200 crore profit making venture during his term as the CGM. He is also known for his contributions of building several parks, temple and beautification areas around the place and finally the man behind ‘India’s only Coal Museum’ which I was scheduled to visit today afternoon.
My mom and maid got together to prepare a special lunch for me as I was coming home after almost 6 months as I was put up at my home in Guwahati from where I was building the website for my travel company and to get content and pictures for my website I was travelling across various states of North East India to write about my experiences. After lunch I took rest for a while and at 2 PM while my mother went back to work I headed to the Coal Museum at Margherita in Upper Assam. This place is situated at the place where there was earlier a big vehicle maintenance workshop where the vehicles under the operations of NECF were kept. I remember this place as the school bus in which we used to travel to school every day sometimes used to break down owing to the road conditions many years ago and it used to be brought in for repairs quite a number of times at this workshop. So we used to look about the workshop looking at the mechanical parts of the various jeeps, gypsy and ambassador vehicles kept here. This was a huge area and as gradually the number of vehicles under operation was outsourced and hired from other vendors so my father had decided to use the place to establish the coal museum. The idea came to him as a way to preserve the various coal mining techniques that were used at the Makum coalfields and also to preserve various ancient artefacts and instruments that were present in the area and were no longer in operation now. Also as this area of Assam was of prime importance during the Burma Campaign of World War II and the Allied forces had visited the place and as the Japanese troops had blocked the passage to China via Myanmar so the American troops under the able guidance of the great General Vinegar Joe Stilwell started the construction of the famous Stillwell Road from Ledo in Assam to Kunming in China. So various memorabilia from the time of World War II were also found in this area and the same was preserved at the Coal Museum here.
The museum entrance has a huge gate that welcomes you to the Margherita coal museum in Upper Assam. At the entrance one has to purchase an entry ticket that is nominally priced at INR 5 per person but the person recognized me and he did not allow me to pay for the ticket. Upon entering I could view the very old locomotives of John and Hassang that were put up on display. These locomotives were in operation at the Tipong Colliery and I remembered my time when I used to sit on one of the trolleys and we used to enjoy our train ride to the underground coal mines of Tipong Colliery and after the partial closure of the underground coal mines in Tipong my father commissioned these locomotives to be put up on display here at eh Coal museum at Margherita in Upper Assam. Next to these two locomotives there was another locomotive by the name Shelly and this was used in operation at the Ledo Brick Works at Ledo in Upper Assam. At a time when still the brick manufacturing process across Assam is a hard manual job, the Britishers during that time had established a complete mechanical way of creating bricks that were needed for the construction of homes and office buildings and especially to support the ground once it was dug out for underground mining activities the ground could have easily fallen down and closed the mine entrance. The structure used to be at first dug out from the earth and an iron bar used to be put up along with strong wood and later brick and cement was used to create the structure of the mouth of the cave entrance at the Collieries of NECF in Upper Assam. The Shelly locomotive was used to pull the tubs that were used to carry mud and later used for brick preparations at the Ledo bricks and this process was put up on display at the Coal Museum at Margherita in Upper Assam. Next up there is a vintage car that was donated to the museum by Virdi Motor works one of the premier vehicle service centres of Margherita. Next up there are various old machinery like pumps, haulages and motors that were earlier brought in from England manufactured by W G Bagnall and surprisingly as I was told these ancient machineries here were still in operation speaking of the robust architecture of these fine machines.
A little ahead is the model of the open cast coal mining operations at Tirap Colliery. Tirap is one of the very profitable open cast mines of NECF and the excavation of coal is done here by large earth movers as against the underground mines where most of the blasting, excavations and transportation of coal is done my manual labour that makes it more time consuming and more costly. The excavation of coal in the Tirap area of Assam is cost effective and also in large scale and as human intervention is limited only in loading the coal into the rail wagons and trucks. The model depicts the open cast mining structure of Tirap Colliery in Upper Assam and along with it there are models of the structural build-up of the excavation sites and offices as well. Vehicle models are used to depict the on-going opencast mining activities and human models to show the ground operations. A very elaborate drawing is also present that explains the details of coal excavation at Tirap colliery in Upper Assam as well. Next to it there is a real model of an underground coal mine as well. For many people in this area of Upper Assam, coal has been a source of livelihood and underground coal mining was one of the only ways of excavating coal from deep underground the earth. The coal tunnels went deep into the ground running for almost about 2 or 3 kilometres and workers had to travel all the way into these mines to begin their work lasting for 8 hours where they would remain inside these tunnels and blast the ground and load the coal into coal tubs that would later be pulled out and the coal transported to the various parts of the country.
As many people who were not included in the underground coal mining activities and only the ground operations they had never seen an underground coal mine and this model was my father’s vision of showing to them how they got their salaries at the end of the month due to excavation, planning, sale and transportation of coal. The entrance was constructed with the old bricks that were made at the Ledo brick works as the same was present in abundance once the workshop was broken down to make way for the construction of the coal museum and there were rail tracks that resembled the ones present inside the underground coal mines of Upper Assam that used the trolleys to pull coal inside the coal mine and similarly transport the coal out of it. What assisted the movement of trolleys was called as haulage and there used to be an operator here who used to listen to certain sounds from inside that used to be ringing in the form of a bell and it were signs to move or stop the trolley. This underground coal mine is just a small depiction of the operations yet it was elaborate enough to explain the operations that were undergoing inside the coal mines of NECF in Upper Assam. Next up there is a display room of various coal mining techniques that are practiced at the underground coal mines of NECF and comparing it with the coal mining operations from around the World. Behind the place is a park that has many artistic items created from recycled materials and junk. Also there is a huge model of a dinosaur place at the area of the coal museum at Margherita in Upper Assam as these animals were responsible for the creation of this coal that helps the world to power their resources.
Next up I walked into the main hall of the coal museum at Margherita in Upper Assam. This hall has a unique stamp collection from various parts of the World, the picture hangings of various stages of the Burma campaign of World War II, a life sized portrait of Queen Margherita of Italy in whose name this place was named after an engineer from Italy build the road cum rail bridge for transportation of coal and tea from this area. A model of Dr. John Barry White the pioneer in the establishment of various industries under the legacy of the AR&T Company of England and who founded the Assam Medical College at Dibrugarh in Upper Assam. Various artefacts from the times of the coal exploration and excavation of the British era and the World War II artefacts like empty bomb shells, pieces from aircrafts, etc. were put on display. It was so nice to see the efforts of my father to collate these ancient artefacts and put them up in one place to preserve the rich history of the area around Margherita. I thanked the people at the Coal museum for giving me this opportunity to wander about and explore India’s only coal museum and to relive the memoirs of the era of the place. It was around 4.30 PM and it was time for my mother to return from her work as well and so I headed back home. In the evening I was to visit one of my friend’s places here who was working at one of the companies that extracted coal from the opencast mines of Tirap and he had his room at Margherita. At 6 PM I went to my friend’s home at the Charali area near Margherita in Upper Assam which happens to be the main market area of town as well.
This place was called as the Polo field area as there was a big ground area here where it seems there were polo matches played earlier during the British and post-independence area. A little further ahead is the Babul Cinema hall that happens to be the oldest and the still running cinema theatre in the area as multiplexes are yet a far cry away in the place. The remains of the 20th General Hospital of the American Army that happened to be an A grade hospital of the American Army. As the Burma Campaign of the World War II was fought in this area of India so the soldiers of the British army and the Allied forces were present here fighting their battle and to treat the wounded this Grade A hospital was established in Upper Assam to treat the wounded soldiers of the Allied forces. Many of the great names in the British and American forces were treated here at the 20th General Hospital at Margherita in Upper Assam. However, today the place has fallen into ruins and only a few remaining structures can be seen at this site and I ensured to visit the area once during my stay at Margherita and also visit the banks of the beautiful Dehing river that flows across the place. I reached my friend’s place and it was a small family quarters assigned to him with three rooms and a kitchen and bath facilities. He welcomed me in and to my surprise he had made elaborate arrangements to welcome me here as it was on my recommendation that he landed a job here as my father had recommended the company to assign his in the material management department of the private company that excavated coal in Tirap Colliery. The company was nice enough to even provide him with a car to carry out his daily activities at Ledo in Upper Assam. As I was visiting today he ensured to return home early from office and do the marketing for dinner and buy the drinks to celebrate as well. Two of his colleagues also joined and they had started the food preparations on my arrival.
As all of us were bachelors a party feast for us mostly comprised of a dry cooked meat, a meat/fish curry, a mashed potato dish, brinjal fry, salad and rice with pickle. So they had to boil the stuff and as the meat on menu today as mutton boiling was necessary to make the meat tender here at Margherita in Upper Assam. A nice bottle of 100 pipers was arranged for the four of us and to go with it a 2 litre bottle of soda and mineral water as well. I took responsibility of peeling and chopping the garlic and ginger and chillies for the mutton fry and curry along with mashed potatoes while the others for to cleaning the meat and chopping onions and potatoes and the brinjal for the dinner. I had to return home by 8.30 PM as my parents have a strict policy about me being seen in the area at the evening because people have a notion of trying to speak ill things in case they see me or some other officers loafing around the car in the night time because it is a small place and people knew everyone around especially my parents as they were quite influential people here. So the preparations went on in full swing and by 7.30 PM dinner was ready and prior to that the mutton dry fry was ready and to convert it into mutton curry we had to pour water on it along with some salt and sprinkle coriander as a garnishing. We started our celebrations at 6.30 PM itself and we spoke of various factors of coal mining in the area and how these guys maintained operations of various heavy machinery and earth moving equipment at the place and as I had done my internship at NECF during my post-graduation MBA they asked me on how to keep records of vehicle maintenance on these vehicles and to try to automate the process as it was mostly manual now. I helped them with a software that needed to be implemented and they asked me to come over tomorrow to their office and also get a chance to view the opencast coal mining at Tirap colliery in Upper Assam as well. At 8 we had our dinner and the food was simple yet very tasty keeping in mind it was entirely cooked by a team of bachelors. At 8.30 I left their place to reach home by 8.40 PM as the distance is not quite far from Dehing colony to Charali area at Margherita in Upper Assam.
The next morning I was up at 5.30 AM and I took a short hike to admire the beautiful tea gardens of Margherita Tea Estate in Upper Assam. The entire area around Dehing Colony is filled with the lush green tea gardens and with the backdrop of the Dehing Patkai Mountain ranges with the river Dehing flowing across a little distance ahead. If there was pure and fresh air to be experienced anywhere on earth then it would be the parts of Upper Assam that had such amazing landscapes and biodiversity that if tourism was promoted across this region then it would definitely have become the mainstay of this region and with biodiversity rich regions like the Namdapha National Park, Dibru Saikhowa National Park, Dehing Patkai Wildlife sanctuary, numerous forest reserves, the rich ancient history of the area, the indigenous people and their rich culture and traditions this area would have been a first choice of travel for tourists from across the World. The kept walking on the roads admiring the tea gardens and reached the place downstairs that led to Deomali in Arunachal Pradesh and this is where there is a small market area as well. A small tea shop was already open reminding me of the fact that people of Upper Assam are early rises as the sun rises quite early usually by 4.30 AM in the summers and 5 AM in the winters so people get to work early and retire to bed early as well. It was a good opportunity for me to taste some fresh tea of Margherita tea estate as this shop owner gets his tea from the nearby tea factory as I was told by some of my friends who stayed in Margherita area since long. And I was not disappointed, even though the person served only milk tea while I am a staunch admirer and prefers to drink only black tea it was still very nice in the cold weather.
I finished my tea and later walked back home to get fresh and after breakfast I had a long day ahead as I would be visiting the Tirap Colliery today and explore the area around Ledo where I would visit the Mounglang Khamti Buddhist Monastery of Bhante Baba’s fame and also the historic Ledo airstrip from the era of World War II and wind up my visit by exploring the area of Tikak Colliery at the Butterfly Park and orchid garden which was again a brainchild of my father to promote the ecological balance that was created due to coal excavation from the opencast coal mines of Tikak colliery in Upper Assam. At 8.30 AM I was ready and I started on my drive to Ledo from Margherita. I crossed Namdang, Baragolai, Bansbari to finally reach Ledo which was altogether a short 20 minute drive from home to Ledo and I reached my friend’s office that welcomed me in and showed me around the place. As it was a maintenance office of the various heavy equipment and machinery as the company’s major resources were these machines to excavate and transport coal that consisted of excavators, bulldozers, graders, dumpers of Volvo, Scania and Tata make and so this office maintained a record of the schedule of maintenance and breakdowns of the vehicles along with purchases of spares and fuel for the day to day operations of these machines. As my friend had some work at the office before he could step out to the field activities at the Tirap Colliery so he asked me to finish my visit at the Monastery and the Ledo Airstrip as these places were connected by a bridge to the office and though the roads are not pitched it is still motorable. I took leave and went to explore the places around and at first I reached the historic Ledo airstrip. This place served as a crucial landing strip for the aircraft of the Allied Forces that were engaged in the Burma Campaign of World War II and this place served very crucial for supplies when the Japanese army had cut the alternate route to Myanmar before the Stilwell Road was built and the aircrafts helped to transport troops and supplies as well.
