Tea town Dibrugarh, a gateway to Upper Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, also a medical and commercial hub, has a new address and it’s wow!
Assam isn’t just Kaziranga and Kamakhya, Majuli and Manas National Park. For the uninitiated, it’s also about Jaypore Rainforest, houseboating and birding in Dibru-Saikhowa National Park, angling at Maguri Beel, scenic picture-perfect villages, river expeditions on the Brahmaputra, and yes, tea gardens till the eyes can see. That’s where Dibrugarh comes in.
Hub of Assam tea, oil and coal, premier hospitals (the first medical college in North East was set up here), and gateway to Upper Assam, Nagaland and Arunachal, Dibrugarh is a commercially strategic town and has been so since the British era. It is also developing at a rapid pace, what with two new mega bridges over the Brahmaputra that makes it faster and easier for people across the river to reach Dibrugarh. The importance of the town is evident when you know that there are direct daily flights and trains (Rajdhani/Shatabdi) to Dibrugarh from all major Indian cities. In fact, the Mohanbari airport is soon going to be an international airport with flights to South East Asian countries like Thailand.
But these aren’t the only reasons why Delhi-based lifestyle journalist and travel writer Nishiraj A. Baruah has just launched Homestay by the Tea Garden, a designer 5-room boutique property. The town also sees a lot of wildlife and leisure tourists who make the town a hub to explore the forests around town as they travel onwards towards Arunachal Pradesh. It’s this segment Baruah hopes to host. After visiting areas in an around Dibrugarh, Baruah is convinced that these lesser known regions are a goldmine for seasoned birders, anglers and wildlife enthusiasts tired of doing the tried and the tested places like Kaziranga.
Filling up the gap between Dibrugarh’s ultra expensive and impersonal tea planter’s bungalows and the standard 3-4 star hotels with cliché décor, congested location and artificial hospitality, this homestay comes as a breath of fresh air. Literally so, what with the tall-tree dotted sprawling Jalan tea garden right at the front, offering a million dollar view like no other property in Dibrugarh does - all the rooms face the tea garden. Complete with large balconies, swings and log furniture, there is nothing like sipping your cuppa of Assam tea here over some stimulating conversations, as you watch the pluckers picking up tea leaves.
The indoors of this brand new property are no less interesting. With innovative décor ideas, many of which spring from Baruah’s fertile imagination, the Homestay has a character, a personality that makes its quiet presence felt without blowing its own trumpet.
A labour of love and passion, the design elements are evident everywhere: An old rusty and dusty oil drum becomes a wash basin in the bathroom; a photo frame turns into a work table; the large bookcase actually works as a secret passage to one of the rooms. Car tyres turn into mirrors in the bathroom, masonry tools become ceiling lamps and a Congo drum works as the legs of a dining table.
Baruah, a well-known travel writer, says, “People from all over the world come as guests and when they leave they become such good friends that we are forever in touch. It’s a global melting pot with people from everywhere sitting together in the evening, some strumming the guitar by a bonfire. I love those evenings."
More than the commercials, it’s this camaraderie that he enjoys with his guests that made him set up this new homestay project. In Baruah's own words, “That’s the good thing about homestays. The service is intimate and personal and not plastic like hotels where there is zero interaction with the owners. Tourists love this local connect, eating the same food the owner does."
Being his hometown, it’s only natural that this facility is set up in Dibrugarh. He already had his parent’s house here and all he did was to build up the first and the second floor where each of the five rooms gave him an opportunity to implement his creative ideas. Interestingly, his house in Delhi, designed by him, has been featured in several magazines ted with lot of style.
The rooms at Homestay by the Tea Garden are colour-themed. The black and white room is a mix and match of black and white wallpaper, curtains, Bob Marley bedcover and so on. There is also a green room, an all white, fairy-tale room with frills and all, and a Barbie pink room.
Every item in the house has been carefully chosen. The door and wardrobe handles are crafted out of oxidised brass, each a piece of sculpted art, and brought from Moradabad. The centre table at the lounge is actually a piece of tree trunk with a whiff of history resting on it. Found abandoned at a saw mill – one of the many that dot the Brahmaputra river bank, it was an ancient tree that fell during the great 1950 earthquake in Dibrugarh. It remained buried for all these years until some wood workers unearthed it from the sandy and now dry river bed. Baruah bought this ‘useless’ piece of wood for Rs 250 and now it sits like a big fish – a true wood sculpture.
Being a small town, it has already turned into a “museum of tourist interest.” Guess you should also check it out soon enough.
“This is such a big and pleasant surprise in Dibrugarh,” says Dr Jagdish Sharma from Assam Medical College. “I know where to take my international tourists now,” says says Kuntil Baruwa who looks after the north east market for SITA. “It is difficult to believe there is a house like this in Dibrugarh! Now I can call all my friends from Nagaland for stays and parties,” says Aung Tobey, a coal dealer from Kohima.
Interestingly, a few of the visitors to the house now wants to hire Baruah to do the interiors of their new properties. The local MLA Rituparna Baruah has already asked him to do his new house. From a journalist to an interior designer – Baruah certainly has a new journey to embark on!.
The food here is also exotic. Baruah’s mom is a fabulous cook – her speciality is ethnic Assamese herbal curries made with leaves, roots and wild flowers picked up from their own kitchen garden.
Baruah, a native of the region, likes to guide nature and wildlife enthusiast. Here are some of the activities that one can explore in and around the area.
An hour away, Dibru-Saikhowa National Park (bounded by the Brahmaputra, Lohit and Dibru rivers) is a favourite with birders and local picnickers. One can take a small motorised boat, anchor it by one of the islands and set up an overnight tent. Along the way a naturalist points out the various bird species for photo ops. There are a few house boats also here with rooms and dining halls. These boats can sail you away far into the middle of the river.
