Friday, 20 December 2013

WAR CEMETERIES - mute reminders of courage and sacrifice!

Who would have thought the effects of the II World War could have been felt in this far flung north-eastern state of Assam, in the Indian sub-continent? 
But facts are facts and one cannot change the course of history. 
The Burma Campaign of the Allied forces against the advancing Japanese army and the ensuing battles that followed, ensured that this region be scripted in history as an unwitting participant in the ravages of war.
So, what does one show to prove one's participation in conflicts and war? Yes, nothing more than graves of boys and young men who gave their lives for a cause.
The records available with the Regional Manager (NE - India) of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, states that there are nine war cemeteries in India, out of which five of these are in the north-east of the country! This certainly tells a story, doesn't it?
War Cemeteries in Assam: -
  • Digboi War Cemetery: - Situated quite close to the Burmese border, the town of Digboi was on the communication lines of the Allied advances with a military hospital for treating war casualties. The war cemetery which is about 1.5 km. towards the east of the present town, has around 200 graves of soldiers who lost their lives during the second world war. Every second Saturday in November, a prayer ceremony is held in this cemetery, to pay homage to the brave souls who were laid to rest here. Verses from the Bible, Gurugranth Sahib, Geeta and the Koran are read to commemorate the courage of these victims of war.
  • Guwahati War Cemetery: - This cemetery has 521 graves. It is the only war cemetery, among the other nine in India, that has the graves of 11 Japanese and 24 Chinese soldiers. There was an attempt by a high level Japanese delegation to exhume the graves of the Japanese soldiers and take back the remains to their native country, but no definite results could be ascertained.
There are two other places in the north-east of India that have cemeteries of the second world war. One is in Kohima, the capital city of the state of Nagaland, with more than 1400 graves, and two in Imphal, the capital city of the state of Manipur, with more than 1600 graves.

The one common feature unifying all these war cemeteries, is the immaculate nature with which these resting grounds of the brave souls of yester-years are maintained! 

Shiny brass plaques tell a story of the lost life! Boys and young men are laid to rest in orderly manner amongst beautifully manicured lawns and flowers. It is a place to come and pay obeisance. As a quote in one of the cemeteries rightly sums up everything - "When you go home tell them about us - that for your tomorrow, we gave our today"!

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Colonial Assam and Development - part 3 - RAILWAYS

Development and logistics go hand in hand.

A region maybe richly blessed with an abundance of raw material and even the know-how to utilise the same, but what good would it be,  if the finished product were to remain static?

The British realised this with regards to Assam, especially in upper Assam. To tap the huge potential of the region with the technical know-how at their disposal, they understood the nuances of bulk transport. Although roads were developed, but this certainly did not serve their purpose entirely. The need was to develop a mode of transport that, at a time was capable of carrying huge amounts of goods. This gave rise to the development of the Railway system in upper Assam!

The Assam Railways and Trading Company (ARTC), was set up in 1881, and in the same year, the construction work on the Dibru-Sadiya route was also started. The following year, 1882, witnessed the opening of the tract for goods traffic from Dibrugarh to Dinjan river, for onward transportation by river. This was primarily tea.

However, it was not until July 1883, that the route was opened to passenger traffic. The tract was till Makum,(the last junction on the Indian railways route map!) a 60 odd kilometre journey from Dibrugarh steamer ghat. But the most memorable day for the company (ARTC) was in the year 1884, when the Coal Field in Margherita was officially opened. A special train was run between Dibrugarh and the Dihing bridge, but because the locomotive could not cross the Dihing river, as the bridge was made of timber, the carriages had to be hand-shunted across the bridge to Margherita!

This event marked the successful completion of the Dibru-Sadiya railways by the Assam Railways and Trading Company. Amidst overwhelming odds and the lack of proper equipments, the setting up of the railways in these hostile terrains proved to all and sundry, the engineering capabilities of the British and their thirst for development!

From the humble beginning of the railways in this region, it has come a long way since then. Assured of fast, secured and bulk movement of goods, the railway system set up by the Assam Railways and Trading Company, has been instrumental in the development of this region.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Colonial Assam and Development - part 2 - OIL

The discovery of OIL in Assam was a pure fluke!

Legend has it that, while the engineers of the Assam Railways and Trading company (ARTC) were laying tracts for the Dibru-Sadiya railways up to Ledo in upper Assam in 1882, they noticed oil stains on the mud covered feet of the elephants that were used to haul timber and other machinery parts, as these pachyderms emerged from the dense jungles. Retracing their steps the men came upon a spot where oil was seeping onto the surface layer of mud!

William Lake, the English engineer in charge of tract laying, also an 'oil enthusiast' persuaded the company (ARTC) to undertake drilling for the precious commodity. Giving into 'Lakes' enthusiasm, the Assam Railways and Trading Company, engaged elephants to haul the heavy machinery in the dense jungles along with local labourers to start the drilling process. Thus in September 1889, the first oil - well was dug! Although the first strike at a depth of 178 feet turned out to be only a small pocket, the efforts continued and it was only in November 1890, at a depth of 662 feet, that the company struck it rich!