Though there is not much to see around the place as it is mostly a mud strip on a barren land and yet once we understand the history of the place one can get to feel how important this place had a role to play in the march of the Allied forces against the soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army and the Nazis. I clicked my pictures and then I headed to the Mounglang Khamti Buddhist Monastery at Ledo in Upper Assam. This area is inhabited by the Tai Khamti people and the place is so peaceful located in the middle of countryside with agricultural lands and the beautiful backdrop of the Dehing Patkai mountain range. This Monastery is also an International Meditation Centre and is especially known for the blessings of his holiness Bhante Baba – a Buddhist Monk who gives blessings in the form of a stone that is to be adorned in the right hand ring finger engraved in a brass or gold ring and this protects the devotees who come here from any ill happenings and also for a good future as well. I had visited this place once earlier when I was very young and I had a recollection of the many Pomeranian dogs that used to be present at the doorsteps and though it was almost 20 years back the dogs were still present at the place speaking to me of how much these monks here valued not only human life but also animal life as the younger generation of the dogs were well taken care off. I parked my car and went in to explore the Mounglang Khamti Buddhist Monastery and International Meditation Centre at Ledo in Upper Assam. At the entrance there is a nice Pagoda area and these are stupas erected here as well. The entire place is filled in calm and peace and is an ideal retreat for spiritual meditation. On the other side there is the meditation centre that has cottages where visitors could stay and spend their time in meditation while their stay here at Mounglang Khamti Buddhist Monastery of Bhante baba’s fame at Ledo in Upper Assam. There is a signage board from Assam Tourism as well that welcomes you to this famed Monastery. After this I went inside the premises of the Monastery after removing my shoes at the entrance to seek the blessings of his holiness Bhante Baba. I was surprised to see that where was a long queue of people already waiting to seek the blessings of Baba and to discuss their problems with the monk so that he could provide them certain remedies and cure to treat their problems. Most of the people were from areas in Upper Assam as far as from Jorhat who had come all the way to seek the blessings of the monk. I awaited my turn and spent my time at the altar of the monastery. This is a beautiful and peaceful shrine with the various customary Buddhist Monastery sculptures and pictures around along with the statue of Lord Buddha at the centre. This aroma of incense was all around and it is an ideal place to seek the blessings of the Lord here at the Mounglang Khamti Buddhist Monastery at Ledo in Upper Assam.
Gradually the other visitors finished and I was approaching my turn to seek the blessings of his holiness. It seemed that Bhante baba has been long suffering from an old age ailment and was keeping well so he rarely attended the blessing ceremony these days and instead his disciple used to look into the problems of the people coming here and providing them measures to prevent these problems and upon consultation with Bhante Baba the stone used to be handed out to the devotees if necessary. So I too approached the holy monk and he asked me about me and how he could assist me with any problem in my life. I told him about the new travel company I had started and how I intended to promote these unexplored regions of Upper Assam into the tourist circuit of the state. He was glad with my initiative and told me how it was necessary to help people especially from outside the state to help explore these remote places that had untouched natural beauty around, He also spoke about how people used to find this Monastery on the internet and visit here from various parts of the world mostly South east Asia as his holiness Bhante Baba often went to these countries to spread the message of peace. He also spoke about how due to lack of information on the internet people often had to discontinue their plan of visit as there was no one around to show them. He appreciated my idea and to my surprise he told me that my venture would turn to be more successful if his holiness blessed me in person. So he took me to the home adjacent to the place and took me to introduce to Bhante Baba. As the Holy monk had crossed 100 years of his life old age had started to show symptoms of various ailments in Bhante Baba’s body and he was lying on his bed when I went in to see him dressed in his orange robe. The monk who took me to Bhante Baba told him as to why he brought me in to meet the holy monk in person and also that I was the son of the ex CGM of NECF who adorned one of the stones given by the holy monk to him on his finger as well. Upon hearing about my plans of my venture to promote tourism across Upper Assam the holy monk blessed me by sprinkling some rose water on my head and blessing with the traditional Buddhist chants.
After this I thanked him for his blessings and then stepped out of the place ending my visit to the Mounglang Khamti Buddhist Monastery and headed to Tirap Colliery. As there was another route that connected the opencast mines of Tirap from Mounglang in Upper Assam, I took this route while my friend would join via the National highway connecting Ledo to reach Tirap. The office of the coal excavation company is located behind the opencast mines of Tirap and the office of the Agent and Manager are located near the mines adjacent to Tirap Open cast in Upper Assam. On reaching my friend showed me around the office and the various heavy machinery equipment’s that were present that helped in the excavations as well as transport of coal from the opencast mines to the dumping grounds below from where the coal is loaded into trucks and trains for transportation across India. The coal from the mines of NECF are very good ‘A’ grade coal and has a longer burning duration than the ones found in the other coal fields of India and hence the customers do not mind paying for transportation from areas as far as Punjab to take coal from here and use the power in brick kilns there. So most of the trucks I saw here at Tirap in Upper Assam were bearing plates having PB numbers representing Punjab. To enter the coal excavation sites one has to seek permission from the Agent of Tirap Colliery and as he knew me very well he gave me a go ahead to sit on one of the excavation trucks and travel to the coal excavation site at Tirap Colliery. My friend and I sat in one of the dumper trucks of Scania make and we started on our drive to the mountain top where coal was being excavated. These roads are treacherous and I was allowed to travel because it was winters and the roads would be dry and so the chances of the wheels sliding on the roads that occurs during the monsoon was very less. It was a nice big truck with luxury interiors and had air conditioning as well. These foreign truck brands are very conscious about the wellbeing of their drivers and a lot of effort was taken to design the interiors of the truck as the drivers spend almost 10 hours per day behind the wheels of the trucks transporting coal from excavation sites to the dumping ground at Tirap in Upper Assam.
The drive started and the huge truck with the gradient shift took us to the mountain top where the coal excavation was going on. These operations are outsourced to private companies that execute the complete operations here. There are trekking processes hold that invites bidders to submit the lowest bid for excavation operations along with certain terms and conditions and the bidder that is agreement with these terms are awarded the contract for a period of certain years and later the constraint for a period of certain years and later the contract is renewed or awarded to the next bidder. The company that was in operation at Tirap was also operating at the other open cast mines at Tikak in Upper Assam as well. We reached the mountain top in sometime and I could see a lot of other excavation machines in operation some excavating the coal and some extracting the mud and bull dozers levelling the grounds for the dump trucks to carry away the load certain set of dumper trucks carry the coal from the excavation sites to the dumping grounds while some carry the mud and dump it in another area where later trees are planted so that the afforestation continues to maintain the ecological balance of the area. The coal mining practices have to stick to stringent environmental policies and the same is practiced here where even the water from excavation sites is first treated and later released into the river so that the water doesn’t get contaminated due to sulphur. And no wonder these mud dumps have now transformed into beautiful green forest areas and also tea cultivation happens on these barren lands under the Ledo Tea Estate division. It was our dumper’s turn to load the vehicle and the driver made the vehicle halt at the loading point and the excavator loaded the huge coal dump into the truck.
The huge dumper vehicle shakes vigorously when the heavy tonnage of coal in dropped on top of it and it waits until the loading is complete with 2 or 3 bucket dumps of coal from the excavator here at Tirap in Upper Assam. From the mountain top the view of the entire colliery looks like a sci-fi movie with the movement of machines all around and even the colour of the soil without grasslands and vegetation looks like the one in Mars. After the loading was complete, two trucks one ours and the other carrying mud continued its drive to the dump yard down and the ride was an adventurous one. I was wondering how it would feel to drive this beast of a vehicle and the driver told me that once he dropped off the coal he would let me drive the machine on the level grounds. To my surprise, the driver however handed me the driver’s seat once we reached down on the level grounds and he would allow me to dump the coal load at the dumping site. So I took the seat and carefully started the drive of this Scania machine and I must admit with the various engineering applied on this truck it seemed I was driving a small car and not a heavy tonnage dump truck. The driver took me on an easier gradient to the dump site top and here he helped me press the lever to unload the coal at the site and I liked the entire experience and I thanked the driver and my friend as well. It was about lunch time and my friend took me to the canteen area where the employees of the company are provided free meals along with tea and snacks. The pay of the employees at the private firm are not at par with the salaries of their counterparts who are on permanent payrolls of CIL as this is a Govt. Maharatna company and so to compensate this the company had taken the initiative of providing meals to keep their costs under check. The canteen was a nice huge place and there were designated areas for the various officials to have their food here. My friend took me to the kitchen area and showed me around the people recognized me once I was introduced to them. Today the menu had rice, dal, potato and carrot sabji and egg curry and we took our seats at the table after serving our food from the buffet area. As rice is a major part of the diet of the food habits in this area this was the major ingredient of the meal.
However, many of the employees get their own food along as they enjoy home cooked meals over the ones in the cafeteria and mostly the bachelors come and eat here. Evening tea is a strict ritual when all get together and discuss the day and how to improve the productivity for the next day as during the evenings and night even though operations are on, the production is limited keeping in concern the safety of the employees. We had our lunch and headed back to my friend’s office at Ledo as he had to work on certain report reconciliations before we could call it a day and head back home. I decided to stop at the Ledo Club to look around the place before I went back home. The Ledo Club is under NECF where the officials get together to spend time in the evenings over certain games over a drink at the bar or play a game of billiards. I recollected my time here when we used to visit the club for certain get together and events like Diwali, Bihu, Puja, New years and many other meetings and evenings. As a kid we enjoyed coming together when the kids from the other collieries would also join and as we would be at different schools it would be the time to bond here and also test our skills at various games. I was good at playing table tennis and at sports gatherings at the Ledo Club in Upper Assam I used to challenge the other kids at the game as well. Ledo club was where I first tried my hand at beer and other alcoholic beverages where I used to get together with one of my seniors from school and we used to ask one of our uncles to buy is some beer and they used to give it to us and we used to go to some place outside in a car and get a taste of it. The bartender who offered us the drinks was still there today and he recognized me once I came to meet him. He wanted to serve me a drink as I just had to sign a notepad with my mother’s name on it and it would be charged to her monthly salary statement but I had to decline as it was only in the early afternoon and I had few place left to visit. Anyways we discussed on our older days here at the Ledo Club in Upper Assam and in sometime I took leave to travel to my friend’s office that was almost finished with his work early. Once I reached his office a sudden meeting was called at his office and so I went on my own to visit the Butterfly Park and orchid garden at Tikak in Upper Assam.
From the main highway I had to take a left diversion to head towards Tikak colliery that is another of the opencast mining areas of Upper Assam region and the place is very rich in forest cover. I reached the manager’s office and the uncle welcomed me and we spoke for a while about how my parents were doing and how my venture was going about. He offered me tea but as I would lose sunlight soon so he told me to a first cover the park and while on my way back halt at his office for tea and then go home. As the hill gradient was steep the uncle even offered me his gypsy vehicle and asked his driver to show me around the park and come back. We started and with the gypsy vehicle the ones that are used in Kaziranga National Park for safari rides was a good choice to climb up the mountain terrain. Along the way dumper trucks were bringing in coal from the open cast mines and these trucks too were under the control of my friend’s company who excavated coal in Tikak area as well. We reached the butterfly park and even though the place was not maintained well now after a few years of my father’s retirement from services yet there were many butterflies to be seen flying around the place. There was a green room with blooming orchids and the butterflies hovering above them as well. One main reason for the creation of this park was to show the environmental groups that open cast mining if done responsibly doesn’t pose a threat to the environment. My father’s vision was that if we had to cut trees to extract coal then it was the responsibility of the company to plant trees again to maintain that balance. This is followed regularly brought back the environment in the existing form and the presence of butterflies in the area is a sign that there is a perfect ecological balance in the area and he was not proved wrong as there were hundreds of butterflies flying around the butterfly park cum orchid garden at Tikak area in Upper Assam.
Behind is an open space that had various orchid species of Assam and North East India on display and were brought by the various officers of NECF from their home towns at Mizoram, Manipur, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh and the collection from Assam was brought in from the nearby forests of Tikak Colliery by the local tribal people who lived in the nearby forest areas. This vision was created by my father many years ago than the Kaziranga Orchid and Biodiversity Park in Kaziranga that sees hundreds of tourists coming here every day and yet due to lack of maintenance the Tikak Park has rarely seen visitor’s apart from the ones in the local areas. Adjacent to the place there is a large display hall that depicts the other various orchid species of the region in the form of pictures and their scientific names along with the local names as well. I spent some more time and then headed back to the office down where the uncle ordered tea and as he was the secretary of the Ledo club he invited me to the function tomorrow evening at the club and my parents were already invited as well. I took my car and started on my drive to Margherita in Upper Assam. My friend caught up with me at Baragolai area and took me to a nice restaurant in the Segunbari area in Margherita that was known to serve ethnic traditional food. As my mother had asked me to come home for dinner so I decided not to eat food and allow my friend to eat dinner before we left for the day as he had a long day and going back home and cooking was out of question for him. And with the winters gradually moving out the temperatures in the evening was pleasant and my friend was in a mood to have beer or two before going back home. We had first decided to make a stop at the Royal treat hotel near Baragolai area as it was place with a nice bar and restaurant but as both of us are against eating food loaded with lots of artificial spices and flavouring so we decided against it and instead headed to the family small dhaba at Margherita in Upper Assam. We reached the place and took our seats in the cubicle shaped boxes and the owner came to take our order. As the place is not a retail store they charge INR 20 extra per bottle of beer or IMFL that they serve here and one had to order a bottle of the liquor. So we placed our order for 2 beers, a plate of chicken momos fried, a plate of pork stick and some green leaf salad that is one of the specialities and the as the owners are tribal people and they are aware of what herbs they need to eat from the nearby jungles and they mix this into a form of a salad along with other vegetables like carrot, cabbage, onions and pour some homemade sauce on it that flavours the salad into a powerful meal.
