We retraced our route today – back from Margherita to Jorhat, through Digboi, Tinsukia, Dibrugarh and Sibsagar.
The Digboi museum is really mind blowing – it is a small museum dedicated to preserving the history of the oil industry in the area, but fascinating because it shows how industry developed in this region, which was at that time, jungle covered with isolated pockets of habitation. It piqued my interest – and led to my reading quite voraciously a book called the “History of the Assam Railway and Trading Company” – the company that created the Coal and Oil industry in this region. Coal, oil, tea, the railway making it all possible, opening up routes that linked to the steamer on the Brahmaputra to Calcutta – the pioneers who came to a leech infested rainy jungle to set up these industries – it is really a fascinating read. The names of the towns today tell of the stories – Digboi, which is really “Dig Boy” – shouted out by the prospecting oil engineers. Margherita – named after the then queen of Italy, to honor an Italian Engineer who set up the collieries.
From Digboi, we drive without stopping till we reach the Nam-Phanke village near Dibrugarh. On the way we pass by Lakhipathar, a dense forest which was once an ULFA training ground.
The Nam-Phanke village is home to the Tai-Phanke people, who had crossed over from Burma in search of a hospitable environment. Their history ( as written in a small pamphlet by an enterprising member of their community, the pamphlet being published in English, Assamese and the Tai script) – is a sad one. They were forced to be on the move for a long time ( starting with their initial migration from the Yunnan province in China), until finally, they established their village on the banks of the Burhi-Dihing river, at which place they have peacefully survived till today. They are Buddhists, a beautiful monastery on the banks of the river serves as the center of village learning today.
Some of the villagers still live in the “Chang-houses” built on stilts – these houses look charming, set along a little mud-path on the river.
The Tai-Phanke people have reached out to their communities in Thailand and Burma – and made interesting discoveries. Their scripts are very similar, and their language is almost similar to that spoken by people in Thailand and some parts of Burma. Their customs are similar, in fact, more preserved, since they have been practiced with rigor over the ages.
The Tai Phanke people are now trying to revive their culture, and in this process are exploring ties with their kinsmen in SE Asia, especially Thailand and Burma. Recently, they invited two monks from Burma to their village – they discovered that their scripts and language were very similar. In an attempt to preserve their culture, they have started a school where both young and old are taught to read and write their language.
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