Sunday, December 15, 2013

Exploring the Easternmost Frontiers of the Glorious Republic

Hello All,

I have never been beyond Kolkata (Calcutta) and therefore thought of venturing out to the easternmost frontiers of India. I chose to visit Tinsukia, a place you would not find on a tourist's 'bucket list,' make that my home base and then venture further east in the days ahead. Tinsukia - which lies in the Indian state of Assam - is located 200 km west of the undisputed border (400 km from the border that the People's Republic of China lays claim to). The 400 km border that lies in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh also belongs to India and I plan to visit that place one day but that's a story for another day.

This is also the first time I am dogfooding Google Tour Builder for my travelogue given that it has released only on November 11, 2013. You can view the locations visited by me on this trip on Google Tour Builder here.

As always, you can visit for my previous travelogues.

Days 1 and 2: Bird Watching and the Ganges River Dolphin at the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park

After landing at Dibrugarh airport, I headed out to my resort. The proximity of the border and the fact that The Armed Forces (Assam and Manipur) Special Powers Act, 1958 is in effect meant that the trip from the airport to the resort meant that one witnessed the presence of some wing of the armed forces every couple of hundred  metres from Dinjan Military Station to Chabua Air Force Station. The entire trip was pretty scenic. All you see is either tea estates or forests along the way. The resort is a quaint little place with ten rooms and the villa was comfortable with all basic amenities.

The next day I headed out to the Lohit and Dibru river as this is the season in which a lot of migratory birds from all over the world make a visit to this part of the country. I was a bit taken aback at seeing the boat. It was a creaky little row boat that could hold six people sitting in a single row. It did not look strong enough to survive even a ripple in the water. This was my first ever dedicated bird watching trip and turned out to be an amazing trip at that as I was fortunate enough to spot several migratory birds namely Gadwall, Falcated DuckEurasian Wigeon, MallardSpot-billed DuckNorthern Shoveler and the Northern Pintail. I was also able to spot several birds that are native to Assam and have also flown in from other parts of the country namely Purple SwamphenAsian OpenbillWhite-throated Kingfisher, Little EgretBar-headed GooseRuddy ShelduckGreat Egret, DarterLittle Cormorant, Little Grebe and the Common Wagtail. I got to see local Assamese folk scouting the shallow areas of the river for some sort of shell type animal that is boiled and used for self-consumption. It is not for commercial use as if a local spends the whole day scouting for the same, he will be able to harvest only 500 grams from what I was told which makes me think that given its rarity it must be a pretty expensive delicacy elsewhere. Post the bird watching, we headed out deeper in the river to catch sight of the Ganges River Dolphin. I was fortunate enough to see two dolphins, both of which enjoyed coming out of the water now and then pretty close to the boat. The final noteworthy sight was seeing a two hundred year old Banyan tree in the park which occupies an area of one bigha (14,400 square feet). We had to reach the banyan tree after going through grass that was several feet tall which offered no visibility. Reminded me of Jurassic Park. I also dropped by a local house at random on the way back by requesting the chauffeur for the same and was able to see women making sarees for self-use from raw materials gathered from the forest.

Through several conversations with the locals over these two days it was sad to hear that Assam is today home to forty-eight anti-national outfits who are preventing investment from coming in and are creating unrest in the region. For example, Big Bazaar - the largest hypermarket chain in India - set up shop in Tinsukia but due to the monthly extortion demand of INR 3,000,000 had to shut shop and move out. It was also sad to hear the locals stating that they believed that in six years time the state would be overrun by illegal immigrants and these anti-national outfits and that the political parties present there were allowing this to happen just to hold on to power.

Day 3: Digboi Refinery - the world's oldest operating oil refinery, Oil India - Home to the world's oldest continually producing oil well and Asia's oldest and biggest pioneer oil exploration and production company and Hathikuli Tea Estate - India's largest organic tea estate

On day three I headed out to Digboi which is the birthplace of the Indian oil industry and home to the world's oldest operating oil refinery. I visited the Digboi oil museum which is very well made and is home to the very first live oil well dug. the visit was extremely insightful. However, I was not satisfied with just visiting a museum and seeing depleted oil wells. I wanted to see a live oil dig and view the oil spurting out. However, all the live oil wells are situated within forests and premises guarded by the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) which is a federal force and the largest industrial security force in the world. My chauffeur stated that entry into these oil fields was difficult with several layers of bureaucratic permissions required. However, I decided to try my luck and headed over to the premises of Oil India. This Oil India area is home to the world's oldest continually producing oil well. It was earlier northwestern Pennsylvania, but that area has since dried up. As expected I was stopped by the CISF personnel. I expressed my desire to view the oil wells and the CISF personnel were rather surprised that I had chosen to visit this place for a vacation and had travelled close to 3,000 km for the same. A few calls were made by the CISF personnel and I was fortunate enough to get permission to enter. After a few formalities, I entered to witness a wonderful sight. Thick forests with oil wells coming out from here and there. The vehicle was advised not to honk as the area is filled with wild elephants and they don't take too kindly to visitors. The vehicle could only go a certain distance and post that I had to walk. I was advised to carry a mirror as a leopard is on the prowl in the area and tends to attack even in broad daylight. I finally reached the local Oil India office.