The beer and food arrived and the beer was one of my earlier favourites branded as the He Man 9000 that is brewed in Sikkim with the waters of the crystal clear valleys of Sikkim and this beer had a unique flavour to it. Generally this brand is found only in certain areas of Assam and mostly in Upper Assam so whenever I visit the place I try to have this beer. The chicken momos was very delicious as along with the crispy exteriors the inner filling was very soft and juicy with lots of chicken meat and a mix of herbs and onions as well. The chutney served along with it was quite spicy and the soup served was flavoured with pepper and herbs. It is surprising that such a thing like soup could be so flavourful when mixed with certain fresh herbs. The pork stick was mostly fat and skin as the meat takes time to roast and so the fat melts easily and gets roasted quickly to be savoured with the chutney and fresh onions, ginger and coriander chilly mix. My friend ordered special noodles for dinner and this is mostly prepared in the form of a broth and not Hakka noodles again mixed with a choice of meat and a variety of vegetables. It was a filling meal after a long day and after this we returned home. My mom had prepared chicken curry for dinner and we sat for dinner at 9 PM together. The next day was a Sunday and my uncle and aunt would be coming from Duliajan and they had already spoken to my parents and evening we had to visit the Ledo club as well so we had a long day ahead of us tomorrow. After dinner I walked around the campus for a while and later returned to bed.
The next morning I went out for a walk again and this time it was around the area of Dehing colony itself. The Dehing colony at Margherita in Upper Assam is a township of NECF and along with the officials of the company other officials from the nearby Margherita tea estate also stay in the bungalows here and the SDO (Civil) of Margherita who happens to be an IAS officer also has his bungalow in the premises of the Dehing colony here. There is a guest house here as well where guests who visit NECF also stay here along with certain officials who come on deputation to Margherita in Upper Assam for training and quality checks. There are another two homes on the other side of the road on another colony which serve as the residences of the General Managers of NECF and there is a Dehing Institute and a Namdang Guest house as well present here. I returned back home and the evening event today had to be rescheduled from Ledo Club to the Dehing Guest House as the cook was not keeping well and as most of the officials who would be attending were from the Margherita and Ledo areas itself so it was decided to be held at the Guest house. It was good for us as the guest house was just adjacent to our quarters and we did not have to travel all the way to Ledo in Upper Assam because it as it is I would be visiting Tipong Colliery soon and I would need to cross the places to go there and after a long day travelling with my uncle and aunt it would be easier for me to just take a walk from my home to the guest house. After breakfast I washed my cat and in sometime my uncle and aunt were scheduled to arrive from Duliajan and as we would be having our lunch at the Singpho Villa restaurant my father asked me to go there and place an order primarily because many visitors from nearby places like Digboi come here and the service gets delayed due to the rush of the people on Sundays and so it is advised to place an order priorly so that a seat is reserved and also as the place knew my parents well they would keep our food ready once we arrived there. By the time I came back my uncle and aunt had arrived and they were having tea and my uncle greeted me with great enthusiasm and asked me what I had planned for him for today and I told him that we would at first visit the Singpho Eco Lodge at Inthong village to witness this ecotourism venture of the Singpho people of Upper Assam and later travel to Ketetong village to witness the village with the highest concentration of various tribes of Assam and later come for lunch at Singpho Villa Restaurant and wind up our visit at the Coal Museum and then they could leave back to Duliajan by afternoon to reach home as the drive would take about an hour.
It was to be ensured that they cross the Dehing Patkai Sanctuary by daylight or else the animals might come on the roads by dusk making the drive difficult and to tackle this uncle had brought along his driver as well. So without wasting time we started on our drive to the Singpho Eco Lodge at the Inthong village at Margherita in Upper Assam. We crossed the Margherita LP School and reached Segunbari market area and we took a right diversion from the road towards the Inthong village. The Segunbari area of Margherita was earlier an industrial unit as it has the Asia’s first plywood factory in operation up to the late 1900’s until timber felling was banned and due to lack of availability of raw materials for production of plywood was stopped so had the production unit as well. I remembered visiting the place during my childhood as two of my distant uncles from my mother’s side were employed here and we used to often visit their home and they had once taken my father and me to explore the production unit of this plywood factory at Margherita in Upper Assam. I had planned to visit the remains of this factory during my stay here and so today I dropped the idea in the interest of time and we headed towards the Inthong and Ketetong villages in Upper Assam. Another left diversion took us further into the countryside of Assam and the beautiful paddy fields came into the view. The roads are not quite good and so I drove slowly and carefully. In sometime we reached a nice beautiful Buddhist Monastery symbolizing that the people here practiced Buddhism as their faith as the Singpho people that live here had migrated from Myanmar many years ago and settled themselves on the banks of the river Dehing at Upper Assam and Arunachal areas. We decided to visit the Monastery on our way back and at first go to the Singpho Eco Lodge. This place is located just a little further ahead of the Monastery amidst the beautiful countryside and in the place of a beautiful tea garden area that belonged to the owner of the place Mr Manjela Singpho. An influential person from the area he also owned one of the traditional Singpho tea blends called as Phalap that he exported to various countries in South East Asia and for the past few years in order to promote the heritage and traditions of the Singpho people of Upper Assam he started the Singpho Eco Lodge that promotes ecotourism retreat to its visitors.
The owner knew my father and once we reached the husband and wife came along to greet and welcome us to the Singpho Eco Lodge at Inthong village at Margherita in Upper Assam. The beautiful lodge was constructed with bamboo and thatch and had wooden pillars to support the entire structure on a platform that is called as a Chang structure and underneath the open area there are traditional hand weaving looms kept where the owner’s wife demonstrates the practices of weaving to the guests who come here and would want to witness this tradition of the Singpho people of Upper Assam. We had to remove our footwear and then climb the stairs to reach the sitting area at the Singpho Eco Lodge. Nice furnishings made with bamboo and cane is arranged here and the entire building has been made keeping the eco friendliness in mind. Everything that was used for the construction was derived from nature and the view of the tea gardens here looked amazing. There were pictures hangings of various guests who had visited the place and I was surprised to see that even many foreign nationals had visited the place as well. The owners took us to show the rooms at the lodge and there are a total of 8 rooms for the comfortable stay of the guests here at the Singpho Eco Lodge at Margherita in Upper Assam. Each of the rooms had a floor mattress and a big window that allows fresh air to come in and the place was built in a style of Singpho architecture. Behind there is a dining area that had a low seating arrangement as well with elevated tables and one can get a true glimpse of the Singpho tribe culture here. We should have planned to have our lunch here itself but now that I had already placed the order it was not good to cancel it there and hopefully next time we would plan to have our lunch here. We however ordered traditional Singpho tea of phalap as it wouldn’t be nice to leave the place without having anything as the owners expected some business from our visit and even though my father knew them we didn’t simply want to go away without paying any money for our visit here.
The tea was prepared and presented to us along with rice cakes and a nice chicken salad to be had with the tea. A unique preparation, the tea blend of Phalap is the Singpho traditional way of brewing tea wherein at first the tea leaves are allowed to dry in the sun for a few days. Later the leaves are stuffed inside hollowed bamboo pole and sealed up which are then smoked on fire and allowed to rest for a few days or months. This allows the tea to take a unique cylindrical shape and later pieces of it and sliced and used in tea preparation. Generally sugar is not added to the phalap preparation and instead a piece of jiggery is provided to be had along with the tea to impart a sweet flavour. This tea form has various health benefits and no wonder the Singpho people of Margherita in Upper Assam have rarely suffered from diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure and even cancer. I was indeed intrigued with the benefits of the Phalap and even bought a packet of the same that was on display here. Mr Manjela took us to the warehouse he had at his home and showed us the various forms of Phalap tea and he had packed and kept them ready for distribution across the country and abroad as well. The tea was packed in air tight sachets and packed up in boxes and there was a packaging unit nearby the warehouse and we went there to see the Phalap being made ready for packaging. In certain form the tea is ground after removing from the bamboo tube and looks similar to the CTC tea available in the market while some had the cylindrical tea packed as a whole.
It was nice to see an person taking initiative to keep the age old traditions alive as the Singpho were the first to brew tea in Assam much prior to the British discovering this flavourful plant across the regions of Assam and later collaborating with the se locals to take Assam, tea to a brand that is recognized globally today and also making Assam the tea capital of the World. We thanked the owners for hosting us here at the Singpho Eco Lodge at Margherita and we proceeded to visit the Ketetong village and the owner’s son also joined us and he had family members staying in the village and he would help us see around the place as well. The Ketetong village is located just a little ahead of the Singpho Eco Lodge and we reached another school area where we had to go further ahead to visit the village. A beautiful village welcomed us here and the locals were delighted to see cars coming to the place. It was so surprising because just a little up ahead there is a nice town area and these villages still live in traditional homes shielding themselves away from the modern civilization living on their local produce and hardly relying on any markets to get their food. We were even told that they grew their own mustard and have crushing units in the village to get the mustard oil for their daily cooking needs as well. Perhaps the only condiment they needed for their food preparations was salt and people here preferred less salt in their food as well.
The boy took us to his uncle’s home who happened to be the village headman and he had a nice house that was a mix of traditional and modern construction. My mother had organized a health camp here a few months back and seeing her members of the village came to greet her and she introduced us to the village members. Even the village head recognized her and welcomed us all inside their house. A traditional Chang home, again the rooms had low seating with small seats locally called as ‘Murhas’ made with bamboo and cycle tyres were used by guests for sitting. Another round of tea followed and they took us to see their traditional kitchen that had a wood fire burning in the centre and most of their cooking was done on fire. Meat was hung on the ceilings and the wood fire smoke used to smoke the meat that was first boiled and kept and this helped to preserve the life of the meat. The owner’s wife got some of the meat and sliced them up and mixed it with onions, coriander and green chillies and offered it to us to taste it and these people in villages do not have a tradition of offering biscuits and sweets with tea. The meat was very flavourful and was very tender as well. We explored the nearby river banks admiring the beautiful flowering mustard plants and there were picnic parties spending their Sunday here with lots of dance and merriment celebrating the true culture and spirit of Assam where people sing, dance, eat, drink and spend their time in merriment.
It was around 11 AM and we decided to head back to the Margherita to have our lunch and later visit the coal museum and free the schedule of my uncle and aunt so that they reach early to Duliajan in Upper Assam. On the way we dropped the boy at his place and went to the Singpho Villa restaurant and we had to skip our visit to the monastery as we were running short on time. We reached the Singpho Villa restaurant at 12 PM and we were taken to our table. As there were five of us we were allocated a small hut that was reserved for us. There is an open dining area with around 8 tables that could accommodate 30 guests at a time four seating in each and there are around four individual cottages for families as well. The place was starting to get filled with guests and to our surprise there were another two families who had come along together from Duliajan and they were from the same department and my uncle was their superior. They were shocked to see their boss here as well but my uncle welcomed them and they too accommodated themselves at our cottage. They had just placed their food order and we asked the waiter to serve our food at first and we would share it and later the food they ordered would also come along. It was a nice day and the food order I had places had steamed rice wrapped in a local leaf, a local chicken curry, pork sticks. A vegetable salad and a traditional noodle curry as well. The food arrived and the quantity was almost sufficient for the 9 of us even though I had placed the order keeping 5 people in mind. The food was very delicious with no use of spices and only natural available herbs and spices of ginger, garlic and chillies. The highlight was the pork stick and the herb salad with a bustling of flavours once we placed it in our mouth.
After lunch we asked if the other members if they would be interested in visiting the coal museum and they were surprised to know that India’s only Coal museum was present here at Margherita and the man behind the idea of its construction was also along with them and as it would be better to drive back to Duliajan together they readily agreed to visit the coal museum. As it was my second time in the past couple of days visiting the place I won’t elaborate much on it and just say that my father took them on a nice tour of the coal museum explaining about the ideas that went into building the place and how he managed to collect all the memorabilia here to be put up on display. By 2.30 PM we finished exploring the place and we bid farewell to my uncle and aunt and the other families who headed on their drive to Duliajan in Upper Assam. We reached home and took a short afternoon nap to prepare ourselves for the evening party at the Dehing Guest House near our home. The evening started at 6.30 PM and the officers started arriving from the various collieries of Tipong, Tikak, Ledo, Baragolai and the Head office at Margherita. A nice bonfire structure was being built and I went in to check with the staff as to what they were planning to do with it. They had been instructed to roast chicken, paneer and some pork at the end as well as the winters were almost coming to an end and this was a way of celebrations here where the NECF family got together to celebrate.
