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Digboi: Of Oil & War

Anyone roughly familiar with Assam has probably heard of Digboi as the first oil refinery in Asia. However, there is much more to this town and its surrounding area. I had been to Digboi before but could never explore it. Finally, when I spent a couple of days here exploring the fascinating origin and the history of this little town beyond the obvious.

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DIgboi is a nice little town

Before going further, let us have a look at the history of oil in DIgboi. The story about the origin of the name Digboi from the “digging” for oil by the Englishman is well-known but there are other theories too. Nevertheless, without oil, this place would have been completely different. The moment the Western civilization figured out the utility of oil, they started looking for sources all over the world. The greed was palpable but one can’t ignore the foresight, I genuinely, and sheer industry of those early oil explorers. For a region still considered somewhat economically backward, envisioning the first refinery in Asia in the 19th century was as wild an achievement as one can imagine.

Oil was first found in DIgboi back in 1867, only 8 years after it was found in Pennsylvania. Records of that era mentioned that it happened due to some elephants that returned from the jungle with mud on their feet with that distinctive stench of crude oil. The British knew immediately that the elephants had unknowingly struck black gold.

This area is still surrounded by rainforests even now. So, it is not hard to imagine how impregnable it must have been in the 19th century that too with incessant rainfall and the constant threat of malaria and kala azar and other tropical diseases that were practically incurable then. It took a few years to clear the jungles and start production and finally, the Digboi refinery became operational in 1902.

Although it is a small town, distances are big between various important points within Digboi. This is because the whole town is built around the refinery, which was the first thing to come up here in the middle of the jungle.

Digboi Heritage Tour

Coming back to present, I was here to attend this festival celebrating Digboi Town. I reached Digboi on an overnight bus from Guwahati at around 7 AM and walked up to the India Club (I’m familiar with the place). After a while other people, mostly local students, arrived too. Shakya, who is one of the organizers who invited me, also arrived. I know Shakya from the open quizzing circuit in Assam. He said there would be a quiz too, so I agreed immediately.

Digboi Centenary Oil Museum

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Our first stop was the Centenary Oil Museum. It religiously preserves the history of the oil industry in Digboi through various displays, murals, photographs, and well-preserved genuine machinery used in oil drilling and refining.  There is even a real locomotive that was used to transport goods and people back in those times. A life-size replica of an old petrol station with some vintage cars and Lambretta Scooters (that brand has disappeared from the markets now).  There are more things to see inside but photography wasn’t allowed inside so I can’t show them here. One can spend days here studying each piece of documents and photographs if one is interested in the history of oil.

Buddha Vihar

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After the oil we quickly moved towards a Buddhist monastery. Now this was not something I was aware of, not did I expect it. Although newly renovated with the addition of a giant Buddha statue (tallest in Assam according to some news reports), this vihar is more than 80 years old. Initially, I thought it was built by local Tai Ohake Buddhist groups such as the one in Namphake Village I visited earlier. However, I turned out to be wrong. Digboi has a small Buddhist diaspora, mostly Barua people who originated from Chittagong region. Many of them were settled in Myanmar but had to move towards India during the turbulent period of 1930s and 40s as the war raged on in Indochina. 

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Digboi World War II Cemetery

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The next stop was the WWII Cemetery. This is one of the major war cemeteries maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. I do not have to introduce anyone to WWII but still, a lot of people still do not know the amount of warfare that took place in this seemingly remote region far away from the main theatres of action. People in Digboi actually built bunkers to take shelter from Japanese bombers. We even saw a bunker that is now inside the Oil Museum.

In fact, there are many other WWII cemeteries all over Northeast India and I have already made a list on them a few years ago. You can check that post about WWII SItes in Northeast India. If you have a look at the names on the graves, you will be surprised. For instance, there is one soldier from Congo who’s buried here. When we talk about allied soldiers, we just think of white guys from the US and Europe. How many from African colonies came here to fight? They are rarely mentioned just like Indian soldiers who perished in Europe. They deserve a film like Indigenes (2006). 

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Colonial Bungalows and Golf Course

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Digboi Golfcourse

We followed up by a drive through various parts of the town, spotting numerous charming colonial-era bungalows. They are still in use and while newer buildings have also come up, there is a clear aesthetic gulf between those colonial bungalows and new concrete brutalities. We also stopped at the iconic Digboi Golf Course, which is one of the most famous golf courses in Assam founded in 1888. We could only see it from outside the walls as only members can enter. 

Digboi Centenary Park

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We finished the half-day tour at the Digboi Centenary Park, which is a nice hangout for locals. What is interesting here is that the water used here comes from the refinery and so, it is not suit6for drinking or swimming. Nevertheless, it has been used well to create a nice water body with small bridges and fountains, somewhat mimicking the design of the famous Ward Lake in Shillong.

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So, this was more or less it from Digboi. The next day I visited the Dehing Patkai National Park but I have written about it already. As mentioned at the start, I participated in the open quiz at the end and managed to win it with Zaman, who I had never met before and who had arrived from Kerala for some reason. Strange things happen in quizzes.

keep guessing who’s who

Digboi Travel Guide

Dehing Patkai Map
DIgboi Area Map

How to Reach Digboi?

You can get direct buses from Guwahati. You can also get local transport from Dibrugarh (Nearest Airport) and Tinuskia (Nearest major Railway station).

Where to Stay in Digboi?

Digboi has many hotels in various budgets all over the town. There are also many colonial-era Bungalows that offer stay options if you have a higher budget.

Jitaditya Narzary

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