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 and 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 Sept to late Nov), and spring (mid-Feb 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 has reinvigorated the push for an autonomous Gurkhaland, resulting in wildcat strikes designed to cripple West Bengal’s hold on the region. Despite unhappiness with the West Bengal government, support for the GJMM is far from unanimous.
The heart of Victorian Darjeeling is the Chowrasta, an expansive traffic-free promenade resplendent with bandstand, high above the busy bazaar on Hill Cart Road. One of four main roads leading off it is the Mall (also called Nehru Road) which descends from Chowrasta to Clubside, the area below the prestigious Planters’ Club, otherwise known as the Darjeeling Club. Established in 1868, this venerable institution was the centre of Darjeeling high society. Today, visitors are welcome to stay and sample the faded ambience and facilities such as the bar and snooker room, with temporary membership.
Taking the right fork of the Mall from the northern end of the Chowrasta, near the bandstand, brings you to the viewpoint from where you can survey the Kanchenjunga massif and almost the entire state of Sikkim. From near the Windamere Hotel steps, ascend the pine-covered hillside to the top of Observatory Hill, the original site of the Bhutia Busty monastery. Streaming with prayer flags, the shrine at the summit, dedicated to the wrathful Buddhist deity Mahakala, whom Hindus worship as Shiva, reflects a garish hybrid of styles. The picturesque Bhutia Busty Monastery was re-established one kilometre downhill from the Chowrasta approached by the steep CR Das Road. Another faded Raj-era institution, the Gymkhana Club, stands near Observatory Hill. Casual visitors drop in to play billiards, tennis and even to roller-skate, or take advantage of the small library and bar.
Below the club, the small and little-visited Natural History Museum holds a large collection of moths and butterflies, stuffed animals and birds, and a natural-habitat display complete with sound effects. Further away from Chowrasta, a steep drop down from Government House, lies the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre. Founded in 1959, it houses seven hundred refugees, most of whom make carpets or Tibetan handicrafts. Tourists are welcome to watch the activities.
A kilometre further north towards the mountains and before the Gothic ramparts of St Joseph’s College, Darjeeling’s Zoo, is well maintained and worth a visit. The zoo’s Snow Leopard Breeding Centre , established in 1986, is the only place in the world to have successfully bred this endangered species, while Project Panda has produced several Red Pandas.
The Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI), reached via the zoo, is one of India’s most important training centres for mountaineers. Its first director was Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, Sir Edmund Hillary’s climbing partner on the first successful ascent of Everest, who lived and died in Darjeeling, and is buried in the Institute’s grounds. In the heart of the leafy complex, the HMI Museum is dedicated to the history of mountaineering, with equipment old and new, a relief map of the Himalayas, and a collection of costumes of hill people. The Everest Museum in the annexe recounts the history of ascents on the world’s highest peak, from Mallory and Irvine’s ill-fated 1924 expedition to Tenzing and Hillary’s triumph in 1953 and the record-breaking 20-hour 24-minute climb by Kaji Sherpa in 1998.
Back in town, Lochnagar Road winds down from the bus stand in the bazaar to enter the Botanical Gardens, where pines, willows and maples cover the hillside and pleasant walks zigzag down to the slightly dilapidated central greenhouses, filled with ferns and orchids. One final prominent sight you’re bound to notice is the multi-roofed Dhirdham Temple, below the railway station, built as a replica of the great Shiva temple of Pashupatinath on the outskirts of Kathmandu. Heading out of town on AJC Bose Road you come to the discreetly hidden Nipponjan Myohoji Buddhist Temple, usually referred to as the Peace Pagoda, with great views over the valley to Kanchenjunga.
Although the original appeal of Darjeeling for the British was as a hill resort with easy access from the plains, inspired by their success in Assam they soon realized its potential for growing tea. Today, the Darjeeling tea industry continues to flourish, producing China Jat, China Hybrid and Hybrid Assam. A combination of factors, including altitude and sporadic rainfall, have resulted in a relatively small yield – only three percent of India’s total – but the delicate black tea produced here is considered to be one of the finest in the world. It is also some of the most expensive with varieties fetching over Rs18,000 a kilo at auction.
Grades such as Flowery Orange Pekoe (FOP) or Broken Orange Pekoe (BOP) are determined by quality and length of leaf as it is withered, crushed, fermented and dried. To watch the process for yourself, call in at the Happy Valley Tea Estate; it’s a 30-minute-walk from town – follow the signs from the Hill Cart Road near the District Magistrate’s office. As for buying, try the tea stores on the Chowrasta; The House of Tea on the Mall and Tea Cosy at the Rink Mall offer try-before-you-buy, with the latter’s menu set clearly by the seasons (otherwise known as “flushes”). However, for the best price and an enthusiastic explanation of tea, explore the labyrinth of Chowk Bazaar to find Radhika & Son near the Laxmi Bhandar. Such vendors usually trade in unblended tea bought directly from tea gardens and are able to pick and choose according to quality. The typical cost of a kilo of good middle-grade tea is Rs600–700.