Also as the Rongali Bihu – the Assamese New Year was drawing close this would be a short pre Bihu celebrations as well. Normally every week once the officers get together to celebrate and with the Saturday prior to being some meeting schedule they had to postpone it to this Sunday. Everyone almost got together at 7 PM and the General Manager also had come by then and it is a practice not to start the celebration until the head of the organization comes. The celebrations began and the elders started to have their drinks while the ladies stuck to mock tails and soft drinks and the children had soft drinks here at the Dehing Guest House at Margherita in Upper Assam. There was a tambola session as well and it would be held at the sitting area of the guest house. This was mostly a time of bonding when people forgot their cell phones and stuck to the celebrations in the earlier time with children playing around and the elders sharing their thought and opinions. I walked around looking after the arrangements of snacks and dinner as the uncle from Tikak whom I had met yesterday entrusted me with this responsibility. My father introduced me to the Agent of Tipong Colliery as I was scheduled to visit the place tomorrow and further to the local families home at a village near Jagun where they had invited me over to lunch as they were friends with our driver Mr Barua and he had planned since long to take me there to the place to feast on some locally brewed rice wine and eat fresh organic vegetables and meat.
The celebrations went on with the tambola session and later a session of songs by the bonfire and it reminded me a lot of my old times at Tipong and how we celebrated and life was so good without internet and people indulging in a lot of workout sort of activities. By 9 PM we had our dinner of pulao, white rice, salad, papad, pickle, paneer kofta, chicken curry, raita and much more. It was indeed a grand celebration looking at the food and it was surprising that the food was cooked to utmost quantity that hardly any food went to waste after everyone including the helpers had their food while the bones were given away to the dogs that happened to stay near the area of the guest house. Everyone left by 10 PM to go back home as the next day was Monday and it was a working day. The next morning our driver came home by 7 M and he got another car ready for the two of us to travel to Tipong Colliery and further to Jagun to return by evening. After breakfast we started on our drive to Tipong at 7.30 PM and it would be a 45 minute driver to the place. We crossed Baragolai and Ledo to cross Tirap and reach Lekhapani in Upper Assam. Lekhapani is a huge Indian army base and soldiers from various platoons and battalions are posted here due to the proximity of this place to the border of India and Myanmar. There is another base at Nampong area in Arunachal Pradesh but Lekhapani is a much larger base and I reminded of my time at Tipong Colliery in Upper Assam where my father had served as Agent or the head of the colliery operations from 1995 to 2001. We used to travel to School at Digboi during these years and the road conditions used to be horrible with only potholes along the way and the drive used to take us about 2 hours every day one way. But with good roads now the distance to cover was reduced short to about 1 hour only.
At Lekhapani we started on our drive along the historic Stilwell Road that was constructed by the American soldiers with the help of local people to restore the route connecting India and China via Myanmar after the alternate route was cut by the Japanese forces. But during the 1940s this route was a perfect example of the great American Engineering that was able to complete such a feat during such times dealing with some of the most treacherous terrains in the World. Today the Stilwell road connects Lekhapani in Upper Assam traversing through the Pangsau Pass in Arunachal Pradesh and going into Burma at the Lake of no return to end at Kunming in China. A huge signage board with the map of the Stilwell Road greeted visitors at Lekhapani in Upper Assam and I stopped here to click pictures and feel the historic moment in World history with the World War II – the Burma campaign. A beautiful park cum memorial has been constructed at this sire that salutes these brave hearts who went through this tough ordeal to construct this Stilwell road in Upper Assam with details about the number of soldiers and civilians involved in the construction, the length of the road, the movie that was produced in memoir of the Stilwell road, etc. could be found at this memorial site. After a little time here we started on our drive to Tipong again and after Lekhapani we took a right diversion to go to Tipong chalet area. Here we stopped at first at the Tipong guest house a place where I had spent a lot of time in my childhood playing games of cricket, football, table tennis, etc. The numerous parties and get together that were hosted here reminded me of how good life was back then and I went to meet the caretaker of the guest house – Mr Naidu who stayed at his quarters behind the guest house. Adjacent to it was the Bungalow where I stayed when my father was posted at Tipong that had now fallen into a bad shape mostly due to the underground coal mining operations at Tipong being shut down and the officers and workers being transferred to other locations. Yet some of the positions remained as the complete operations had not been shut down and plans for revival were being reviewed by the management here at Tipong in Upper Assam. I met up with the caretaker mostly because I knew him as a friend and he used to often come to my home here at Tipong and help my mother with the household chores when there was no work at the guest house and so he knew me very well and mostly as I was meeting him after many years.
The entire colony knew me here and they greeted me and asked me how I was and what I was doing these days. As I was running late and told them I would come back to meet them and so I continued with my driver to Tipong Colliery after crossing the Tipong chalet area. In my days at Tipong there used to be a steam locomotive ride from this place to the colliery covering a distance of about 3 km where one steam locomotive would pull a trolley where the officers would sit and also attached would be the coal tubs that were brought for dumping and transport of the coal to other locations. These have stopped now as the coal mining operations have been ceased temporarily. We continued on our drive and the nature around in so breathtakingly beautiful. A river flows alongside the road and the rock formations along the way are surprisingly nice. The steam locomotives passes through a tunnel on the way while on the drive we have to cross along the cave with numerous bridges to cross as the river had a meandering course here at Tipong in Upper Assam. We reached the Tipong Dispensary where my mother had served as a doctor during her times here and further ahead we reached the office of the Agent of Tipong colliery where my father had served. The steam locomotives of DAVID and 796 were present at the workshop here and these are the oldest operational steam locomotives in the World!
At first I visited the office to seek permission from the Agent as a procedure and the uncle smiled when I told him I was seeking his permission. He said he was indebted to my father for all his efforts here at NECF and I could see around the place as much as I needed. I thanked him and at first I went to view the steam locomotives at Tipong in Upper Assam. The grand DAVID and 796 steam locomotives were over 100 years old and were fantastic to know that they were still in operation. Brought in by the British from the coach factories of WG Bagnall in England, these steam locomotives were very powerful and could pull up to 20 loaded coal tubs and a passenger trolley as well. The locomotives were well painted and kept and due to lack of coal the engine couldn’t be fired up. After this I went to explore the underground coal mines at Tipong and though I had visited these mines earlier in my childhood days it was not much of an understanding rather than to see my father’s place of work mostly. This time I was intrigued with the depth of these underground coal mines and the technology involved in such olden days that allowed coal excavations from such depths in the ground.
There was a temple here as well dedicated to Goddess Kali and it was commissioned during my father’s time as he was a devotee of the Goddess and most of the coal miners at Tipong in Upper Assam believed in Goddess Kali to keep them safe during their work schedules inside these deep underground coal mines. We finished our visit at Tipong Colliery and came back to visit the Lalpahar Sumi Naga village at Tipong. I used to come to this village during my childhood as I had a few friends here. The Sumi Naga people originally belonged from Nagaland and they had a small population residing here in Tipong at the Lalpahar Sumi village and they were considered to be among the most ferocious head hunting tribes of Nagaland. Today however these practices have been abolished and they practice other forms of livelihood like agriculture and animal husbandry. I used to play cricket with the naga boys from the village and Daniel was a friend I knew who stayed here with his family. So I visited his home today and the family welcomed me as I was visiting them after long. After my stay at Tipong I moved out for higher education to Bangalore and even my parents shifted to Margherita so I rarely got time to visit these people and so it was almost after 8 years that I met them. Thanks to social media I was able to jeep in touch with them and today I got the opportunity to meet them in person her at the Lalpahar village in Tipong in Upper Assam. The Sumi Naga heritage could be seen across the Lalpahar Sumi village at Tipong in Upper Assam and with the adoption of Christianity as their faith not just among the Sumi Nagas but a majority of the naga tribes this classic blend of ancient traditions with modern world is a delight to witness. The village church is a grand architecture here at Tipong that is built in ancient tribal naga architecture and also the modern rustic architecture as well. We had some rice beer at Daniel’s home along with smoked pork that is a delicacy among the people here and alter I thanked the family and we started on our drive to Jagun in Upper Assam. Jagun is the last town in the border of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh and is a major trade hub supplying various produce to parts in Arunachal Pradesh. As the areas surrounding the place are mostly village areas and so the people here practice agriculture as their primary profession and once you travel to the interiors you can see the amazing countryside of Assam that will surely impress you with the tagline of Assam Tourism that states – ‘Once you visit Assam, it stays with you forever.’ These interior villages of Assam have a very fertile soil owing to the fact that they are located near river banks and the prime reason for the construction of homes along the river banks was due to the availability of fertile soil so that it would help in agriculture and in turn allow as a means of livelihood to the people as well.
After driving through bad yet flat roads we reached the house of our host at Jagun in Upper Assam. Mr Barua took me inside the house and as the owner had gone out to the fields for cultivation work and was expected to come home soon. It was a typical village home environment with a house made up of bamboo, thatch and tin roofing as well and the floor was made with a mix of mud and cow dung as it is a common practice across the villages of Assam. The owner’s family was at home and they welcomed us in and asked us to sit in the living room until the owner arrived. Mr Barua along with the owner’s brother and wife went in the kitchen to begin with the preparations for lunch and I took a stroll around the place. They had a large area of farmland behind the house where they cultivated a variety of vegetables like cauliflowers, cabbage, potatoes, brinjal, gourds, spinach, other herbs, garlic, etc. Just behind the farmland was a beautiful river flowing by and I went to the river bank to get a better view of the countryside. The horizon of the sky looked so beautiful here and I felt in awe of Mother Nature. The river was quite calm owing to the dry winter season and with the monsoon about to draw close in about a month I could imagine this river transforming to a furious one once the waters would fill it. Various bird species spending their time near the river banks as it provided them as a source of food.
There were some locals who were spending their day of picnic and they were preparing food and asked me to join them. I told them that I had come to this person’s home for lunch and perhaps I would join them later. I went back to the house and in the meantime the owner arrived as well and he greeted me and told me to feel comfortable as their house was not big and I told him that I did not mind at all and instead I loved being a part of such traditional homes. The house had three rooms and a dining area and a kitchen as well. Everything was constructed with bamboo and wood and the resources allowed one to feel in nature even at their homes. At the kitchen preparations were full on swing for our lunch and the wife told me that they use traditional methods of cooking and wondered whether I would like their food or not as it would be cooked without any artificial spices and flavouring and I was wondering in my mind that the us was that exactly I liked. They were preparing pork roasted over fire and later offering it with herbs and a spicy chutney to be had with the local rice wine, a curry of pork belly and intestines with local herbs and this would be served with a local sticky rice that would be steamed wrapped up in a special leaf brought in from the forests. A salad accompaniment would also be present for lunch ad this was exactly how I wanted my food to be viz. not many variants offered but whatever was cooked was cooked with time to perfection and loaded with nutrients all derived from how nature intended the food to be. And with the food being prepared over firewood it was sure to be a sumptuous lunch here at Jagun in Upper Assam.
The family belonged to the Rabha community of Assam and I had remembered my times at the Chandubi Jungle camp where I was hosted by a Rabha family near Guwahati and it turned out that this family too had few relatives staying at the Chandubi area. They expressed their desire to visit Guwahati in future and I told them that I would be hosting them at Chandubi as it happened to be the place that was co-owned by a friend of mine. The rice wine was brought and served to us in bottles and along with it roasted pork and the mix of onions, coriander and green chillies and herbs and chutney made with ground coriander and chillies. The rice wine had a strong taste to it and the owner said that it was brewed freshly in their kitchen and I expressed my desire to view the process and Mr Barua showed me a large vessel that was placed on fire with rice and herb mixture and the steam was collected in droplets in another plastic container that was the liquor. After having a few sips of the drink I started to feel a little high and I was surprised as to how the others could consume two glasses already while I had just finished half of my glass and already felt dizzy here at Jagun in Upper Assam. The owner asked his wife to serve us lunch and he also told me not to drink anymore of the wine if I was not comfortable with it and I obliged. I must admit this was one of the strongest form of liquors I ever had and the purest as well because I saw it brewing in front of my own eyes. It is again surprising to know how a daily to eat grain like rice can become so powerful and intoxicating when mixed with certain herbs and fermented on later heated up to the liquor form. We took a short walk around the place again and Mr Barua picked up fresh vegetables from the garden to carry it home and also provide some to my mother as well.
