Charm is abundant in my hometown of Darjeeling. Whether it is the friendly “yes!” followed by a raised hand by which many locals greet each other, the winding road that reveals a different scene at every bend, or the knowledge that there could be four seasons in a single day—the town packs quite a punch.
The three-hour ride across the hills after either a train journey that culminates at New Jalpaiguri or a flight to Bagdogra is a mix of wonder and a churning stomach. Besides the beauty, the messages painted along the road like ‘hurry burry spoils the curry’ make for quite the chuckle.
On a clear day the mighty Kanchenjunga, the world’s third-highest peak, can be seen from Batasia, around five kilometres ahead of Darjeeling town. This view always leaves me gobsmacked. The majestic mountain range can be seen from other parts of the town too but it is not a year-round pleasure.
PLACES TO CHECK OUT
Chowrasta (or Chow in local lingo), where literally four paths meet, is a precious public square in a town starved for space. Along with the Mall area around it, it is a place to soak in the sun (a silent version of musical chairs is always being played for a spot on the green benches). Pony rides are a favourite among children. Sellers—of balloons, tea and corn—add to the relaxed mood. Restaurants and cafés are at hand. A statue of poet and writer Bhanubhakta Acharya is also part of the square. One of the four paths, leading to Toong Soong, is chock-a-block with small vendors selling fast food like momos, singharas (as the samosa is called), sha phaleys (fried bread stuffed with meat), and anda and keema buns. At the erstwhile Golden Platter, now Fiesta, we bought candyfloss, popcorn and coffee from a machine that was, we later realised, erroneously called ‘espresso’. The Oxford bookstore here specialises in books on the Himalayan region, while Life and Leaf is known for its handicrafts.
The Observatory Hill in the Mall area is worth the steep climb for a view of the surrounding hills. The Mahakal mandir is where believers can pay obeisance. Both Hindus and Buddhists pray in the same vicinity and the pealing of bells is a constant companion to chirping birds. The nearby St Andrew’s Church is a beautiful structure dating back to the 1840s. ‘Love Road’ is an age-old path that has young (and not so young) couples romance discreetly. Below the Observatory Hill is the beautiful Bhutia Busty gumba (monastery) built in a traditional Sikkimese style.
The former Bhanu Bhawan (named after the poet, renamed Gorkha Rangamancha Bhawan after it was redesigned) was the place for musical and theatrical performances. One of the first plays I remember watching here was titled Ani Bhaleymungro Runcha (a social satire). And the thrilling memory of going for my first rock concert (without adult supervision), a performance by the popular band Rusty Nails, still makes me smile. Another annual favourite was Orchid, the festival of inter-college one-act plays, which was held at the former Loreto College. The Gymkhana would host performances too; on the top of my head is a show by the mesmerising Usha Uthup. Musical performances and plays continue to be held at the Gorkha Dukkha Nivarak Sangh hall, close to the railway station.
A pleasant half hour’s walk along the Raj Bhavan will have one arrive at the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park. The zoo is a popular tourist destination and it houses animals and birds that are endemic to the region.
The red panda, Himalayan black bear, goral, pheasants, snow leopard, clouded leopard, Tibetan wolf, yak and the royal Bengal tiger are some of the inhabitants. I remember seeing otters, a llama and other ‘exotic’ animals here earlier. Sharing space with it is the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI). It has a museum that chronicles the expeditions of early mountaineers. HMI offers both basic and advanced mountaineering courses. The Bengal Natural History Museum is also within the zoo premises.
Just before the zoo is the former Shrubbery Park, now called Nightingale Park. We spent many a happy childhood day running around and looking at the tadpoles here while my grandfather checked out the hothouse. We were regulars there since we lived close by at Hooker Road, a name that never failed to embarrass us as teenagers. No amount of explaining that it was named after Joseph Dalton Hooker, the British botanist, was enough to stop the sniggers.
Further away from the zoo is the Lebong area with its racecourse and stadium. Though not used much, it is a pleasant drive and one can look at Darjeeling town from a lower altitude. The Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre is en route. The place sells handcrafted items like carpets, bags and curios. You can walk back to Chowrasta via Love Road from Singamari after a visit.
Lloyd’s Botanical Garden is a treasure trove of plants and trees. Situated below the bustling motor stand and lower market, it is a tranquil space to gather one’s thoughts and listen to the chirping of birds. The Garden houses a rich orchidarium. It was a popular picnic spot when I was in school.
If you are game for an uphill walk, many treats await you. The Nipponzan Myohoji Buddhist Temple, popularly known as Japanese Temple in a nod to its founder’s country of birth, espouses freedom from nuclear weapons and peace among mankind. Early birds can greet the monks as they make their way up the town with their flat drums, spreading the message of peace. One can join them in their endeavour during the evening prayers. The Peace Pagoda nearby is an impressive structure with beautiful statues showing four avatars of the Buddha. A less-visited site is the Bose Institute set up by scientist A.J.C Bose. The house where he lived has been converted into a museum.
The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) offers joy rides from Darjeeling to Ghoom, the highest railway station on its route, and a longer ride till Kurseong. Along the way, the train passes the Batasia loop immortalised in the popular song ‘Darjeeling ko syano rail’ (Darjeeling’s small train). The loop is an engineering feat that enables the steam engine to climb the steep hill. The Ghoom station has a museum and a stationary engine for visitors to climb into. This Unesco World Heritage Site altered the hills and the lives of the people living there forever.
At Tiger Hill above Ghoom spectacular sunrises, along with views of the Kanchenjunga and Mount Everest, can be experienced. The ball of fire that lights up the mountains demands its own pound of flesh—getting up at 3am to make it to the hilltop without knowing if the day will be clear enough. Tiger Hill is charming on its own too though.
Darjeeling town is ringed by tea plantations. The only one in the town itself is Happy Valley; the estate offers guided tours so that you know how your morning cuppa is made. In recent times, small farmers have gotten together to adopt multicropping and permaculture pactices and sell organic, handmade (as opposed to factory processed) tea. My favourite activity is to just walk around, greeting acquaintances, meeting friends over cups of tea, and just basking in the warmth of familiar surroundings.
WHAT TO EAT
Like other hill stations, Darjeeling has its share of schools established by the British. I studied in Loreto Convent, the oldest of them, built in 1846. Along with the three Rs, we received an education in plurality and diversity—the hostel ensured that girls from other parts of India studied along with us day scholars. And one of the best ways to bond was through food.
We shared our lunch with the boarders and in turn were treated to delicacies that were not available in Darjeeling of the 1980s. The boarders, on the other hand, would eagerly await their food outings to town. Years later, when I moved away from home for further studies, I could empathise completely with them.
Darjeeling has much to offer in terms of food. The lower market, also called Chowk Bazar, is the place to buy local fresh produce. Fruit and vegetables, loose tea, churpi (a milk product with two varieties—a soft powdery version that can be lightly sautéed, made into a chutney or used to dress a salad, and hard pieces which are to be chewed over hours), chips and bhujia, biscuits and breads are available. It has many small restaurants and cafés. Narayan Das, Number 1 and Kanhaiya Lal are some of the popular joints. A childhood treat from Number 1 was hot jalebis wrapped in puris. Many small restaurants which serve rice-dal-vegetables-meat or momo, thukpa and chowmein don’t have formal names and most of them go by familial titles—Nini ko dokan, Mangarni boju ko dokan, etc. Great China specialises in what is called Chinese sausages—these are thinner and have an equal amount of pork fat and meat. They run out of these sausages pretty early in the day as we have discovered time and again.
The upper market that extends beyond Chowrasta has a variety of restaurants to choose from. Glenary’s with its baked goods, pastries, restaurant and bar is a must visit. With its view of the Kanchenjunga, a meal here is a feast in more ways than one. For the coffee drinker in a tea land, there is the Himalayan Java Coffee house. Sonam’s Kitchen is a popular breakfast place. Keventer’s serves an indulgent breakfast and small bites. (No, this is not a part of the chain in the metros.) Kunga is known for its Tibetan dishes. For vegetarians, there are a host of options too. If you crave a south Indian meal, Lunar is at hand. Other favourites include Penang (especially their Nepali thali), Washington, Park, Freedom and Revolver (for local and Naga food). Old timers miss Orient, a haven for artists and writers at one point. Beni’s Café is an old favourite for snacks and tea. It has undergone very few changes, though thankfully the ‘khoobsurat dhokha’ cups have been shown the door (these were steel cups with a false bottom, which meant they were bigger than the amount they held; hence the name). In the days of the Rink cinema, before Inox came about, we could take chips from the stalls that dotted the road to the theatre. Bhola’s aloodum is another favourite snack and though the man himself is no more, his shop still exists. For anyone who wants a tipple, Joey’s Pub is legendary. Mamta’s Pizza uses local cheese for their pizzas and pastas and also sells cured meat on order.
WHEN TO VISIT
Darjeeling gets tourists all year round, especially in April–June and October–November. The latter is when Dussehra (or Dasain) and Diwali (or Tihaar) are celebrated. Dasain begins with phool-pati where people offerings to worship the goddess Durga; it’s a community celebration with individuals of all faiths joining the procession in dance and song. From Bijaya Dashami onwards, people visit their elders to seek their blessings. The children are given money, an aspect we looked forward to besides all the special food that would be served. Tihaar celebrations last five days with a thrust on worshipping nature. The first day is dedicated to crows, the second day to dogs, the third day to cows and in the evening Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, is welcomed into decorated homes. That evening, groups of young women visit homes singing the bhailo. The fourth day is govardhan puja for the bull and the ox and the fifth day is bhai tika. In the evenings, young men go around singing the deusi; both the bhailo and deusi are songs of greetings and blessings.
You can imagine the rush on the streets during these times; often one needn’t walk as the people around will take them along. But we are all a part of the crowd. And in Darjeeling it is usually a merry one.