Darjeeling is back in the news and not for the right reasons. This time the reason is alleged imposition of Bengali in the primary schools of Darjeeling. After all, being a part of the state of Bengal where the official language is Bengali and English its districts necessarily have to follow suit. But the Gorkha Jan Mukti Morcha which runs autonomously the district administration has made an issue of it. As a consequence peace has again been disrupted in one of the places of great tourist interest.
This is the second time violence has been witnessed in Darjeeling. The first time was when Subhash Geishing-led Gorkha National Liberation Front was fighting in 1986-87 for a separate state called Gorkhaland under the Indian Constitution. The city faced terrible times with unchecked violence, rioting, loot and arson.
A trip to Darjeeing reminded me of the beautiful picture post-cards my eldest brother used to have in his collection of the Darjeeling Himalayan railways. The memories of those postcards are still etched in my mind – of the train with its steam engine emerging out of the surrounding forests, of the steep hills it would strain to climb puffing out huge clouds of black smoke and then taking the spiral climb in its stride which, I later found, was in fact the loop at Ghoom close to 8000 ft above sea level.
We were lucky to have decided to visit the place well before the sad turn of events as narrated above. For us it was a long haul from Delhi, more than 30 hours to the base station of Siliguri and then by road to Darjeeling taking around another four hours. We didn’t take the much-acclaimed narrow gauge train as it did not look very attractive suffering as it was from lack of proper maintenance. The train was yet to acquire the World Heritage status. The road was interesting as it wound its way through some vegetation that one could call forests and then out of it only to indulge in some labored rather stiff climb. It takes one all the way up to around 8000 ft. near the railway station of Ghoom from where one can see that famous Batasia Loop, a marvel of 19th Century engineering where the railway line spirals itself over it and into a tunnel.
Recorded history of Darjeeling commences from around what is now called the First War of Independence fought in the middle of 19th Century. The place was found very suitable for a sanatorium for the British troops who were posted in the sultry and sweaty plains of Bengal. The place is a melting pot of almost all lower Himalayan people. One will find here Nepalis, Bhutias, Lepchas, Gurungs, Tamangs, Sherpas and many others with Gorkhas forming the majority.
There aren’t many sites to see, at least not when we went more than 35 years ago. Now things of tourist interests have been added for whatever their worth. At that time there was only the Kanchenjungha, Tiger Hill and the tea gardens. If one found oneself at a loose end one could take a walk down the Mall. For those who had never seen a tea garden a visit to one of them could be rewarding. The gardens look beautiful located as they are on slopes and the tea bushes are interspersed with taller trees
Darjeeling tea is a unique product giving enormous tactile pleasure and, I think, prepares one for meeting all the exigencies of life. It is one of those fragrant products of the country which has earned repute at home and abroad. There was a time when the British would swear by it but the tea is now a favoured beverage practically in all corners of the world. I recall that on our way to see the house of Anne Frank in Amsterdam I happened to see a signboard over a shop proclaiming “Darjeeling”. Seeing “Darjeeling” writ large on the signboard pepped me up as would a sip of Makaibari or Lopchu tea from there. It used to be coffee that the Europeans preferred leaving tea to be enjoyed by the islanders across the Channel. No, now it seems Darjeeling teas are favourites of the connoisseur across the world. Incidentally, Anne Frank became posthumously famous when her diary written about the goings on around her during the last Great War was discovered and published in numerous languages. She wrote it in her tiny hideout in her house before the family was exposed and arrested by Gestapo.
The sight of the first rays of sun touching the mountain peaks can be fascinating. Just to see such a sight there is a place only 11kms. away from Darjeeling called Tiger Hill. On a dark cold morning we mounted a rather biggish jeep and commenced our tough journey towards Tiger Hill, the summit of Ghoom. It was still dark when we reached the place. We waited for about half an hour gazing at the indistinct shapes of the peaks against the indifferently lighted sky. Soon the spectacle commenced; as the first rays of the sun touched the peaks of Kanchenjunga became a little clearer and distinct. And, then the sunrays hit them, gradually turning them from yellow to gold and later fiery red. The most incredible sight was that the sun was still below the horizon as its rays hit the peaks and then, as we looked for it, it rose from a level below us. My camera could not capture the scene as I wanted it to. Nonetheless, it was a remarkable experience which, perhaps, only the mountaineers get on their expeditions. One could see as many as three peaks – Kanchenjunga, Makalu and Everest, with Makalu appearing taller than Everest as it was closer to us by many miles
The Mall of Darjeeling is, well, like the malls of other hill stations. They are good walks with incredibly beautiful Himalayan views. A stroll on the Mall in Darjeeling enables you to see the Bengali glitterati in their best. The best exposure to the Mall here was given by Satyajit Ray in his film Kanchenjunga. He filmed the aristocratic looking Chhabi Biswas taking a stroll on the Mall in a three piece suit haranguing a young man whom he wanted to propose to his daughter.
Darjeeling is a place to savour its salubrious climate and pleasant weather, more so before the onset of autumn. One has to enjoy it – yes, enjoy it sipping its tea sitting in an expansive verandah watching Kanchenjunga changing its shade. We did just that and enjoyed to our heart’s content the fantastic aromatic teas of the place.