Dibrugarh: A Gateway Town

Situated on the banks of the Brahmaputra River and established in 1842, Dibrugarh [pronounced dib-roo-GOR] isn’t a primary travel destination but it can certainly be an excellent gateway to explore the northeastern corner of Assam and the neighboring states of Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland.

Planes and trains connect Dibrugarh to and from several Indian cities. The closest cities are Guwahati and Kolkata [formerly Calcutta]. There are various options for hotels in Dibrugarh, but not all might meet the requirements of a high-end traveler. Homestays are another option, in addition to specialized accommodations in a tea estate.

Winter is cold and summer is hot and humid. The monsoon falls between June and September. My recommendation is to visit Dibrugarh between December and February. During these three months, nighttime temperatures range between 47-55 degrees Fahrenheit and daytime temperatures are pleasant, hovering around 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

Historically

Historically, Dibrugarh was an important administrative, strategic, and unique educational town. For example:

  • From an administrative perspective, Dibrugarh was made the headquarters of the district in 1840.
  • From a military standpoint, the British and the Americans made the region its strategic outpost.
  • From an educational perspective, the first school for girls in the region was established in 1885, followed by the first medical institution in Northeast India in 1901.

Even though Dibrugarh is a primary town for the region, urbanization brought its challenges—unplanned construction, worsening water quality, air and noise pollution, lack of waste management—and the struggle to maintain its unique past. Amidst these challenges lies opportunities. Efforts are being made by the current administration to take on those challenges faced by the town. Coupled with those efforts is this Pxley story encouraging you to explore the original township of Dibrugarh.

The Brahmaputra

If you fly into Dibrugarh, the Brahmaputra River comes into view as your aircraft begins its descent. Rice paddies and tea estates reveal a green landscape, depending on the month of your visit. The Brahmaputra River can average between 3 to 5 miles in width near Dibrugarh. Several agencies [Government of India, state government, USAID] have made attempts since 1934 to stabilize the river due to the continued erosion of its banks that impacts the lives of many. There are several stone and timber posts along with dikes that have been put in place to protect the town of Dibrugarh, a portion of which was submerged under the river due to erosion of the river banks.

Tea Estates

Dibrugarh is surrounded by rice paddies and tea estates. I highly recommend a visit to a tea estate. A few provide options to stay overnight, including a visit to a tea factory. If you are visiting Dibrugarh during the months of December through February, most tea estates are in maintenance mode. This means you won’t see a tea factory in operation. If you want to purchase tea to bring back to family and friends, I recommend the Tea Centre store. Note: The first flush [“flush” refers to tea leaves picked from individual growth periods] provides bolder tea but lacks a little in flavor. The second flush has more flavor. I prefer whole leaf teas but your preference might lean towards broken leaf, fannings, CTC, or dust grades tea.

Historic Buildings

A few historic buildings and sites in Dibrugarh should be on your must-see list. Some of these are: a) Assam Medical College [formerly Berry White Medical School; established 1900]; b) Bar Library [formerly McWilliam Hall]; and c) British Cemetery [built in 1862 and final resting ground of 103 British nationals]. Attempts have been made by local, state, and national governments and organizations to restore and improve historical buildings and sites. These investments can become a good source for knowledge-sharing and revenue generation, and much remains to be seen how such outcomes can be achieved.

Home Visit

If you have the opportunity to visit an Assamese home in a nearby village, do so. Traditionally, houses were constructed of mud-plastered bamboo for walls and a thatched roof. Given the prevailing geological and topographical settings, Assam-type architecture is meant to be earthquake-proof. Homes in villages had a loom and a dheki, a foot pounder for husking grains.

A homestay in Dibrugarh I can recommend is Bhaskar Home Stay. They won't have a loom or dheki at their modern premises but your stay will be secure and pleasant, and they might be able to recommend a home visit in a nearby village.

Ceremonies

Traditional Assamese ceremonies, unlike any seen in other parts of India, provide a glimpse into the particular culture of the region. There are two primary cultural and religious institutions that influence the fabric of Assamese culture: satras and nāmghar. Satras started in Assam during the 15th-16th centuries and propagated a form of Vaishnavism. Vaishnavism [a set of traditions that adheres to the worship of god Vishnu] emphasizes equality for all people instead of the Varna [caste] system that divides society into four hierarchical classes. A nāmghar is the central structure of a satra. In the Assamese language, nāmghar means nām [prayer] and ghar [house]. A nāmghar is also a community hall and an arts and crafts learning center. If your schedule permits, I recommend a visit to Majuli that I believe is one of the last bastions that preserve tribal and indigenous Assamese traditions in their original form. [Note: View a video excerpt from a traditional ceremony held in Dibrugarh.]