The section in-charge was very polite and forthcoming and assigned me a guide to take me around. The guide's family has been working with Oil India for the past three generations. He gave me a wonderful tour by taking me to live oil wells in which I could touch, see and feel the oil coming out, showed me machines that the British had built and were still in operation, took me deep inside forests filled with lakes. Given his family's association with 'the company,' as he kept referring to Oil India, the tour was filled with tales of nostalgia such as how the British had great respect for the wildlife of the area. They took particular pain to ensure that there were water bodies for the wild animals remained pollution free and the water bodies used for the oil wells that contained chemicals remain out of reach for the animals. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case. I was shown machinery which had been imported over three decades ago from the USA and still operational. It was heartwarming to see the love he had for 'the company' and the personal pain he felt was evident on his face whenever he went as intricate as showing me pipes which had been cut by thieves thereby causing leaks and how they were ill-equipped to deal with such scenarios and the loss the nation suffered as a result. Post the tour I was taken back to the area HQ where the divisional officer and the chief security officer received me, inquired whether I was an Oil India officer who had come on a special visit or was sent from the Central Government as even they found it peculiar that I chose this area for a vacation. They were very polite and we had a casual chat on how tourism in the area can be improved, the operations of the area etc. and I then headed out to visit the Ledo coal fields.

However, on the way to the Ledo coal fields a place called 'Hathikuli Tea Estate' caught my eye. The board said this was a TATA enterprise and India's largest organic tea estate. I did not even know TATA had a brand called Hathikuli as I have never seen this anywhere in India. Hence, I stopped and decided to visit the place and as they had a store, I ended up purchasing organic tea, organic green tea, organic black pepper and organic ginger powder.

By now it was 16:00 PM. The sun sets at 16:00 PM here which means it is pitch dark and seems like late night! Hence I had to give the Ledo coal fields a miss and headed back to the resort.

Day 4: Arunachal Pradesh: Viewing Buddha's Sacred Kapilavastu Relics at the Golden Pagoda and Parashuram Kund

This was the best day of the entire trip.

The next day I headed out to visit Parshuram Kund in Arunachal Pradesh which lies just 200 km west of the eastern most frontier of India (disputed by China). I passed an area in Assam called 'Cheen Patti' by the locals (line of China) as China claims that all territory beyond this belongs to them. Well if it does belong to them, I don't think I would be travelling over this area without a passport. I finally reached the border of Arunachal Pradesh. One requires an 'Inner Line Permit' which is issued by the Deputy Commissioner to enter the state. This is a security measure to regulate and keep track of movement in the area given the sensitivity of the area. I was told how when China violates the UN recognised border now and then, the area is totally shut off. I was told stories of how Chinese spies had infiltrated the area a few years back and actually build underground mobile towers to keep in contact with their country! This was later discovered when a Chinese spy was caught who revealed all. It is a bit of a shame that they are able to build underground mobile towers where as I faced difficulty in getting a mobile signal as I ventured further inwards into the state.

I was lucky enough to be in the area at this point in time as the 2,568-year-old relics of Lord Buddha were on display at the Golden Pagoda monastery at Namsai in Arunachal Pradesh's Lohit district. This included four of the twenty-two pieces of the Kapilavastu relics, considered the most genuine as Buddha's Relics were found in a Chaitya in the ancient city of Kapilavastu which includes Buddha's bone fragments which I got to see. These are considered some of the most sacred relics in Budhhism. In fact when the Government of India as a special exception had allowed these sacred relics to be sent to Sri Lanka, thousands of Sri Lankans visited to worship these relics. During my visit, the Buddhist monks and volunteers were extremely friendly and went out of their way in ensuring I was given time to see all the relics and explained me about the relics as I moved along. All along Buddhist prayers were being chanted by kids and a fair was set up outside the monastery where I was able to view handicraft unique to the state.

Arunachal Pradesh is virgin beauty at its best. You just travel on and on a two-lane highway with nothing but forests on both sides and the mountains in your front. You don't get see man or machine for miles at end. After a five hour journey to cover 200 km as we had to go through mountain ranges and the ghat area, we finally reached Parashuram Kund. The place is aptly defined by a traveller who visited the place before me in his blog post, 'Untravel Festival Special: Parshuram Kund – My nightmare in heaven' so I will not go about describing the place again. 

Legend has it that when Parashuram killed his mother Renuka with an axe at the behest of his father Saint Jamadagni, the axe got stuck to his hands. Parashurama roamed all over India visiting holy places to atone for his sins but the axe remained stuck to his hands. Ultimately Parashuram came to a Kund known as Brahma Kund now in Lohit district on the advice of some sages. Parashurama took a dip in the holy water of the Kund and the axe immediately became unstuck and fell from Parashuramas hands. With a big sigh of relief and venting anger on the axe, Parashurama picked it up and threw it as far as he could into the mountains. The axe split the mountains, and the spot where it fell became the source of Lohit River. It was thus that this Kund came to be known as Prashuram Kund and now it is one of the many revered (but not so often visited) holy spots in the country.

