Digboi: War and Oil

The year: 1882. Engineers, commissioned by the Assam Railways and Trading Company (AR&TC), extending the railway line from Dibrugarh to Margherita were using elephants to haul the tracks amidst the swampy dense forests of north-eastern Assam. The AR&TC had already established tea gardens, coal mines and timber mills and were already trading tea and coal in Assam.

Suddenly, they noticed that one of the elephant’s feet was covered with oil. Retracing the trail of the footprints, they found oil seeping to the swampy surface of the forest floor. One of the engineers, William Lake shouted “dig, boy, dig” at his men as they watched elephants emerging out of the dense forest with oil stains on their feet.  Lake assembled equipment, boilers, and local labor and engaged elephants to haul the machinery to the site.

It is said that Digboi gets the name from the phrase “dig-boy-dig,” which is what the Sahibs told the labourers as they dug for crude oil.  Assam Oil Company was formed in 1899 to look after the running of the oil business in this area. Work on the first well was started in September 1889, locally called the Discovery Well or Well No 1 and struck oil at a total depth of 662 feet (202 m) in November 1890. The Digboi oil field produced close to 7,000 barrels of crude oil per day at its peak, which was during World War II.

Welcome to Digboi

The year: 2011. We were on our way to Digboi, now the headquarters of the Assam Oil Division of Indian Oil Corporation Limited, following the same railway track laid by AR&TC. This was our 2nd day in Assam.

The previous day we had taken a flight to Dibrugarh from Bangalore and then had driven down the AT road (NH 37) for about 48 km to Tinsukia.

We had started from Tinsukia at 9 am. Our driver, Dasda, was apologetic about being late but with a good reason. He had attended the Navami celebrations that had gone on till early morning and had overslept.

Digboi Railway Station

We were to follow the AT road till Makum junction, turn right, cross the railway track and then join the NH 38 all the way to Digboi. We were driving through lush green paddy fields and tea gardens, passing on our way small bamboo and wooden houses, some of them on stilts, with bamboo fences, the occasional concrete ones with asbestos roofs.

Dashami puja

The roads were bustling with men, women and children dressed in their best attires made from the famous Assam Muga silk, getting ready for the Dashami puja.

Waiting for the Ledo Express to pass

We had to stop at a railway signal to give way for the Ledo Express which travels all the way from Guwahati and terminates at Ledo.

As we entered Digboi we realised that the place still retained its colonial ambience. The wide, tree lined roads, the Victorian bungalows surrounded by well-maintained gardens and  lawns, the  Digboi Club and the world class golf course with 18 holes all gave this tiny picturesque town a well planned look.

Our first stop was the Digboi War Cemetery.

Digboi War Memorial

Just 1.5 km from the Indian Oil Centre, on the road to the Pengaree Tea Estate, lies some remnants of the Second World War. The cemetery has around 191 identified burials and a few unidentified ones, belonging to soldiers of the allies of the Second World War, mostly Indian and British.

The memorial is maintained by the Common Wealth War Graves Commission

The memorial is maintained by the Common Wealth War Graves Commission that manages around 2,500 cemeteries around the world to commemorate those who died in the two world wars.

An iron gate takes you to a sand stone arch which leads you to a well manicured lawn. A huge marble cross stands in the center of the lawn.

The cross and the headstones

The black headstones with inscriptions are laid low among the green lawns and flowering plants. As you read through the inscriptions, you realise how young these soldiers were when they died fighting in the war.

Our next stop was the Digboi oil field which now houses the Discovery Well  and the Centenary Museum.

Digboi Centenary Museum

The Discovery Well is found under an electrical grid like structure and, unbelievably, crude oil continues to stream out naturally from it.

The Discovery Well

The museum showcases the history of oil exploration in Asia and has a collection of machine models, photographs, and memorabilia.

Sahib, Bibi aur Ghulam

Most of the machine models have self-explanatory notes and facts like when the model was introduced and when the model was ‘retired’.

The men and the machines

As we drove out of Digboi, we could see fire spewing out of the oil rigs of the Assam Oil Division.


Assam Oil Division

Digboi is well connected by road, rail and air. The nearest airport, Dibrugarh, is 65 km and the nearest railway station, Tinsukia, is 34 km from Digboi. The Ledo Express (intercity express 15603/15604) runs daily from Guwahati to Ledo stopping at Digboi. The state run transport, ASRTC, has buses plying from all the major cities.



4 responses to “Digboi: War and Oil

  • Surajit

    Excellent. remembered my child hood. Its been almost 18 years that I am staying outside digboi, though got few opportunities to visit during this years but of course for a day or two at the most. I miss my Digboi very much. But now almost settled in Bangalore.

    • TravelLenz

      Thanks Surajit. Digboi was one of the cleanest and greenest towns we visited in Assam. Digboi had this Victorian touch, yet was so Indian. One day in Digboi, and we could feel a connection with the city. I can now understand how you feel after spending so many years in Digboi.

  • Alhad Godbole

    Digboi is a ‘must see’ spot in far NE. I liked your account of the Discovery Well and WWII Memorial, but surprised to see just 1 comment. It shows how unknown spots are ignored by ‘Tourists’.
    The next station Margherita also has some historical background. There is ‘Coal Heritage and Museum’ (inaugerated just last year), place of first saw mill near railway station, 90 years old plywood factory etc.
    The Railway Heritage Park at the New Tinsukia Jn is also worth visiting. If you haven’t, sure next time..

    • TravelLenz

      Thanks Alhad Sir. It’s true that Digboi is one of the ignored spots by ‘tourists’. But for the hardcore travellers like us, Digboi was a welcome change as it has been able to retain its Victorian charm. There was no one at the war cemetery when we visited the place, less than about 10 visitors at the Centenary Museum.
      And the next time, I guess, we will need more than a day in Digboi – for the list is growing.

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