After the 'accidental' discovery of oil, the British formed the Assam Oil Company (AOC) in 1899 to look after and manage the oil business in the area. Then in the year 1901, the first oil refinery in India as well as Asia, was set up in a town called 'Digboi'.

It is said that the town got its name from the constant encouragement the English engineers shouted at the labourers, as they dug for oil - "Dig, boy, dig"! And that is how the state of Assam got its OIL Industry!

From this rather humble or maybe 'flukish' beginning, the state of Assam now has four oil refineries, one each at Guwahati, Bogaigaon, Numaligarh and of course the father of all - the Digboi refinery!

Friday, 13 December 2013

Colonial Assam and Development - part 1 - TEA

The period between the signing of the Yandaboo Treaty in 1826 and Indian Independence, is referred to as the 'Colonial Period' or 'Colonial Assam'. This marked the end of the Ahom monarchy and the beginning of British sovereignty, thus making the transition from medieval age to modern age in Assam.

The British soon realised that this region possessed rich natural resources and set about in real earnest to make the best use of it. So with the technical know-how, the multifaceted resources available at their disposal, and their administrative prowess, the 'Colonial Powers' put Assam on the global map by developing the two industries that are synonymous with Assam, namely Tea and Oil!

In an attempt to break the Chinese monopoly on Tea, the British launched the 'Tea - Industry' in Assam by offering land to any European who was interested in cultivating the crop, using Chinese seeds, and cultivating techniques. This was of course for the sole purpose of export, but this paved the way for the beginning of this industry!

The British East India Company started large scale tea production in Assam in the early 1820's. This was a traditional variety of tea brewed by the Singpho tribes. But it was only in 1837, that the first English tea garden was established in Chabua (originally known as 'Cha' - 'Buwa' or 'tea-plantation'), in upper Assam. The Assam Tea Company began its commercial production of tea in 1840 with the help of local inhabitants.

The early days of 1850's saw a rapid expansion of the tea industry consuming large tracts of fertile land conducive for the crop to thrive and by the turn of the century, Assam became the leading tea producing region in the world!

What started as a ploy of the British to break the monopoly the Chinese had on tea cultivation and production, ended up as a boon for the land and its inhabitants where it was cultivated! Assam now has more than eight hundred and fifty tea estates and two thousand five hundred plus tea gardens spread across the Brahmaputra and Barak valley. Besides giving meaningful employment, this industry also provides the state exchequer with much needed revenue. With more than fifty percent share in terms of contribution in total tea out put in the country, Assam stands tall today as the Tea Capital of the country!

Thursday, 12 December 2013

The Birth Place of ULFA - Sibsagar

Writing about Sibsagar and the great Ahoms whose presence can still be felt through the remnants of their signature architecture, one cannot leave this place without mentioning another extremely important development that this place witnessed in these modern times.

It was more than three decades ago, on the 7th of April 1979, a few young men gathered on the pristine lawns of the Rang-ghar, the amphitheatre of the bygone Ahom kings, and pledged to create a sovereign socialist Assam through armed struggle. Thus giving birth to United Liberation Front of Asom or ULFA.

This is not the forum to discuss the merits or de-merits of the ULFA, but certain questions keep pricking the conscious. Why choose the Rang - ghar to formulate stratagies for the birth of a revolutionary movement? Was it the historic significance of the place that motivated these young men? Or was it just youthful exuberance that put them on the revolutionary road?

The answers will never be known or correctly understood, but that is not the point. It was the place that warranted the above information.

Have fun till my next post!

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Sivsagar Town - where remnants of Ahom architecture beckons you!

Situated at a distance of about 360 km. northeast of Guwahati, Sivsagar (ocean of "Lord Shiva"), is synonymous for Ahom palaces and monuments. This town was formerly known as Rongpur.

Getting there: -

  • Air: - the closest airport is in Jorhat, which is about an hours drive from this place. Then there is the airport in Dibrugarh, at a distance of about 80 km. There are regular flights to the rest of the country to and from these two airports.
  • Road: - the more adventurous type can opt to drive down from Guwahati, taking in the sights and sounds en route. But in any case, even if one flies down to Jorhat or Dibrugarh to visit this town, the road trip is inevitable. But travelling through lush tea gardens and local populace, is worth the bumps and grinds!
  • Rail: - Not too well connected by rail, the nearest rail-head is located at Simulguri, a thirty minute drive from the town. Here, one can avail long distance trains to Delhi, Bangalore, Kolkatta etc.
Accommodation: - 
There is no dirth of decent places to stay in this monumental town. From hotels to government tourist lodges, one can pick and choose according to one's budget!

Attractions: - 
It is the remnants of bygone Ahom architecture that beckons one to this historic town!

  • Rang-ghar: - the amphitheatre of the Ahom's! This double-storeyd domeshaped structure, said to be the largest of its kind, was where the Ahom kings were regaled by their subjects!