I was feeling better after the fresh air entered my body and we came back for lunch. We had a nice laugh when we came back to the house as the owner’s brother was lying flat on the ground and smiling as the liquor had taken its course and he felt the entire world spinning around him. We had to pick him up and put him to bed as he was not being able to walk and all this just after having two glasses of the rice wine here at Jagun in Upper Assam. After this we had our lunch of sticky rice and the pork belly and intestines curry with herb and a green leaf salad. The steam rice was little sticky and it was brought in fresh from the rice fields that the owner had nearby./ The rice was organically grown and of a special variety it had a light sweet taste to it as well and I had some of it just like that without any curry. After lunch we loaded the vegetables from the garden into the car and thanked the owner and his family for the warm hospitality today and I thanked the wife for the special food she had cooked. As some of the rice was left she was kind enough to pack it and also gave us a bag of raw rice to cook and eat back at home. I realized the true sense of the hospitality of the Assamese people here at the local villages and how people can offer all their love not to be measured in terms of money. We started on our drive and Mr Barua took us home to Margherita with a shot halt at Ledo where we stopped to eat a pan to avoid the smell of rice wine coming in our breath. By 5 PM we reached home and my mother thanked Barua for the vegetables and rice and he went back home at Namdang. I was too tired after the long day and after a nice bath I downloaded the pictures from my phone to my laptop and returned to bed after eating some of the rice I had brought home from Jagun in Upper Assam.
The next morning I had not planned anything and so I decided to visit the remains of the 20th General Hospital at Margherita and go further ahead to visit the plantations along the Dehing River and further to the Namdang Bibi Majhar at Namdang. I would have my lunch at Mr Barua’ s home today as he had invited me over for some special duck curry he would prepare as had the day off today and later in the afternoon I would visit the remains of the Asia’s oldest plywood factory at Margherita in Upper Assam and return home for an evening treat at my friend’s home at the polo grounds. I started my day at leisure as I did not have much of a distance to cover today. Most of the places were nearby and as today my mother was offering a feast to the local people at the Namghar at Margherita I had to even take care of the arrangements there. So I went to the market and shopped for supplies that would be needed for the function at the Namghar and I was told that there would be a Bhaona performance as well today evening where artists would ornate themselves with bright clothes and enact a performance of a mythological play at the Namghar premise sat Margherita in Upper Assam. I had visited Majuli in Assam and recollected the performances of the Bhaona I had seen depicted on pictures and today I would get to witness this in person because the last time I had witnessed one was when I was very young at Tipong Colliery when my father had taken me there. At that time I didn’t understand much of mythology and so I had felt more bored that excited to witness the performance. But after learning about the various mythological stories and the characters of Gods and Goddesses now I was looking eagerly to witness this performance. I finished the marketing and handed over the things at the Namghar to one of the Bhakats and continued on y drive to go to the banks of river Dehing where I would see the remains of the 20th General Hospital at Margherita in Upper Assam.
The remains were just a few brick structures and a fireplace that could be seen here at the 20th General Hospital at Margherita. I was expecting to see some form of buildings of such a reputed hospital that too that served as a Grade A hospital of the American Army and had treated over 75,00 wounded and injured soldiers but the plight of our country is such that they cannot maintain something as historical as this hospital. Only a few remains were left to be sighted here and I clicked my pictures and left the place to head to the banks of the river Dehing at Margherita in Upper Assam. This was a beautiful sight to view with the calm river meandering across the paddy and vegetable plantation that were present here. The breath of fresh air made my lungs detox after breathing the polluted air in Guwahati and other metros for so many years. Human settlement was present along the banks of the river and the local people here grew a lot of leafy vegetables owing to the fertile soil brought in by the river deposited in the form of silt. I visited one of the gardens and asked if the person would sell me some of the vegetables and for INR 20 he gave me a huge bunch of coriander and spinach. I took it along with me to give it to Mr Barua to prepare it by steaming the leaves of the spinach for lunch.
I reached the Margherita Namdang tinali and took a right to the Namdang Bibi Majhar. This road also leads further to the Changlang area in Arunachal Pradesh and the continuous were on for a good highway to Changlang as Margherita acts as a main bazar area for the people here. The upper Assam area shares a large part of its border with Arunachal Pradesh and continues further to Myanmar and China. I drove across the small town inhabited by the people who work at the Namdang tea garden and the tea from Namdang tea estate is one of the finest in Assam. I reached the area of the Namdang Bibi Majhar and this is the burial grounds of two sisters one named as Bibi Mariam who was a child prodigy and she had started to predict the future of local people and eventually the near future of these people started to happen as per the predictions and gradually the fame of these sisters started to spread and people from far and near started coming to them to know about their future. Unfortunately both the sisters died at a very young age due to some health conditions as they were born with it. A sudden sadness dawned upon the local village and it was then the people from all faiths came forward to build a memorial site at the burial grounds of both these sisters and this place is called as the Namdang Bibi Majhar in the memorial of Bibi Mariam. Today people from various places come here to pay their respects and wish for their future and it is believed that once you offer a ‘Chadar’ on the burials of the girls your wish is often granted true. I went inside the place and a mullah of the place welcomed me and narrated to me the story of Bibi Mariam and how the legacy was kept alive at this place.
I explored the area and a nice forest is present behind the place along with the Namdang river flowing behind the place. I offered a Chadar at the burial grounds and I seeked the blessings of the Mullah and finally went to explore further areas. The beautiful tea gardens of the Namdang tea estate in Upper Assam greeted me and the aroma of the tea leaves freshened up my mind and heart. Just a little ahead is the Margherita club which serves as an ideal retreat for the officials of the tea gardens who were stationed on the Margherita area and the club is open to membership for other officials of NECF as well. There is a nice golf course here and the Margherita club hosts golf tournaments welcoming golfers from across India. As entry to the club is for members only I couldn’t go inside the place. I continued my drive further across the beautiful mountain terrain and Mr Barua was waiting at the entrance of his colony on the main road and he welcomed me at the Namdang colliery in Upper Assam. Namdang is now a dysfunctional underground coal mining area under NECF and was one of the earliest underground coal mines established in India by the AR&T Company and were in operation until the early 2000s until it was shut down as the mine had reached its lifetime operations. My father served as the manager of operations of underground coal mining in the early 1990s and I had come to Namdang as a child to witness the operations here.
But my memories of Namdang remained as the place where we used to come for the NECF picnics in winters near the banks of the Namdang river. The manager’s bungalow at Namdang was located at the colony and we used to play around the house and mostly went about plucking fruits and vegetables in the garden here to be ultimately chased off by the owner of the place here. The beautiful Namdang river has large open banks where we used to have these picnics and spend our days in merriment. At Mr Barua’s house he was preparing our lunch along with his elder sister and her husband who served at NECF and stayed at his quarters in Namdang area. The duck was all ready to be cooked with a gourd and I gave him the leafy spinach and coriander and he took it to clean and later boil it with potatoes to make a mashed curry and the coriander to be served as garnishing and spicy chutney as well. I walked around the colony recollecting the memoirs of my childhood here at Namdang in Upper Assam. Most of the quarters now lay vacant as the operations were closed here and the people were transferred to other operating locations thereby relocating completely with their belongings. The coal tubs that were used to pull out coal from the underground mines were lying scattered around and other machinery as well. I explored the area and then came back to their home and lunch was ready. The people who work in the collieries and tea gardens begin their day very early and so lunch is also an early affair in these places. Our lunch was ready by 12 PM and the men started to pour some rice wine that was brewed in a local village nearby. The tea garden people are very adept in brewing this local wine and they call it as ‘Hariya’ in their local language and have a similar process to the one I had witnessed yesterday. I knew the aftermath of drinking it and so today I decided not to try it. But Mr Barua told me that this one was not as strong as the one I had the day priorly. Yet I declined his offer and told him I had to finish these explorations today and also as I had to visit the Namghar I had to be sober and so I just had my lunch of the duck meat, spinach with boiled potatoes, duck curry with gourd and coriander chutney and the food was amazingly delicious. There is some unique thing about the food cooked over firewood across the villages of Assam as it imparts a unique smoky flavour to the curry and as the cooking process involved is slow, the flavours of the meat and vegetables infuse in very well and the blend is an aromatic broth that is very healthy for a person as well. After lunch I spent some time around and then I thanked Mr Barua and his family and left Namdang in Upper Assam to go to the Segunbari area in Margherita. I called my uncle who asked me to come over and ensure to meet him at his house after exploring the plywood factory and so I had to ensure to manage time as I had to reach the Namghar by 5 PM where everyone would come for the prayers and the Bhaona performance and by 7.30 I had to reach my friend’s place as well. What I thought would be an easy schedule for me turned out to be more of running as I was spending more time at these places in Upper Assam.
Anyways I drove towards Segunbari area and reached the entrance gate of the plywood factory. There are two ways of approaching the Margherita Kitply Plywood mill – one from the main road where one can take a right and reach the entrance gate that can be accessed by calling out the guards who come and open the gate while another is from behind at the area of the Margherita Police station from where there is a small mud road that will lead you to the plywood mill and this is a slightly longer route and the road is not quite good. So I approached the place via the main entrance and called out the guard. A small door adjacent to the main entrance gate was open and I went in to see if there was someone at the place. A person came running to me and asked whether I was the relative of Mr Saikia my uncle who was in charge of the safe keeping of the factory remains and I obliged. He opened the gate and asked me to bring my car in and I explored the Margherita plywood factory. The industry was built on a huge campus and the first thought that struck me was as to how the Britishers transported all these big machines all the way from countries like Italy and Germany so many years ago to a remote place like Margherita in Upper Assam. This was the main reason the Dibru Sadiya railway line was established in the early 1900s as after the British discovered coal, oil and tea and such other natural resources, they understood that Upper Assam had enormous potential of natural resources to be harnessed. So they setup this plywood unit to package the tea and transport is across to Europe and other countries.
The railway line allowed the movement of coal and crude oil to be taken to the river port at Dibrugarh from where these were transported across the country via waterways. At the front there is a main office of the plywood mill that was inaugurated in 1981 to mark the centenary celebrations of the Margherita Plywood factory. Then starts the main production unit where there is a huge water tank and inside there are many huge machines that act as splicers and peelers that were used to tear open the strong timber wood and later process it to produce plywood in huge numbers. These machines are still operational and I was told by the guard that administrators come in here from time to time and run these machines with some samples of old timber that are kept at the premises and the machines are oiled up and checked for operations. With the ban on felling of trees for timber in the late 1990s this plywood factory had come to halt its operations due to lack of raw materials supple as it did not match the technology to produce plywood from bamboo that serves as a quick re-growing alternate to wood and so it was stopped in the early 2000s. The place had jungles growing all over and the guards reported the presence of numerous snakes in the campus as well. I explored the area for some more time and then went to my uncle’s place that is behind the factory.
The people were up from their afternoon nap and were getting ready to get back to work at 3 PM and I had time in my hands before I went to the Namghar. My mother had called me and asked me to freshen up before I came to the Namghar for the prayers and also as I had non veg to eat. I had a short talk at my uncle’s home before going back home for a bath and then went to the Namghar to reach by 5 PM. The people had come and it was a small group of people from the hospital colony who were the staff at the hospital and they had gathered as my mother had asked for a small wish here at the Margherita Namghar in Upper Assam that was fulfilled and so she had arranged for a feast today evening. Also as the Bhaona performance was scheduled much earlier we had to clear way for the performance before 6 PM. The artists were getting ready at a house nearby and the prayers started at the Namghar. A ‘Naam’ or a special prayer is how the prayers are performed at a Namghar in Assam where a copy of the holy Bhagwad Gita is placed at the centre and the ‘Bhakats’ recite prayer chants that speak of the life of Lord Krishna and thereby perform the prayer rituals. I sat on one end of the prayer hall with a ‘gamusa’ around my neck and listened carefully to the verses that were being recited clapping my hands to the tunes of the prayer chants. Everyone was very concentrated at the prayer verses being recited and towards the end we had to kneel down and offer our prayers to the lord.
With this the prayers ended in about 30 minutes and we were offered the Prasad. By 6 PM other people started coming in to the Namghar where we would witness the Bhaona performance. It was not a grand performance scheduled as the space to enact the Bhaona was not sufficient and so it would be only a few artists where they would perform once scene of a mythological play. The artists came on stage dressed in their attires that depicted Gods and Goddesses from mythological characters. The Bhaona act form was introduced at these Namghars by the Holy Saint reformer of Assam Srimanta Shankardeva. His idea was that when his religious discourses were presented to people in the form of these plays, people would be able to connect better with the characters and understand the inner message more clearly and no wonder these Bhaona performances are now performed on a grand scale on certain occasions and people connect better with the mythological characters. These performances are performed on a much grand scale during the Raas Leela festival of Majuli Island in Upper Assam and I wished to be a part of this festival some time towards this year end in December. I left at 7.30 to go to my friend’s place and he had called upon more friends today and today we would have country chicken on the menu. Food is really an integral part of the lives of the people in Upper Assam and this I witnesses across my journey in Assam.
