THE NAME DARJEELING derives from the monastery of Done Ling (meaning Place of the Thunderbolt) that once stood on Observatory Hill. The British chose this sunny, westfacing ledge of the Himalayan foothills to build a sanatorium in the mid-19th century. Subsequently, it became Bengal’s summer capital and the government would move up here when the plains grew too hot. Today, much of Darjeeling’s Raj splendour is still in evidence and contrasts with its Tibetan, Nepali and Bengali character.
This picturesque town squats rather precariously on the hillside, and has three main thoroughfares, Hill Cart Road, Laden Road and The Mall. The Mall is the hub of Darjeeling, leading to the crowded Chowrasta (crossroads), lined with bookshops such as the Oxford Book and Stationery, which has a wide range of books on India. Other shops sell teas, curios and souvenirs. Vendors offer sets of bright, out-of-focus postcards and guided tours. A rather jolting ten-minute pony ride round the Chowrasta is also available. Nearby is the Bhutia Busty Monastery, built in 1879. The cult text, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, was found in the library attached to this shrine, and was translated into English in 1927. The murals in the temple are beautiful – but visitors should ask for permission before entering. The presence of Kanchendzonga, (8,598 m/28,209 ft), India’s highest peak dominates the town. Some of the best views of the entire snow-clad range of the Eastern Himalayan peaks can be enjoyed from the windy, prayer flag-lined Observatory Hill. At North Point, in the northwest corner of Darjeeling is India’s first passenger ropeway, a cable car connecting Darjeeling to Singla Bazaars in the Little Rangeet Valley. The hour-long journey provides a good view of the mountains and the tea gardens that cling to the sides and bottom of the valley.
The Himalayan Mountaineering Institute is to the south of North Point on Birch Hill. Its Mountaineering Museum has a fascinating contour model of the Himalayan peaks, while the Everest Museum gives a history of the various attempts to climb Everest and other Himalayan peaks. The Himalayan Zoo is adjacent, and is famous for its high altitude fauna, including snow leopards, Siberian tigers and red pandas. To the south, the Lloyds Botanical Gardens are home to an interesting and varied collection of Himalayan flora – the hundreds of species of orchids in its Orchid House are particularly lovely. The town also has some wellpreserved colonial churches. St Andrew’s Church, west of Observatory Hill, was built in 1873, though the clock tower was added later. St Columba’s Kirk, near the train station, was built in 1894 and is worth a visit for its magnificent stained-glass windows. Some of the best preserved examples of Raj-era grandeur in India are Darjeeling’s hotels and clubs. Just above Observatory Hill is the rattanand- chintz-decorated Windamere Hotel. Open fires heat the sedate lounge where, to the accompaniment of a string quartet playing genteel tunes, maids in starched aprons serve sandwiches and Darjeeling tea to visitors and guests. Ghosts of colonial planters can be sensed at the Planters’ Club. Old hunting prints hang on the walls and visitors can sit in front of coal fires while bearers, who must have been robust young men in 1947, serve drinks in slow motion.
ENVIRONS: Those interested in Buddhism should visit the Yoga Choeling Monastery, 10 km (6 miles) south of Darjeeling, established in 1875 by the Gelugpa (Yellow Hat) sect. The monastery has murals of Buddhist deities and beautiful, if faded, frescoes in the prayer hall. Ask for permission before entering the shrine. Tiger Hill 11 km (7 miles) south of Darjeeling, offers spectacular views of the mighty Everest (8,848 m/29,029 ft) and other peaks in the Eastern Himalayan Range, including Makalu (8,475 m/27,805ffi) and Janu (7,710 m/25,295 ft), as they catch the first rays of the sun. Early risers can take a predawn drive to Tiger Hill (about 45 minutes in a jeep). Senchal lake, 5 Ion (3 miles) west of Tiger Hill, is a lovely mountain lake, but tends to be crowded with local tourists. For visitors who come to Darjeeling during the plucking season (April to November), the Happy Valley Tea Estate, just beyond the town, is a pleasant tea garden to visit.
KALIMPONG WAS once part of Sikkimese and then Bhutanese territory, before it became part of British India in the 19th century. It was at the head of the ancient trade route to Tibet and still has the feel of a frontier town, Its market sells a mix ofthe exotic and the mundane, from fern shoots to plastic buckets. Memories ofthe Raj are recalled by the charming stone cottages and the quaint ambience of the HimalayanHotel once a family home. The Thongsa Monastery is’Kalimpong’s oldest monastery. It was built in 1692, and is a brisk hour’s walk above the town. To the south of the town, the Zangdopelri Fo- Brang Monastery, blessed by the Dalai Lama in 1976, has some interesting three dimensional mandalas. The town’s many nurseries produce a large number of exotic orchids, gladioli,amaryllis lily and cacti . A good one to visit is the Udai Mani Pradhan Nursery.
HALLWAY BETWEEN and Darjeeling, on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway line, secluded Kurseong has a quiet charm. It is smaller than Darjeeling, with a milder climate because of its lower altitude. Set amid tea gardens, with lush vegetation and a picturesque lake, Kurseong is known for its natural beauty. According to local legend, the place gets its name from a , kurson-np beautiful wild orchid found in the area. Kurseong is a walkers’ paradise. The trek from mirk to Kurseong which takes about eight hours, runs through tea estates, orange orchards, cardamom plantations and small villages, and provides spectacular views of the valley. Similarly, the five-hour walk to Gloom is also beautiful, winding along a ridge which runs through a thick, but well-shaded, forest.