  • Rongpur palace: -this is a beauty of Ahom construction! It is a seven storied structure, where four of those stories are above ground, called the Kareng-ghar and three stories below ground level, known as the Talatal - ghar. The underground structure was built as an army base with two large tunnels as escape routes during invasions and wars, one connecting to a river and the other comming out at another place! The entrance to the Talatal - ghar has since been closed off to visitors for security reasons.
  • Borpukhuri: -
    One of the striking features of this town, this 1.04 water body is situated at a higher elevation than the town, where the water level never goes down.
  • Temples ('Dols' in Assamese): -
    Standing tall at 104 ft. on the banks of the Borpukhuri, the Shivadol is the most prominent of all the temples. Two other temples, namely, Vishnudol and Devidol are also in the same compound. Built in 1734 by Kuwari Ambika, wife of the illustrious Ahom king Swargadeo Siba Singha, the temples are dedicated to Lord Shiva. 
  • Joysagar: - 
    Situated about 5 km. on the egde of the town, this 1.27 sq. km. water body is said to be the biggest man-made lake in the country!  It bears testimony to the architectural prowess of the Ahoms. The brain child of Swargadeo Rudra Singha, this lake was built to honour his mother Joymoti. 
  • Maidams (Vaults): -
    The last resting lace of the Ahom kings. These vaults or Maidams, where the body of the king would be laid to rest are dome shaped mounds that are sealed from the outside. Mostly found around Charaideo, the first capital of the Ahom kingom set up Siu-Ka-Phaa and Jorhat, these Maidams bear mute testimony to the bygone Ahom era!

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

The Rise and Fall of the Ahom Kingdom - in a nutshell.

The Ahoms are the descendants of the Tai people from the Mong Mao kingdom in the present day Yunnan province of China.

It all started when Siu - Ka - Phaa (Sukaphaa), an adventurous Mong Mao prince, along with his followers, decided to expand their territories. The prince and his followers crossed the treacherous Patkai hills and entered the brahmaputra valley in 1228. This marked the beginning of the Ahom rule, the architects of modern day Assam.
Moving from place to place, the marauding army of Prince Siu-Ka-Phaa, befriended the Morans and Borahis, ethnic groups of the brahmaputra valley, instead of attacking them. This paid dividends, as the depleted number of his followers married into these groups and helped in the expansion of his base. Though the Borahis, a Tibeto-Burman people subsumed into the Ahom fold, the Morans maintained their independent ethnicity. Siu-Ka-Phaa finally established his capital at Charaideo (present day Sonari) in 1253, and started the task of state formation.
  • The first casualty in the process of expansion of the Ahom kingdom was the Sutiyas. This kingdom was annexed in 1522. 
  • The next kingdom to fall to the Ahom expansion plan was that of the Dimasa Kacharis. They were uprooted from their capital of Dimapur (presently in the state Nagaland) in 1536. 
  • After the Battle of Itakhuli in 1682, which heralded the end of Ahom - Mughal conflicts, the Koch Hajo fell into the hands of the Ahoms.
By the end of the seventeenth century, the Ahoms were in control of the various tribal groups and regions along the brahmaputra valley. 

Thus by bringing all the various tribal groups and annexed regions under one ruler and one governing policy, the Ahoms ruled for 600 glorious years.
But all good things come to an end and this adage held true for the Ahom Kingdom as well! Rebellions and invasions marked the decline of their rule. The Burmese army invaded their kingdom and uprooted their capital towards the end of the nineteenth century and set up a puppet Ahom king. 
The Burmese were subsequently defeated by the British in the first Anglo-Burmese war and the Treaty of Yandaboo was signed in 1826.
This paved the way for the British to convert the Ahom kingdom into small principalities and thus bring an end to Ahom rule. The final nail in the coffin was when the British, annexed Assam and made it into a province and finally into a state, that the Ahom identity gradually became Assamese.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Jorhat Gymkhana Club - history and beyond!

The Clubhouse
Vying for a place in the prestigious "World Heritage Site", for its lush green golf course, this beautiful colonial architecture, bears testimony to the influence of bygone British era.

Established as a 'watering hole' for British
tea planters, this club was built by the then secretary, D.Slimmon in 1876. The club was out of bounds for Indians till the Annual General Meeting of 1929, where the general body voted to open the doors to Indians as well.

Fact file: -

  • the club has a parkland style 9 hole golf course, a mature treeline, small ponds and water bodies, enough to test anyone's' game. 
  • this golf circuit is considered to be the oldest in Asia and the third oldest in the world!
  • the club offers grass court tennis, swimming pool, billiards and of course, a bar.
  • Since its inception, the club has been the venue for horse races. The Governors Cup, is the major trophy which is awarded every year. The races are scheduled during the fourth week of February.
  • The ponies for the races belong to the Mising people, an indigenous plains tribe of Assam. So in a way, the club acts like a intermediary, in helping the indigenous Mising people to showcase their riding skills and also in upkeep of their ponies. 
  • They are all 'bare-back' riders!