Today morning I would be spending my day at Digboi – the legendary Oil town of Assam. I had planned on staying over at my friend’s home there but my parents had to attend a marriage function today evening at Ledo and so they asked me to come back by evening and be at the house. I started my day with a short walk towards the bridge on the Dehing river just to catch a glimpse of the fog cover that spreads out across the horizon and also to get the aroma of the tea leaves across the Margherita tea garden. I came to know that the Margherita tea factory is located just a little ahead towards the left of the main road and so I thought of going towards the entrance. After viewing the Dehing river I went towards the Margherita tea factory. Although it was only 6.30 AM in the morning, the place was bustling with activities with the tea garden workers coming back from tea plucking and heading towards the factory, the shop owners setting up their shops and some already in business, the fish and meat vendors spreading out their produce and I wondered how these people could manage to do so many things just by 6.30 AM itself. I saw the entrance gate of the Margherita tea estate that was under the corporation of Williamson McGregor and established in 1905 reminds of the British heritage at Margherita. On the left hand side is the Manager’s bungalow and straight ahead is one of the most beautiful roads to drive across in Assam.
The road is a little narrow but well-pitched and across both sides are the lush tea gardens of Assam and the stretch continues straight but with ups and downs. It can be only felt and I am not being able to describe it exactly how perfect the view was. This road leads straight to Deomali in Arunachal Pradesh across the virgin rainforests of Upper Assam. I remember travelling to this place once when I was young for a picnic outing and the Namdang river flows across from here to join the Dehing but then again the road condition were not good at that time and I was told even now a section of the road was filled with numerous potholes and could be maneuverer by only heavy vehicles. I thought of visiting these places around here once before leaving Margherita and with this thought in mind I came back home. My mother was getting ready to go to work and I had my bath and after breakfast I started on my drive to Digboi in Upper Assam. The drive from Margherita to Digboi was a repeat for me as I had come this way itself on my drive from Duliajan and so I reached the Digboi club area from where I had to take a right diversion to go to the Digboi World War cemetery. My friend stayed at the Shillong road area that is home to the officials of IOCL and he was more of a junior to me in school days two years younger to me and hence his father still had another six months of service left from retirement.
I called him and as he had another meeting to attend to so he asked me to explore the Digboi war cemetery and come back and he would meet me at the Digboi Centenary Oil Museum. A visit to Digboi in Upper Assam is must for any visitor choosing to witness and experience the legacy of the British Raj and the entire town resembles a place like in British movies with well-defined paths, the colonial bungalows with huge lawns, clean roads, the departmental stores during the British times, a hospital at the centre of the town, a siren that goes across town telling people what time it is and people report to work with job cards based on the siren sounds, etc. I drove across the town to the Muliabari area where I had done my schooling for twelve years at the Carmel School. This was one of the reputed Convent schools in Upper Assam during our time and children from far off places like Tinsukia, Doomdooma and Tipong use d to come to study here. I used to start from Tipong as early as 5.30 AM to go to school at Digboi as the road conditions were not good at that time and also we had to catch another bus at Ledo that would take us to school. This I had to do for five years until I finished my Standard X and then wen tot Guwahati to pursue higher studies. From here I drove straight towards the Pengeri area in Digboi where the Digboi War Cemetery is located after crossing the Muliabari area.
The beautiful forest cover greeted me along the way and these places were once not safe to visit many many years ago as the banned terrorist outfit of Assam (ULFA) inhabited the forests of the Pengeri area. I reached the site of the World War II cemetery at Digboi and went in to visit the place. We used to come here in our school days to spend time in calm after school in the afternoons when I used to stay over at my friend’s place at Muliabari area in Digboi. Built and maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Mission, the Digboi War Cemetery has over 150 burials of the brave soldiers of the Allied Forces who laid down their lives at the Burma Campaign of World War II. The burials mostly are of the British army along with the Indian regiment as well. Neatly aligned burials are to be found here at the Digboi War cemetery in Upper Assam and in between two burials there are beautiful flowers growing. A caretaker manages to keep the lawn of the place well mowed and the flowers well watered and attended to. At the centre of the cemetery, there is a huge cross that gives solace to the departed souls who laid down their lives so that we have a better tomorrow. I walked around the burials reading out the names of the brave soldiers and their regiments and wondered as to how people have forgotten these brave departed souls because there were hardly any visitors present here. I sat in the lawn for a while soaking in the spirit of the spring sun and then bid farewell to the Digboi War cemetery to go to the Digboi Oil Museum.
At the Muliabari area I met one of my old friends from school who had a shop here and he had stayed back in Digboi along with his family as most of the others had moved out to pursue higher studies and were now living in other metros of India and some abroad as well. He identified me and welcomed me to his shop where we sat for a while and discussed our time. His home was adjacent to the shop and his family stayed here. The family offered me tea and snacks and we spoke of our times earlier when we used to come to their house and at that time my friend’s father used to handle the shop activities while we stayed indoors. My friend had married and he had a year old son as well. After playing with the child for sometime my friend asked me if he could join me and wanted to go to our school just to relive our days of childhood and as I had time in hand I agreed to accompany him to our school at Digboi in Upper Assam. We reached our school parking and much of the older buildings were now renovated and another big campus had come up to accommodate the growing number of students at the school. My friend knew the guards and after speaking to them they let us in to the campus. We went at first to the principal’s office to meet the school principal who happened to be one of the sisters who used to teach us long back when we were in Standard IV. The sister recognized my friend and even me too because I had hosted here at my home twice when they had come to Tipong colliery. We sat at the principal’s office at Digboi in Upper Assam discussing how our schooling here helped us get effluent in English and compete better when we had moved outside especially to help us land up in corporate jobs because we knew the language better than many of the counterparts who had applied for these jobs and to be frank I landed many job opportunities in corporates because the interviewers liked the way I spoke and presented myself and all this because of my education here at Carmel School at Digboi in Upper Assam.
We explored the school campus and got to see that some of our juniors from school were now staff members and teaching at the same school. We were excited to meet them after long and after speaking about an hour I went to visit the Digboi Oil Museum while my friend went back to his shop and we agreed to meet in the late afternoon before I left to Margherita at 6 PM. The oil museum at Digboi was built to mark the centenary celebrations of the Digboi Oil refinery and to display to the people the rich history of the oil industry of Assam where the first oil refinery in Asia was setup. Once you reach at the parking spot of the museum there is an air raid shelter from the times of the World War II here and also is a huge signage illustrating the various milestones of the Digboi refinery since its inception. My friend too joined me and we started on our exploration of the Centenary Oil Museum at Digboi. Generally visitors need to purchase an entry ticket costing INR 20 to visit the museum but as my friend was known to many people we were not charged this amount as a token of courtesy. At the entrance there is an open field area where there are various old machinery items kept from the times of the establishment of the Digboi Oil Refinery. Further up there is an oil filing station that was established very first at Digboi and there are models of a British Sahib and Memsahib who are standing in front of this station.
Towards the right there is the oldest operational oil well in the world that was commissioned in 1888 and was abandoned in 1932 and was India’s first commercial oil well. However even up to today crude oil continues to seep out from the underground from the soil well indicating the there is still some crude left behind. This was the actual place where exactly the oil well was commissioned and hence the Digboi oil museum was selected to be built at this location. There are a few vintage motor vehicles as well that are kept on display at the place. Next up we entered the main hall of the Digboi museum in Upper Assam and we had to deposit our mobile phones at the counter with a security guard as pictures are not allowed to be clicked inside. We went in and were greeted with various human models depicting the story of oil discovery in the Digboi area and from the times of the British Raj in Upper Assam. Various stages of crude oil refinement were depicted and the by-products of oil refining as well. On the right there is a miniature model of the Digboi Oil refinery that operates under the Assam Oil Division along with other vintage machines and tools that were kept on the display here at the oil museum and also a room with framed pictures of the various dignitaries who had visited Digboi was to be seen inside the museum premises. We spent about an hours’ time at the museum and then headed to my friend’s home at the Shillong road area in Digboi before we visited the Digboi golf course that was very near to his home and a short evening at the Digboi club before I headed back home to Margherita in Upper Assam.
From the oil museum it is a short drive to Shillong road in Digboi as it is a small town but very well planned and executed. From the road one has to take a left diversion towards the Shillong road area. We used to frequent this area a lot during our school days as there is a church here and we used to come to the church for the Sunday prayers and the Christmas month. Also we had some of our friends staying here whose parents were officials at the IOCL and so they had their bungalows here. There is a security outpost here and visitors had to make an entry as this was needed to avoid the entry of unknown 0people into the colony. This place is called as the Shillong road because the drive on the road gives a feel like driving across Shillong with the numerous ups and downs and the colonial era charm. There are many heritage British bungalows present at the Shillong road area at Digboi in Upper Assam and each of these houses are numbered as ‘Blow’ and the number where Blow represents Bungalow. We reached his home and it was located at an elevation as compared to the other houses as the area of Shillong road is in the form of a slight hill terrain. His mother welcomed me and asked about my parents as they knew each other and often met at the various get together at the various clubs in the area. We were supposed to have lunch outside but his mom insisted that we had lunch at home.
My friend too had spent numerous years in corporates and he held a very good position in a reputed MNC but he got his home calling and he quit his cushy corporate job to come back and do something on his own here in Assam. He was working on a project and so he was quite busy and yet he was polite enough to spend time as I had come over. His parents had a tough time to believe that their son had quit his job and was about to plan an entrepreneurship venture but gradually they accepted the fact and as he was their only son they had to come to terms with his ideas. He had graduated top of his class from one of the reputed engineering colleges in India and also held a management degree from a top institute in India and compared to him I was holding the same degrees but not from grade A institutions of the country. Yet we were good friends and even though he was two years junior to me he spoke and acted in a much mature manner due to his upbringing and education. As we had both planned on entrepreneurship ventures in our home state so we had got together on a social platform and since then we have kept in touch to know about the future of entrepreneurship in Assam. We stepped out to view the Digboi golf course and it was one of the finest golf courses in India. The entire golf course was so green and I was told that many renowned golfers from across India and abroad have played here at the Digboi golf course in Upper Assam. Soon we went home for lunch and his mom had prepared an elaborate lunch that symbolized royalty and the cook took a lot of time to prepare this meal. The meal had chicken, fish, rice, vegetables, curry and much more.
After lunch my friend took me to their new house that was almost about to be complete at the outskirts of Digboi town. As his father would retire from his services soon and would need to vacate the company bungalow so they built a house at Digboi itself as their family had roots in and around these places and they stayed near Duliajan so they accepted to build their house here at Digboi itself about 30 minutes’ drive from Duliajan and Tinsukia in Upper Assam. He had also built his office at the campus of his house and I could see that in a year’s time he had made a lot of progress and already had two boys working for him while I was still in the process of building my website and travelling across the places in Assam and North East India. I took a stroll around the campus of his home and the construction was almost complete and the finishing touches were being applied with the paint and the workers were about to end their day of work. It was about 4.30 and we started on our drive to the Digboi club. The other friend called in to say that he got stuck in some work and so he couldn’t make it. We reached the club at 4.45 PM and my friend took me in and I remembered my days when we used to visit the Digboi club during the club meets. We took our seats at the bar and we ordered for 2 beers as it was too early to start drinking hard liquor. The bar is adjacent to the floor where we used to have our jam sessions and even now such occasions are held at the Digboi club in Upper Assam. I thanked my friend for a wonderful day at Digboi and wished him luck for his venture and I returned back home to Margherita.
At home I decided to cook some dinner for myself as my parents won’t be back before 9.30 and I was by myself. It was days since I had tried a biryani recipe and I opened the refrigerator to find some mutton in the freezer. My mother had this habit of making portions of the raw meat brought in by my father and as only two of them stay it becomes easier not to waste the food this way. So I found a decent amount of meat for two persons and I started my preparation for the mutton biryani. Also there was some pork meat that was bought in today and I called my friend to come and join me for dinner and asked him to get some rum along to beat the chill that was there today because of the slight rain that poured in. My friend came along carrying the rum and I had lit the fire and boiled the meat to be put up on skewers and roasted to be had along with a salad of raw onions, radish, chillies, lime and coriander. I entrusted my friend to look after the meat while it was roasting while I prepared the biryani. I follow a simple process of cooking biryani where I put in some ghee in the pressure cooker and fry in the whole spices, later add in chopped onions, ginger garlic paste, tomato, the meat and after it is fried for a while the cooker lid is closed and after few whistles the mutton biryani is ready to be topped in with some fresh coriander and mint leaves. We had two drinks of the rum and the roasted pork and my friend made a plan to go out for a picnic outing the next day near the Deomali area.
This is the same place I spoke about that was further ahead of the Margherita tea factory that had this wonderful road that connected Margherita in Upper Assam with Deomali in Arunachal Pradesh. As my friend had spent his childhood in that area would have no problem showing us around. The next day was the Rongali Bihu festival of Assam as well and people would be in a festive mood for sure and we were bound to find picnic parties at the area for sure and evening we would get to see the Bihu dance performances by groups of young boys and girls (called as Husori) as they adorned themselves in the traditional Bihu wear and travel from home to home enacting and performing the vibrant and colourful Bihu dance of Assam. We finished our dinner and my friend went back to his place. My parents came back a little late and as my mother had an off day tomorrow and the day after so the next day we had planned to visit the site of the longest bridge in India – the Dhola Sadiya Bridge that was nearing its completion and was scheduled to be inaugurated this year end. But with the new plan with my friend I had to push the visit over to the next day. With this I retired to bed. The next morning my friend came over with two other colleagues and he had brought along with him a nice SUV vehicle owned by his company and this would help us to manoeuvre across the bumpy stretch of road towards Deomali. We had to return back early as they had some work in the afternoon and so we started early as well. Generally visitors to Arunachal Pradesh require an ILP but as these people worked at operations in an around Arunachal Pradesh and also as he had stayed for many years in that place we wouldn’t have a problem to visit this part of Arunachal Pradesh.