Cuisine

You can always fall back on a KFC or Domino’s Pizza but discovering the local foods of a region is a huge part of travel and exploration. With a bit of planning and foresight, you can learn to truly appreciate the authentic cuisine. Ask the personnel at your hotel’s front desk to recommend a place to eat. A unique opportunity would be to attend a traditional ceremony that offers maah prokhad—green gram [a green kind of bean], black chickpea, coconut, sugarcane, ginger, etc. A few unique items are: poita bhat—cooked rice kept overnight in cold water; cira—dried pounded rice; akhoi—parched husk-free rice; hurum—a type of puffed rice; sandoh guri—coarse powder of parched rice; khar—ashes of dried bark and root of plantain tree.

Textiles

It used to be common to find a loom in an Assamese house in a village. Three prominent Assamese items made on a loom are a gamusa, mekhela-sador, and a riha. A gamusa is rectangular in shape, woven on a traditional Assamese loom with white and red cotton thread. A mekhela-sador is a two-piece dress worn by women. The woven designs on a mekhela-sador generally depict traditional Assamese musical instruments, flowers, birds, etc. A riha is also worn along with a mekhela-sador on particular occasions. A shop I can recommend for a traditional mekhela-sador is Assam Fancy Silk House.

Traditional Household Items

These are miniature versions of traditional Assamese household items. The items are made out of bamboo. A jakoi is used to trap fish in the shallow ponds or rice paddies of Assam. Once a fish is caught with the help of a jakoi, it is stored in the khaloi. A kula is a winnowing fan used to separate hull [or husk] from rice after a milling process. A saloni is a sieve that can be used to separate the chaff from the kernel. A dola is a tray that can be used to store items or to sort through rice and remove any foreign objects like fragments of stones. The khorahi is a storage basket also used on occasion to wash rice.

Market

The market area in a town like Dibrugarh consists of commercial and residential spaces. Nonetheless, the general market area includes a vegetable and fruit market, fish and poultry market, and stores that sell everything from clothing to utensils to groceries. I always encourage a visit to a local market as it provides insights into the lives of the residents.

Side Trips

Dibrugarh can be an excellent gateway destination to its neighboring towns and states. Here are a few that can be a part of your visit to Dibrugarh:

a) Namphake: Assamese culture derives its roots from Tibeto-Burman, Austro-Asiatic, and Indo-Aryan ethno-cultural groups. A visit to the Namphake village illustrates how the Tai-Phake, an offshoot of the Tai race, found its place in Assam. The community worships Lord Buddha. In addition to a monastery, pagoda, and Ashoka pillar, a water tank has a statue of a meditating Buddha protected by a snake with its hood. The monastery is run by Buddhist monks and local villagers help in any manner possible.

b) Digboi: The first crude oil well in Asia was drilled in Digboi, located 50 miles east of Dibrugarh. As a child I remember hearing the fable of how Digboi got its name — “Dig boy, dig.” — which is how the British engineers encouraged laborers as they dug for crude oil. The town has several unique bungalows that catered to the Britain professionals working for the Assam Oil Company. The Digboi War Cemetery is the resting ground for the fallen Indian and British soldiers during World War II. Several of the marked graves date soldiers that died between 1939 and 1945. Fifteen miles from Digboi brings you to a small town called Ledo, which is the starting point of Ledo Road [aka Stilwell Road] that was built by American and British troops during World War II as a supply route to China through Burma.

c) Sivasagar: Located 50 miles southwest of Dibrugarh is the town of Sivasagar, the capital of the Ahom Kingdom from 1699 to 1788. Visit some of the monuments from the Ahom Kingdom in and around Sivasagar, including Charaideo that has a collection of maidams [tumuli or burial mounds] of the Ahom kings and royalty. A little known fact about Indian history is that the Ahoms defeated the Mughals in 18 major conflicts [between 1615 through 1682] and the Battle of Itakhuli in 1682 saw a decisive Ahom victory that resulted in the Mughal retreat.

Other opportunities to explore the region are a visit to the Kaziranga National Park, a 7-10 day river cruise on the Brahmaputra River, Hornbill Festival in the state of Nagaland, and a hidden gem—the state of Arunachal Pradesh.

Pxley Extra: The following is a video excerpt from a traditional ceremony held in Dibrugarh, Assam.

A few interesting facts about Dibrugarh:

  • Dibrugarh was part of the Chutia kingdom until 1523.
  • The Dibrugarh Court was established in 1840.
  • Dibrugarh Govt. Boys’ Higher Secondary School was established in 1840.
  • Earliest known watercolour of the Brahmaputra River in Dibrugarh. The Burhampootra & Tibet mountains from Dibrooghur, Assam, by Edward Augustus Prinsep, dated c.1848.
  • Dibrugarh was declared a township in 1868.
  • The first school for girls, Victoria Girls School, was established in 1885.
  • The Times of Assam, the first news weekly in the region, was published in 1895.
  • Assam Medical College [formerly Berry White Medical School] established in 1900 was the first medical institution in Northeast India.
  • During World War II, Dibrugarh was a military base and transit camp for evacuees from Burma. [Note: Read about “A Glimpse of Dinjan, Assam.”]

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