To get an idea of the seclusion of this place along with the beauty on the way to the place and around it, I strongly recommend you see a satellite view of the place by clicking here. The place is nothing short of heaven on earth and this place is the highlight of the trip.

To get a feeling of the force of the water and the area, you can view a YouTube video at

I met the sages at the temple here and it was indeed amazing to see how in the 21st century, there are still people so content with what little they have and the deep rooted wisdom the sage had in his simple words about mothers, materialism and man. 

The sun sets as early as 15:30 PM here and when I sat for dinner at a local shack here, it was pitch dark and there was no electricity in the area at that. While heading back there was dense fog and visibility was reduced to a mere 100m, the only source of light being the cars headlights which was struggling to cut through the dense fog. I finally reached the resort at around 23:00 PM but what a day it had been!

Day 5: Tilinga Mandir and Trekking in the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary: The only wet tropical rainforest of the Republic

I headed out to visit the Tilinga Mandir in the morning. In 1965, tea garden workers noticed a 'Shiva Linga' emerge from inside a banyan tree and as a result the 'Bell Temple' was constructed here. It is indeed a truly unique sight to see the banyan tree and how its base centre is hollow with the Shiva Linga naturally occurring there. The locals have the belief that if their prayers are answered by Lord Shiva, they will come and tie a bell over here on the arms of the grand banyan tree and hence the name, 'Tilinga Mandir' aka the Bell Temple. Once a bell is tied it is never removed and hence one gets to see thousands of bells of all shapes, sizes and material hanging all over the temple.

The next visit was totally unexpected. I was actually headed out to view the Ledo coal fields that I had missed earlier. On the way, a board was spotted that said turn right to visit the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary which is 9 km away. As I later came to know, this is the country's only wet tropical rainforest. Now this sanctuary had not come up at all during my numerous questions to the locals, guides etc on other wildlife parks in the area and not had it come up when I was researching my visit to Assam. So I took the right and there was no sign post that. As I moved along the dirt roads, I kept coming across left turns and right turns and no signage! Google Maps showed none of these roads. One turn up a hill made me end up coming across an army encampment. Another turn made me reach into dense jungle foliage to the extent when the car could no longer risk going forward. After a lot of searching and precious time wasted (given how short the day here is), I finally found the office of the forest range officer. The Assam Forest Police posted there was surprised to see me as apparently no one visits this area. The inspection bungalow located here is in disuse and the rare instance when senior officers come, they stay in Tinsukia. The head of the outpost came out and I told him how I wanted to enter the sanctuary. He told me how several levels of prior permission is required to enter this sanctuary as it shares borders with Oil India, has several wild animals that are located inside and roam freely, has been home to several gunfights with anti-national elements in the past etc. He was trying to comprehend why I was visiting these far flung places of Assam as compared to the more popular and toursity destinations such as the Kaziranga National Park. However on hearing how far I had come and how this was my last day, the head was kind enough to make several phone calls to several bureaucrats over the next thirty minutes from the forest range officer to the divisional officer to the conservator of forests. It was indeed kind enough for each of the authorities contacted to grant their respective permissions without any red tape. I truly appreciate them for the same and am very grateful to them.

After the permissions were received, I was informed that I would need to be escorted by the Forest Officer and two armed guards of the Assam Forest Police. The Forest Officer came after some time and completed some paperwork formalities with me. What followed was a cute sight. Everyone was casually dressed. Given that this was now an 'Official' escort, the guards went in opened their locked cupboards, took out their official neatly pressed and newly washed uniforms, torches, boots, belts etc. They then took out their Lee Enfield .303 British Rifles, polished them till they shone, wore their caps and came out all smartly dressed. We then headed out into the sanctuary. The car could only go till a certain distance before the road ended. We then started walking with one armed guard in the front and one in the rear. While unfortunately we could not spot any animals, the trek was wonderful. These were untouched forests with no roads or modern man presence. Throughout the trek, it was a learning experience to see how the forest officer was chasing the path of the elephants to show them to me. He was able to tell the direction in which the elephants had gone by looking at the direction in which a plant had been bent. He showed me locations where many years back a huge fight had taken place between anti-national groups and the Indian armed forces, how many perished out of sickness than bullets and so on. He showed me several fruit I had never seen above. For example, there is a fruit called Otenga that cures diabetes and another called Nepaphu whose paste if put on the body cures high BP. It is indeed marvellous to see these natural creations of nature. He showed me another fruit which has three leaves and when falling from the tree comes down slowly exactly like a helicopter. Overall the trek was lovely and the greenery astounding to say the least. I was shown long teak trees that seemed to touch the sky, prized for their wood.

Given that it was now sunset we headed back and I turned back to the resort, missing the Ledo coal fields once again. No matter. There is always a next time.

Overall it was a wonderful trip. The people were very warm and friendly and the surprise on each and everyone's faces when they hear that I have travelled all the way from Hyderabad to visit these places for a vacation will be remembered by me for a long time to come. I fail to understand why people are cautious to come to this wonderful side of the country - untouched by commercialisation and materialism - full of natural beauty. I definitely intend to come back and explore more of the north east in the future.