We gathered firewood and they had carried vessels to do the cooking by the river banks for our picnic treat. We started on our drive to Deomali via the Dirok area of Upper Assam. This time as O drove across the beautiful roads amidst the beautiful tea gardens of Assam and the sky horizon viewed amazing. We kept driving and the lovely rainforests welcomed us to a cover of dense vegetation and I was left in awe of nature around me. Then again these areas were earlier inhabited by terrorists but these days it had become quite less and it is very safe to travel these roads in Upper Assam. It took us about an hour and a half to reach the border check gate at Deomali and after verifying my friend’s credentials we were allowed in as we came from Margherita and we entered Arunachal Pradesh. We went to visit the Ramakrishna Mission at Deomali where my friend had studied and later we went to the market to shop for supplies for our picnic. We brought some fresh fish to be cooked along with rice and vegetables and all the produce looked so fresh and organic here. We crossed back to Assam after our shopping was done and we reached the river bank in sometime.
The river had almost dried up with less water compared to how it would be in the monsoons and with about a month left for the monsoons to arrive it would be a different topography around in sometime. There were few other groups who had also come to the spot to spend their day of picnic and one was a group from NECF of the staff members and their families. We got together and assigned tasks to the members of our group and some got to cleaning while some got to cook the food. The fish curry would be cooked with vegetables like cauliflower, pumpkin, papaya, carrot, potato and coriander and also the fish fry would go down with the beer and the rice would be plain rice as that way we did not have to carry along much of vessels for our cooking. We finished our lunch by 12PM and headed back to Margherita in Upper Assam. They dropped me at my house and they went back to office as they had some work to be completed. I slept for a while and in the evening we were awaiting for the arrival of the groups at our house that would perform the Bihu dances. At around 7 PM one of the groups arrived and this comprised of young boys and girls who were sons and daughters of the staff of the NECF family and there were of various age groups all dressed up in their traditional attires with the boys wearing dhoti kurta and the girls adorned in the beautiful Muga mekhela chadors and the traditional assamese ornaments. They formed a circle and while the boys formed the circle with the various traditional musical instruments and some of them clapping their hands in rhythm, the girls were standing inside the circle performing the dance moves with brisk movements of their hands and feet. The boys were singing the traditional Bihu songs along with the rhythmic music of the dhul, pepa, gogona, etc. The performance was indeed very colourful and the songs were interesting as well. At the end of the performance we had to offer the group members some money and tamul paan on an assamese Xorai and with this they left our home to be followed by another group that comprised of men and women. After finished our time watching the performances of the dances we had our dinner and today my mom had cooked some traditional assamese food and one of the neighbours had sent across some delicious prawn recipe as well.
Today we were set to visit the site of the longest bridge in India – the Dhola Sadiya bridge at Dhola Ghat with my family and my aunt and uncle from Dibrugarh where I had visited earlier would be joining us at Makum and after exploring the place we would come back to the NH 37 Dhaba for lunch and from here we would return back to our homes. I wanted to explore certain places at Tinsukia in Upper Assam as well but in the interest of time I thought of doing it tomorrow that would be the final leg of my explorations of Assam as I had finished exploring most of the tourist destinations in the state barring the Barrack valley and the Dhubri district which I intent to so sometime later. Anyways with the idea of visiting the Longest Bridge in India that would be a proud moment to the State of Assam we started towards Dhola after breakfast. We crossed Digboi to keep driving straight towards Makum in Upper Assam. I don’t know whether it is a true fact or not but the road stretch from the outskirts of Digboi town to Makum is believed to be the straightest road in Assam and the best part of this road is that it is always in good condition even though the movement of traffic especially heavy coal laden trucks and filled oil tankers are quite often on this road. And across the sides of the road the beautiful forests of the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary is present so this road is also an elephant corridor and often herds of wild elephants can be seen crossing these roads during the evening time thereby bringing the traffic movement to a grinding halt here at Digboi in Upper Assam.
Also are the beautiful tea estates of Bogapani and Tingrai present along the roads and further up ahead there are the lush paddy fields of Upper Assam. One can get a view of the various topographical landscapes once you drive across the beautiful countryside of Upper Assam. We reached Tingrai and there was a nice traditional market being organized along the roads and this is a very famous market in this area with people coming in from various areas to buy the fresh organic produce being sold at this market. These areas are mostly inhabited by the tea garden tribes of Assam and they have farmlands around where they cultivate vegetables and other crops as well and bring their produce to be sold at this market once every week on Sundays and also during such festive occasions like Bihu. We crossed the market and my father planned on to stop here on our way back to buy some fresh produce for our meal tomorrow. I was driving the car and as we did not have an idea of the road conditions so we took an older vehicle to tackle the roads. In sometime we reached the Makum rail junction in Upper Assam and from here we had to take a right diversion to travel towards Doomdooma and further to Dhola while the left diversion leads to Tinsukia and further to Dibrugarh and Guwahati. This is the main highway and falls under the NH 37 sub division.
My uncle and aunt were yet to arrive and so we decided to halt at a small restaurant to have tea and refreshments and wait for their arrival as the road from Dibrugarh to Tinsukia was undergoing maintenance and so their drive speed had to slow down. We stopped at a roadside dhaba and ordered tea and some snacks and by the time the things arrived even my uncle and aunt came along. This aunt was my mother’s younger sister at whose house I had stayed when I was exploring the Dibrugarh area in Upper Assam. After exchanging greetings we started on our drive to Dhola via Doomdooma and the roads are in very good condition and I didn’t expect such infrastructure conditions in this place and I guess mostly due to the connectivity of the bridge the roads too were being maintained as of now. We reached Doomdooma are and this area is famous for the numerous tea gardens and tea estates. This place has a very good living standard as compared to certain areas in Upper Assam and it is mostly due to the production of tea around the place and also the presence of the production unit of Hindustan Unilever Ltd. that produces some of the cosmetic product range lines here. We crossed Doomdooma and here there is a right diversion that leads to easternmost fronts of India in Arunachal Pradesh at Namsai, Tezu, Walong, Dong and Kibithoo. Kibithoo is the last motorable road on the eastern fronts of India and the last village as well. I will write about it in my future article about exploring Arunachal Pradesh as I will be starting my explorations from this area covering the various parts of eastern India. We headed straight to go towards the Dhola area.
I remember coming to these parts in Upper Assam with my father very long ago when the road conditions were horrible and we used to come to spend our Sundays by the banks of the Brahmaputra and also to buy curd and cream products from this place as the people were known to make some of the purest forms of curd and cream from cow milk. We used to come together in a group of 3 or 4 families and after a day of picnic by the banks of the Brahmaputra where earlier there were ferry services that helped people cross the river to reach Sadiya in Assam and so a lot of shops and establishments came up here and they catered to the food needs of the travellers who would come down from Sadiya and have their lunch at these places before they embarked to other locations like Tinsukia and Dibrugarh. We reached the site of a temple at Dhola that is very famous for a puja called as the ‘Babu puja’ and today we just entered the temple and seeking our blessings., We finally reached Dhola and it was around 10 AM. The beautiful Brahmaputra river could be viewed from the spot and things seemed to be on track for the grand opening of the longest bridge in India here in Upper Assam. The Dhola and Sadiya areas of Upper Assam were earlier quite difficult to access mostly due to the vast width of the Brahmaputra river that required people to cross it via two ferry boats in order to reach the places and this also was the only means to access places in Arunachal Pradesh like Roing, Mayodia, Anini and Hunli. We had once in 2007 travelled to Mayodia in Arunachal Pradesh where snowfall occurs and it took us two ferry boats to cross the Brahmaputra river to reach Roing from where we had to go to Mayodia. But with this bridge now the accessibility would be much easier and the distance or drive time would come down to only 20 minutes. This Dhola Sadiya bridge would also prove beneficial for the armed forces as they would be able to mobilize troops and battle tanks along the lines of the border in no time. We explored the construction site of the Dhola Sadiya bridge and later ame to a shop that was serving fresh fish and rice to the visitors.
The shop owners here at Dhola setup shops early in the morning as the ferry service keeps plying on the river at regular intervals and so people keep crossing the ghat to board the ferry service and while they wait they eat some freshly cooked food and continue of their journey. I spotted some of the local people using boats to catch fish and the catch were being bought and sold to these small shops who fried the fish and offered them to the customers. I have a craving for freshly fired fish and I couldn’t control the urge to try a plate of small fish fry that were on offer at the shop and even though we were scheduled to have our lunch later after crossing Doomdooma, I ordered for a plate of fish fry and looking at me even my father and uncle ordered some of them. The fish was very fresh and tasty and it was cleaned up and simply fried after mixing some salt and turmeric and onions. We also had tea here and in some time we left the site of the Dhola Sadiya bridge to continue on our journey back. At the Dhola village we walked to one home to order and take the fresh curd and cream and the prices had now gone up because of the number of visitors coming to explore the area of this bridge and also due to the rise in milk prices.
After purchasing our fish and cream we started on our drive back to Doomdooma area and we soon reached the NH 37 Dhaba and restaurant have in Upper Assam. This restaurant is a very popular food joint in this area and has visitors from the places like Tinsukia, Margherita, Digboi, Dibrugarh, etc. mostly as the ambiance of the place is nice and there is ample parking space and recreational area for kids along with good and hygienic food. We took our seats at NH 37 dhaba and placed our lunch order of rice, dal, duck curry, paneer matar, mixed vegetables fry and salad and awaited the arrival of our food. We took ourselves a cabin here and it was a nice air conditioned room and the food arrived quickly. There was a rush here today as it was an off day from work and people had come to enjoy their day here at the NH 37 dhaba. There are separate cabins where people can enjoy a drink as well and celebrations were on. The food was delicious but I must admit it was loaded with lots of artificial spices and eating such food was only good for a day in a month. We finished our lunch and later started on our drive back to our homes after bidding farewell to my uncle and aunt who headed to Dibrugarh in Upper Assam while we headed to our home at Margherita. We took the left diversion from the Makum rail junction and continued on our drive to Digboi before making our halt at the Tingrai market. My father and I stepped out of the car to explore the market while my mother stayed back in the car.
The market was filled with vendors selling everything from vegetables, fruits, meat, fish, cosmetics, daily condiments, plastic goods, etc. This type of a market is called as a local bazar in Upper Assam and it is basically a kind of a day outing for the local people where they come out to spend a day of merriment at the bazar. They go about looking for the best food produce, bargain around, enjoy a local drink, eat food and later return home with the goods they buy. The traders come with their produce and sell them in the market and go back home carrying essentials like lentils, oil and salt as the other things they grow on their own and the animals they rear themselves for meat. We did our share of marketing and my father bought fresh vegetables and green herbs to be taken home along with us. There were also a variety of fishes on sale and I selected one whole rohu fish that was a river fish and the vendor did the cleaning and slicing of the fish into pieces and after this we started on our drive back home to Margherita. I stopped at the entrance of the Digboi oil town where there is a huge signage welcoming visitors to Digboi and this has been beautifully designed with cement and bricks and shows the rich history of the Digboi oil industry. I clicked my pictures and then we drove back home. My mother cleaned the vegetables and prepared a nice egg curry with the various vegetables and after our dinner we returned to bed.
Today morning I set out to explore the various destinations of Tinsukia in Upper Assam. My friend had to do some purchase of spare parts at the Tinsukia market and so he asked me to join him along to travel to Tinsukia and it was good news for me as I didn’t have to drive and also I would save on my fuel expenses as well. We started at 8 AM and as the markets would open only at 10 AM so we planned to reach Tinsukia by that time. It was again a repeat drive for me going all the way to Makum but as the roads was good and I enjoyed the countryside view so I didn’t mind it and we started to Tinsukia crossing Digboi and Makum in Upper Assam. From Makum we took a left diversion to go to Tinsukia and as we did not get stuck in any traffic we reached Tinsukia outskirts in Upper Assam at around 9.15 AM itself. There is a famous Hanuman temple her and I decided to spend some time here so that we could explore the place by the time the markets opened for the day. It is a beautiful temple spread across an acre of land with a large temple pond at the entrance and later there is the entrance ot the temple shrine. Inside the temple shrine a huge statue of Lord Hanuman is present and one can feel an awe once they see it. We explored the temple admiring the beautiful green campus and alter stated on our drive to go to the main market at Tinsukia. Tinsukia town in Upper Assam is one of the main business towns of the state and has the Marwari community dominating the business establishments.