Dehing Patkai Rainforest and Wildlife Sanctuary
Also known as the Amazon of the East, this rainforest is as thick as it gets. Located partly in Dibrugarh and partly in Tinsukia district, it has diverse wildlife and evergreen vegetation. It is a spectacular sight during the monsoon. Spread over 108 sqkm, this forest comes under world heritage of evergreen rain forest, raining almost all throughout the year.
The Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary has three parts and they are Dirok rainforest, upper Dihing River, and Jeypore. Apart from wild animals, you can also visit World War II cemeteries, Digboi Oil Refinery (the oldest in the country), and the Stillwell Road, all around the area. The forest, in fact, stretches beyond Assam and into the Changlang and Tirap districts of Arunachal Pradesh. With its four-layered rainforest, you can imagine the variety of plants that you can find here. Many exotic species of orchids grow here and there is abundant ferns, wild banana, and much more. There are at least 293 species of bird in this forest and the number increases during the winter, when migratory birds from Russia and elsewhere make Assam their home. It is also home to 47 species of mammals, 30 species of butterflies, and 47 species of reptiles. Some of the mammals that you can easily spot here are pig-tailed macaque, hoolock gibbon, capped langur, Asiatic elephant, black panther, tiger, black bear, leopard, clouded leopard, squirrel, and gaur to name only a few. The best time to visit this place is during the Rainforest festival (second week of February) which is one of a kind in the country. That’s when you can take part in a number of adventure activities like rafting, camping, trekking, elephant riding, and bird watching.
Nam-Phake village at Naharkatia
What next? From this rainforest, proceed to the Nam-Phake village at Naharkatia where a community named Tai-Phake resides. It is said that about 1000 years back this community moved from Thailand and settled down here. Visit the monastery to view the lifestyle of these local tribes who practice Buddhism. The river Burhidihing flows along this village. The serene surrounding and natural beauty of the place make it a unique location. The village has an Ashokan Pillar and a Buddhist Pagoda. On entering the main temple you will get to see a statue of Lord Buddha made of gold. During March, the village celebrates the Poi-Nen-Chi Festival in honour of Lord Buddha. You will also get to see many traditional dance forms that are performed by the women. The traditional stilt house of this village is another attraction here. You can also enjoy a family picnic on the banks of the Burhidihing River.
Jokai Botanical Garden
If you are so much into forest, why not visit this reserve, just 12 km from Dibrugarh town. Home to migratory birds, it showcases floral biodiversity of the region. The various zones of this centre include an orchid house and a medicinal and aromatic plants plot. “On my recent visit, I realised there is a lot to be done in this forest. But because it is non-commercial by nature, you can explore more without spending a fortune. Visit a nearby village to see the culture and lifestyle of the local Assamese people,” advises Baruah.
Apart from nature and wildlife, there are several other attractions that can be covered in a day, making Homestay by the Tea Garden your base.
There is Shivsagar, the capital city of the Ahom dynasty that ruled Assam for 600 years. Full of ancient temples, beautiful lakes and lakeside restaurants, palaces and pleasure grounds of the kings, it’s now a hub of ONGC, the prosperity of the town evident from the aesthetically done houses and mansions that dot the area.
One can also visit Tilinga Mandir, 45 minutes away from Dibrugarh, so called because people tie a bell around tree branches after their wishes get fulfilled. Going by the sheer volume of bells here, it looks like wishes do come true here.
To experience a true Assamese village landscape, visit one of the several villages at the outskirts of the town. These picture perfect villages by the Brahmaputra are lush with paddy fields and kitchen gardens providing an eyeful of greens. Spend a day here, have lunch with a local family, drink local rice beer and sleep under the cool cool breeze of the bamboo grooves. They may not be rich, but they keep their houses and the village absolutely clean, neat and tidy.
A little away from this village is Aithan, a powerful and very revered spiritual shrine. The large grassy ground opposite the shrine with the Brahmaputra on the other side is a very popular venue for picnics. During autumn and winters, hundred of picnickers land up there, cooking, singing, dancing and drinking.
Brahmaputra boating: About three kilometre from Homestay by tea garden, there is the Maijan Ghat of the Brahmaputra from where boats sail to saporis – a place where milkmen rear their cattle and live in thatched huts. Take a boat there along with some camping gear and some booze, stay the night over, sleeping under a starry sky. Let the milkmen feed you wood-fire cooked meals. All for free, but you may like to tip them for their hospitality.
Tea garden trail: With tea gardens all around your Homestay, go for morning walks along the gardens and take a look at the labour huts and see their lifestyle and culture. These are tribals from Tripura and Orissa brought in by the British to work on the tea plantations. You can also walk into a tea factory to see the process of making tea.
Bridge tours: Two mega bridges over the Brahmaputra have been drawing in the crowds. One is the Modi inaugurated Dhola-Sadiya bridge – the longest in India. The drive to the bridge is lovely and the place buzzes with people and a market selling local wares. Take some beer, stop by at one of the pretty locations and enjoy the scene. This bridge (9.15 km) connects eastern Arunachal Pradesh with Assam. You can proceed further and land in scenic hill stations like Roing and Mayodia on Indo-China border.
The other bridge, about 20 minutes from your Homestay, is called Bogibeel, a combined road and rail bridge over the Brahmaputra that connects Dibrugarh with Dhemaji district. Upon its expected completion at the end of 2018, this will be longest rail-cum-road bridge in India. The area is now a favourite picnic spot and a ghat from where boats sail to different places across the river.
There is a lot more to the area and it would be best explored by you!