Part Victorian holiday resort, part major tea-growing centre, Darjeeling (from Dorje Ling, “the place of the thunderbolt”) straddles a ridge 2200m up in the Himalayas, almost 600km north of Kolkata. Over fifty years since the British departed, the town remains as popular as ever with holiday-makers from the plains, and promenades such as the Mall and the Chowrasta still burst with life. The greatest appeal for visitors has to be its stupendous mountain vistas – with Kanchenjunga (the third highest mountain in the world) and a vast cohort of ice-capped peaks dominating the northern horizon. However, the infrastructure created under the Raj has been unable to cope with the ever-expanding population leading to acute shortages of water and electricity, and chaos on the hopelessly inadequate roads. Still, Darjeeling remains a colourful and lively, cosmopolitan place, with good shopping and dining, plenty of walks in the surrounding hills and attractions such as the Toy Train and colourful Buddhist monasteries. The best seasons to visit – and to attempt the magnificent trek to Sandakphu to see Everest – are after the monsoons and before winter (late September to late November), and spring (mid-February to May).
Until the nineteenth century, Darjeeling belonged to Sikkim. However in 1817, after a disastrous war with Nepal, Sikkim was forced to concede the right to use the site as a health sanatorium to the British, who had helped to broker a peace settlement. Darjeeling soon became the most popular of all hill resorts, especially after the Hill Cart Road was built in 1839 to link it with Siliguri. Tea arrived a few years later, and with it an influx of Nepalese labourers and the disappearance of the forests that previously carpeted the hillsides. The town’s growing economic significance led Britain to force a treaty on the Sikkimese in 1861, thereby annexing Darjeeling and Kalimpong. In the early 1900s, Darjeeling’s reputation grew as one of the most glamorous and far-flung outposts of the British Empire. Subsequently it became a centre for mountaineering and played a key role in the conquest of the greater Himalayas.
After Independence, the region joined West Bengal, administered from Calcutta, but calls for autonomy grew, taking shape in the Gurkhaland movement of the 1980s, led by the Gurkha National Liberation Front (GNLF). The subsequent violent campaign ended a decade later and, once in power, GNLF politicians grew complacent, fuelling discontent and leading to their overthrow by the Gorkha Jana Mukti Morcha (GJMM) in 2007. The GJMM victory reinvigorated the push for an autonomous Gurkhaland, employing wildcat strikes designed to cripple West Bengal’s hold on the region. Despite unhappiness with the West Bengal government, support for the GJMM, who administer through Gurkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA), is far from unanimous – local opposition, however, is vigorously and sometimes violently put down.