by Surendra Phuyal
‘Welcome to Darjeeling – Queen of the Hills’! – A huge billboard reads as we enter the town sprawling the eastern Himalayan ridge. It offers just as stunning mountainscapes as elsewhere in the region: enveloping its tea plantations in mystic clouds and fogs during monsoon and winter, and glittering in the backdrop of the silver-shining Kanchanjungha, Makalu and other peaks in the fall.
A night market
Minus the advertisement blitzkriegs of a myriad of Indian tea, oil, mobile and other brands, Darjeeling looks like any other mid-hill-town in Nepal. The main reason for that is its Nepaliness: the accented Nepali lingo, music, culture and literature; and the Tibeto-Burmese-Nepali looks of the rainbow of Nepali ethnic diversity. At the pub by the Chau-Rasta, a Nepali live band belts out ‘Musu musu hashi deu na’, ‘Chhekyo Chhekyo Darjeeling danda’ on weekend evenings.
A girl, sitting beneath Bhanubhakta’s statue, tasting Titaura
A weekend visitor doesn’t get to see that kind of downside. Lounge at the pleasant terrace called Chaurasta; read Subash, the pen name of littÃ©rateur-cum-politician Subash Ghising, or Indra Bahadur Rai; or just listen to Shanti Thatal, Ambar Gurung or Aruna Lama or Daisi Baraili. All of them hail from the surrounding hills. Here, as overweight Kolkata tourists ride mules and go for a ‘chakkar’, the statue of Nepali-language and ‘Nepali Jatiya’ poet Bhanu Bhatka stands tall.
Shawl market in Darjeeling
At 21,00 meters, Darjeeling smiles at the visitors even on a gloomy monsoon day. During British Raj in India, it was the best hill station for British officers. Famous as much for its natural beauty as it is for its tea, Darjeeling is simply dazzling. Rainfall drenches this town during the 100 days of monsoon. Yet there’s acute shortage of water in the hills. “There’re a lot of migrants here these days so a lot pressure on nature,” says Sanjay Pradhan, a restaurateur.
A trolley ride on a railway in Siliguri
“Hanna kata hindeko yo keto, chhito aijo la,” a local bloke sporting hip-off jeans, gelled and spiked hair and funky sunglasses is overheard yelling at his friend at the nearby road-side teashop. Take a walk along the snaking trial leading to the hilltop. Past the pine trees with fluttering Om-Mani-Peme-Hum Lungtas, and the Shiva Lingam, playful monkeys quarrel for a share of food or fruit most of the time.
Mahakaal Baba temple of Darjeeling
At a distance, as the cool breezes soothe your soul, another beautiful sight greets you: a maroon-robed monk comes out of the temple full of Hindu priests and pilgrims. Just about everything here is in near-perfect harmony. On a clear day, you can also see Tenzing Norgay’s second home from this summit. And Kalimpong and Tiger Hill to the east and Antu Danda, Ilam, to the west. Not Kanchanjungha, though. It’s monsoon time!
All pictures by Surendra Phuyal