As this is an important railway junction so goods brought in from various parts of the country especially food items find an easy passage route here from Tinsukia to various parts of the region that are not connected by a well rid railway track plan. Goods are offloaded here and then transported via trucks to various parts in Upper Assam and eastern Arunachal Pradesh. This has resulted in Tinsukia being a cash rich town and often it is said that Tinsukia is the commercial capital of Assam and it can be seen across the huge bungalow like houses around the town. We went to the new market area where we had to park our vehicle at the railway junction but as my friend would need some time to go about looking for the spare parts of various vehicles at the dealerships along with his colleague so he asked me to take his car and to go and explore the Dibru Saikhowa National Park near Tinsukia and by the time I came back he too would be done with his work and we could explore the other places together. So I dropped them and continued on my drive straight towards Tinsukia civil hospital from where I would connect to the road that will take me to the Dibru Saikhowa National Park in Upper Assam. I had visited this place once a few years back with my family when we took a river cruise on the OM house boat that took us on a tour of the Dibru Saikhowa National Park here near Tinsukia. I reached the beautiful area of the place and at firs the forest office welcomes the visitors here. The Dibru river is located here that is a major tributary of the Brahmaputra river and the National park is located in the heart of this river. Numerous house boat services are present along this river that takes visitors on a tour of the Dibru Saikhowa National Park.
Once I reached the place I could see a few more luxury house boats starting their operations here and one was the Royal princess houseboat at this place called as the Guijan ghat. I went in to explore this new boat and the manager welcomed me onboard and showed me around. The houseboat had a nice deck that served as a restaurant and could accommodate 30-35 guests at a time. Also below on the lower deck there were cabins that were built to accommodate the guests who could even stay over in one of these cabins that had a nice queen size bed and a bathroom with western toilet and bath facilities. It was almost like a hotel room and I wondered how nice it would feel to take a tour of the Dibru Saikhowa National Park in Upper Assam in one of these boats on a night tour. After this I came out and left for the banks of the Dibru river near the Banashree Eco resort. This area serves as a picnic spot during winters for the locals and this had caused some people to come and commit nuisance around as waste was littered around the place and the civic sense of the people around was really questionable. Anyways I ignored this mess and walked around the area of the beautiful Dibru river and enjoyed the beautiful Dibru river and enjoyed the beautiful sky horizon view along. There were numerous country boats on these waters and the local people were fishing in the waters here. Dibru Saikhowa National Park is a beautiful natural environment that has numerous species of flora and fauna and is known especially for its varied orchid species that bloom in the months of June through August and this is also when the monsoon water raises the level of waters in the Dibru river and this allows the easy movement of the house boats that takes visitors into far off villages that become inaccessible in the dry season and one can even get to sight the feral horses that are a pride of the Dibru Saikhowa National Park in Upper Assam.
Accessibility to these villages are however reduced in the winter season. During winters, the Dibru Saikhowa National Park in Upper Assam becomes home to various migratory bird species that come here from around the World and live around the water bodies that are present around the area especially at the Maguri Beel area closeby. While you are here at the Dibru Saikhowa National Park take the opportunity to cross the Dibru river on a county motorboat and cross over to the other side of the river and from there embark on your hike to the Kekjori tree area. This is a huge banyan tree that spreads across a huge area and is over 100 years old and has branches growing from the top of the tree to the ground. The roots of this Kekjori tree at the Dibru Saikhowa National Park are spread across an acre of huge area and this is what attracts hundreds of visitors to this place. In the interest of time I did not visit this place because I had already visited it during my visit earlier and instead I visited the Banashree Eco resort that is a quaint place overlooking the tea gardens and has nicely built cottages to accommodate visitors who come to spend a night here at Guijan in Upper Assam. After this I travelled to the Maguri Beel area to just get a glimpse of the place and as it is hardly a 5 min drive from Guijan ghat. I called up my friend and he asked me to come at leisure because his work was not yet up and it would take him little more time before he could get free to join me.
So I decided to explore the beauty of the Maguri Beel by hiring a boat and catch a glimpse of the various birds that were here. As the winter season was almost up so I would be getting to sight only the resident birds as most of the migratory birds must have flown away to their respective locations. Once I reached the place there were numerous fishermen plying their boats on the Maguri Beel and they were all laying traps to catch fish. Fishing is an important source of livelihood for the local people here and they come out in the mornings and set their traps and come back in the evening to retrieve their catch to take home or to sell in the local markets at Guijan in Upper Assam. The boat I wanted to hire was up for repairs today and so I couldn’t get another one to hire so I admired the beauty of the clear waters of the Maguri Beel from the bank itself and I spotted some of the beautiful bird species from a distant itself. The fish trap that the local people used were built with fine bamboo sticks and they had a narrow opening that allowed waters to flow in and along with it the small fishes would swim into the trap and later they wont be able to swim out of the trap and get trapped. This unique fish trap is called as ‘Sepa’ in the local Assamese language. This sort of fishing technique is used mostly to catch small fish but to catch the larger fish people still use nets here at the Maguri Beel area. After spending sometime here I decided ot travel back to Tinsukia town and pay a visit to a distant relative of mine who once owned a small resort here at the Maguri Beel but later diversified to other businesses.
I reached the Tinsukia Civil Hospital and my uncle stayed in this area and I called my mother to seek my uncle’s phone number and he called me to his office as no one was present at his house. His office is near his house itself and he is now owing a real estate business that has been booming in Tinsukia area since the past few years and my uncle was making some decent profits in this business. My aunt and the children had gone to their home town of Sivasagar to celebrate the Bihu festival with my aunt’s family and so my uncle was staying alone here at Tinsukia in Upper Assam. He was disappointed because he could not make any preparations to welcome me and repeatedly told me as to why I didn’t call him earlier about my visit to Tinsukia and I told him it was not a thing to worry and all my visits I was doing were mostly unplanned. He ordered for some tea and sweets and we spoke about my venture and how tourism is a good venture to invest in and grow since he too was earlier running a small resort and knew the insides of the industry. He wanted to take me out for lunch some place but I had to decline as now we would be travelling to the Bell temple (Tilinga Mandir) at the Bordubi area in Upper Assam and later explore the Nau Pukhuri and the Heritage Railway Park and Museum at Tinsukia before heading back to Margherita thereby ending my visit across Upper Assam. My friend was done with his work and he had asked the dealership owner to pack all the stuff and have it sent over to his office and he waited near the HDFC bank area in Tinsukia and asked me to pick him up there and we would travel to the Nau Pukhuri and the Bell Temple (Tilinga Mandir).
We took an overbridge route and continued to drive to the au Pukhuri area. This is one of the huge ponds that was dug up during the times of the rule of Kings around the Tinsukia area and as per the inputs provided at the entrance of this lake this was the largest among the 9 ponds that was instructed to be dug out by the King as a symbol of benevolence towards his subjects. These ponds would be used by the subjects for their irrigation uses so that people under the reign of the king did not have to suffer from the shortage of water and so 9 ponds in total were dug out across the area of the place so that people had access to water. We entered the campus of the Nau Pukhuri and it indeed was a huge pond spreading across a huge area of land. Well paved roads are laid out along the side of the pond and people could use this space as a nice walking ground but looking at the conditions the pond was in I could figure out that not many people were using this place to walk and spread the message of fitness. At one end of the park there was a ruin of a sort that could be identified as the bricks used in the formation of this ancient place resembled the ones used in the ancient Ahom architectures. We explored the area of the Nau Pukhuri at Tinsukia in Upper Assam and later headed to the Tilinga Mandir at Bordubi in Upper Assam.
Along the way there was the site of the Borajan wildlife Sanctuary and this place was known for the population of Hoolock Gibbon species. As prior permission was needed to visit the place and we did not have one we had to skip our visit here and instead we headed towards the Bell temple. There was a railway crossing along the way and we had to stop here for a while as the train was about to cross and so the gate was closed. After the train passed we went again and in sometime reached the site of the Bell temple (Tilinga Mandir). This is one of the very revered temple shrine in this area and devotees from far and near come to offer their prayers here at the Bell temple at Bordubi in Upper Assam. The bell temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva and it is believed that what you wish at this temple comes true once you tie a bell at the premises of this temple shrine. Outside the temple there are numerous shops that sell bells of various sizes and of different metals along with offerings to the God like flowers, incense, dias, Prasad, etc. We too bought a plate of the offerings along with three bells to tie inside the temple. The temple itself is shaped in the form of a bell and this structure is placed on top of temple entrance. As Lord Shiva adorns a snake around his neck so the bell too had a snake made around it symbolizing that this temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva. Once we entered the temple, we could see the various bells tied across the area of the temple especially on tree trunks and on one side all the old bells were kept symbolizing the power of devotion that was present among the people here.
People believe that if they offer their prayers here then their wishes are granted true. Keeping this thought in mind we too went in to seek our blessings. With my new venture in place I for sure needed the Lord’s blessings to turn it into a successful one. We entered the temple premises and were greeted by a pujari who took us to the temple shrine and blessed us with our offerings. He asked us to tie the bells at one of the trunks of a tree here and is possible donate some money towards the wellbeing and maintenance of the temple staff and the temple. We obliged and then we walked around the campus of the temple. After tying our bells at the tree truck here at the Tilinga Mandir at Bordubi in Upper Assam we left the place and headed to have our lunch. The road straight from the temple leads towards Duliajan and we could have planned to take this route to go back to Margherita but as we had one stop left we decided to head further and stop at a dhaba to have our lunch and later return to Tinsukia to visit the Tinsukia Heritage Park and Railway Museum. This is a Dhaba that served some ethnic Assamese cuisine of pork meat and other traditional dishes like the bamboo shoot and the Assamese Khar. Also beer was available at this place so we headed to the place to try some of this food and also share a few beers before continuing on our journey.
We reached the dhaba and just outside the entrance there was a wood fire going on and various meat types like chicken and pork along with whole local fishes were put up on bamboo skewers and put up near the fire for slow roasting. This meat cooking process is called as the ‘Khorika’ and is a favourite traditional recipe of the indigenous people of Assam where the meat is first cleaned properly, cut into smaller pieces and later put on bamboo skewers that are placed near the fire. Later, the meat after it is tenderly cooked is placed directly over fire until it is roasted completely and taken out from the skewers and chopped into finer pieces and are mixed with raw onions, green chillies, coriander, salt, a squeeze of lime and had along with a spicy chutney made with coriander, mint leaves and chillies. This chutney imparts a very unique flavour to the meat and this meat is generally offered along with rice beer or rice wine that is popular among the tribal people of Assam. I was delighted to see this meat cooking process even in this part of Upper Assam because not many tribal people live around this part and the cooking process is indigenous to the tribal people of Assam but I came to know that the dhaba cook was a tribal man who belonged to the Singpho community and so he knew about this process of cooking. We asked the boy to tell us what was available for lunch and he listed out just a few times but all were indeed deemed to be filled with natural flavours. We ordered for 2 beers to be shared amongst the three of us and also for a plate of roasted pork and roasted fish and for lunch we would have veg thali, pork cooked with lettuce and a boiled fish curry with bamboo shoot.
With this we savoured our chilled beer while the food items arrived. The nice chilled beer served its purpose and after a day of exploring about needed this to rehydrate my body. The meat and fish for starters arrived and the presentation was very unique for such a small place. The greens mixed with the meat looked very inciting and the slices of the indigenous lemon of Assam – the ‘Kanji Nemu’ was placed at the edge of the plate that had the meat and fish. The fish had bones in it as it was a local river fish but with the roasting done to it, the bones became easily chewable although the cook had tried his best to remove most part of the bones while scraping the flesh from the body of the fish. Shortly we finished our beer and our lunch order arrived as well. The thali had rice, dal with leafy vegetables, mashed potato with coriander and chillies, a papaya fruit fish head khar, pork with lettuce and boiled fish with bamboo shoot. Although it might sound that we were eating a lot of meat and fish but the portions were smaller and for each one as we just ordered a plate of each variety. The lunch was quite delicious and the total bill was only INR 1200 for all the food and beer we had. After lunch we continued on our drive to the Hijuguri area at Tinsukia in Upper Assam.
The New Tinsukia Railway junction is located here at the HIjuguri area and adjacent to the station there is the Railway Heritage Park and Museum. We had to plan our visit here in the early afternoon because the park opens to the public only at 3 PM every day. We purchased our entry tickets and went in to explore this railway park and museum in Upper Assam that illustrates the heritage of the Dibru Sadiya railway. Once we entered the museum there was a toy train that was running across the museum area and children were enjoying a joy ride on this train. There are very old steam locomotives put up on display here at the museum and these engines were once used in the various steam operated railway lines in India. The museum has a combination of big steam engines and smaller steam locomotives on display. We spent some time admiring the most important invention of the industrial revolution and at 4.30 PM we started on our drive back to Margherita. At 5.30 PM we reached my friend’s home and we marked a celebration of my days of exploring Upper Assam to continue my journey further to explore Arunachal Pradesh. I would be starting my explorations for the places around Margherita in Upper Assam that shares a border with Arunachal Pradesh. I had already applied for a pass to cross the border of Arunachal Pradesh and also for the Inner Line Permit . The link with my details of exploration is as below: