Located in the shadow of the snow-crested Himalayas and enveloped in tea gardens, Darjeeling and its neighbouring towns, such as Kalimpong and Kurseong, are known for their natural and religious attractions. But shopping? Surely, you cannot come away without some souvenirs for yourself and gifts for family and friends?
One of the must buy is obviously Darjeeling tea. Called the ‘champagne of teas’, it is a special brew that cannot be replicated anywhere in the world. Way back in 1841, Archibald Campbell, superintendent of Darjeeling, introduced the Chinese tea plant (Camellia sinensis) to the hills of Darjeeling. It was the mountain climate and the soil that made it special. The hillsides were soon dotted with rolling tea estates, each with their own factory. The tea trade was so successful that it ushered in a niche lifestyle and saw the introduction of the famous Darjeeling Himalayan Railways (the Toy Train).
Today, the tea gardens are seen around Kurseong, Mirik and Darjeeling. Usually, the seasonally grown tea is processed to produce black, white, green and oolong tea. Many of the gardens have a sales counter, from where you may buy the brew of that particular garden. Nathmull’s, one of the oldest tea trading companies in Darjeeling, runs a store and lounge in Chowrasta (the Mall) in Darjeeling town. Besides stocking varieties of teas from the leading gardens, they also sell designer tea accessories, such as tea-sets, tea-pots, cups and saucers, strainers, etc. Travelling between Siliguri and Darjeeling, you may also pick up elegantly packaged tea and tea accessories from Margaret’s Deck, a part of Goodricke Teapot chain of lounges.
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The Darjeeling hills are home to several Himalaya tribes and a large number of Tibetan refugees who are bound by a common religion, Buddhism. It is said that the Tibetan school of Buddhism introduced the art of thangka or painted scrolls. You will find many shops in Darjeeling and Kalimpong selling these light-weight painted scrolls in various sizes, which make them easy to pack into your suitcase. These colourful scrolls make excellent gifts too.
The Bhotia sellers along Nehru Road (leading to the Mall) in Darjeeling would sell handmade sweaters and shawls. There would be large crowds of buyers, especially the seasonal Bengali tourists, who would not only buy for themselves but for almost every member of the extended family. However, now Nehru Road is taken over by modern garment stores and many of the Bhotias have set shop in the New Mahakal Market. According to many veteran buyers, though there is some influx of machine-made goods, you can still buy handmade sweaters, shawls, wraps and caps if you have the time and patience to trawl through what’s on offer. The local market near the taxi stand on the lower ledge also has quite a few stalls selling woollen garments.
Masks, painted portraits of the local people, prayer wheels, junk jewellery can be bought at many of the art shops around the Mall in Darjeeling. If you are looking for curios, check out Habeeb Mullick & Son right on the Mall in Darjeeling. They also sell shawls, handcrafted jewellery, etc.
Landmarks by themselves, the Das Studio (on Nehru Road) and the Oxford Book Store (on the Mall), are not part of the regular sightseeing. But do drop in and you may be lucky to find copies of photographs of old Darjeeling and interesting picture post cards on sale.
Although slightly off centre from the heart of Darjeeling, the Tibetan Refugee Self Help Centre has its own group of craftspeople making handcrafted goods. Pay a visit to the Showroom which stocks many of the products, including woollen shawls, jackets, carpets, wood craft, etc.
Have you tasted Dalle Khursani? When ripe, they look like red juicy cherries. But this is also when they score 100,000 to 350 000 on the Scoville Heat Unit (the scale for measuring the pungency or ‘heat’ of chilli peppers). Used to make sauces and pickles in Darjeeling hills, Sikkim and Nepal, it is worth buying if you are fond of spicy food. Check out the local markets in Kalimpong for this chilli pepper or pickles made from this. But check if you are allowed to carry this chilli in your baggage if you are flying home.