Introduction to Darjeeling
Darjeeling “the Queen of the Hills” is the only hill district in the state of West Bengal. Because of its topography, Darjeeling has all types of vegetation, from alpine forests in the higher altitudes to tropical forest in the lower altitudes. Darjeeling shares its border with Bhutan in the East, Nepal in the West and Sikkim in the north and the plains of Bengal in the south. The highest point in this district is 11911 feet at Sandakphu, while Darjeeling town proper is at an altitude of 7500 feet. The population of Darjeeling is composed of the Nepali, Bhutia and Lepcha communities. Nepali is therefore, the main lingua franca with English being spoken by a fairly large section of the population. The predominant religion is Hinduism followed by Buddhism, Christianity and to a lesser extent Islam.
Darjeeling constituted part of the kingdom of Sikkim till 1835 when it was ceded to the East India Company in gratitude to the British for their assistance in beating back the Nepalese who had annexed Darjeeling.
The British connected Darjeeling to Siliguri with a small railway line over difficult hilly terrain, which has now been accorded “Heritage Site” status by UNESCO in 1999 and is fondly referred to as “the toy train .This toy train still operates from Siliguri to Darjeeling and two diesel engines have also been introduced recently for the first time.
Agriculture is the main occupation of a majority of the population with cash crops like oranges, ginger and large cardamom. Other sources of employment are tourism, the tea gardens, horticulture and education as there are a number of good boarding schools in Darjeeling which attract students from Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sikkim and other neighboring states.
The best season to visit Darjeeling is between April and June. The weather during this period is generally clear though one has to be prepared for the sudden showers of rain. Visitors may also wish to visit Darjeeling between September and November as during these months the mountains are clearly visible and one can enjoy the golden sunrise over the Himalayan peaks. The temperature range is not very large here with the maximum temperatures in summers being 15 degrees and 1.5 degrees in the winter. Visitors to Darjeeling should carry warm clothes with them whenever they visit and should not forget to carry an umbrella as well.
Places of Interest in Darjeeling
Observatory Hills/Mahakal Dara – This point provides one of the breathtaking views of Kanchenjunga peaks. This place is also very sacred to the Hindus as well as the Buddhists as both Hindu temple and Buddhist Monastery coexist side by side. The popular Hindu temple of Mahakal Dara is believed to have great wish fulfilling powers. One usually strolls around the Mall at Chowrasta and the Mahakal Dara is a 10 minutes climb from the Chowrasta Mall.
The Himalayan Mountaineering Institute – After the conquest of Mount Everest in 1953 by Sir Edmond Hillery and Tenzing Norgay, the Government of India established this mountaineering institute considering the importance of training in mountaineering. This institute was established in 1954 at Birch Hill. It has an excellent museum displaying mountaineering equipments used by various expeditions along with photographs. A skull with long thick hair believed by many people to be that of The Abominable Snowman (Yeti) is also displayed there. This institute remains closed on Thursdays. Specimens of Himalayan flora and fauna are also exhibited here. The institute screens short films on mountaineering. You can view the Himalayan peaks through the Zeiss Telescope given to the Nepalese Maharaja by Hitler. Sherpa Tenzing Norgay was the Director of this institute for many years and he was cremated near the institute after his death in 1986. Near the institute is Shrubbery Park which gives a very good view of the Singla Valley and the Kanchenjunga range. One can sit at Shrubbery Park and enjoy the cool breeze from the valley.
Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park – This zoological park is located close to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. The zoo is home to many rare animals such as, the Snow Leopard, Red Panda, Himalayan Black Bear and some birds found only in the Himalayas. This is only zoo in India that houses Siberian Tigers. This zoo is also renowned as the only breeding centre in India for the snow leopard and is now also proposing to breed the Red Panda in captivity. The zoo is situated two kilometers from the main town.
Tibetan Self-help Centre – The Tibetan Self-help Centre close to Chowrastra was established to help Tibetan refugees earn an income by engaging in various handicraft producing activities, such as exotic wood-carving, colorful Tibetan Carpets, hand knitted woolen garments etc .Here visitors can actually watch the artisans in action.
Lloyd’s Botanical Garden – This Botanical Garden occupying forty acres of land was founded by a British Banker of Darjeeling some hundred years ago. This garden houses almost all types of flora found in the Himalayan region such as, the birch, magnolia, ash, chestnut, maples etc. Species that are susceptible to inclement weather are housed in a huge green house. Many types of Orchids and Azaleas and other plants are also displayed here.
Tiger Hill – The Tiger Hill at an altitude of 8500 feet and a distance of 11 kilometers from Darjeeling is internationally famous for the sublime view of the sunrise over the Himalayas. It also offers panoramic view of the mighty Himalayan Range with mountains like Kanchanjanga, Talung, Kabru, Pandim and Siniolchu located within Sikkim. It also offers a view of the tip of Mount Everest and Mount Makalu and the plains of Siliguri.
Yiga Choling Monastery – The Yiga Choling Monastery close to Tiger Hill was built in 1875 at Ghoom. This monastery belongs to the Gelukpa lineage. It houses a five meter high blue-eyed statue of the Buddha Maitreya or the Buddha of the future. The monastery has a large collection of Buddhist sacred texts.
Batasia Railway Loop & War Memorial – Here you can see the loop wherein the train either climbs or descends 1000 feet by negotiating this 5 km long loop. The War Memorial is also close to the loop.
Chowrasta Mall – This is one of the important shopping places in Darjeeling. Here the Nehru Road and the Mall Road intersect each other. The snow capped peaks of the Kanchenjunga are visible from this place. Near Chowrasta are several Hindu and Buddhists temples. The Mall is usually crowed with not only foreign tourists but also locals who sit on the benches and enjoy a gossip in the evenings. You can also enjoy a pony ride from this point.
Natural History Museum – The museum has a collection of over 4300 specimen . Established in 1903, this natural history museum packs in its folds a rich collection of fauna found in the Himalayas and in Bengal. Among the attractions are included the estuarine crocodiles. This unique museum also has a good collection of butterflies. The mineral forms of various stones are displayed in a very attractive manner in the museum.
Nipponzan Myohoji Pagoda or the “ Japanese peace pagoda” was inaugurated in 1992 which has four golden statues of Buddha embedded on the walls with eight sandstone carving depicting eight stages of Buddha’s life.
Happy Valley Tea Estate is one of the finest tea garden in Darjeeling. Here you can see different stages of tea production. By paying a nominal fee you can work for sometime side by side with the tea estate workers.
Ava Art Gallery – Ava Art Gallery houses the art and embroidery of Mrs.Ava Devi located about 2kilometers from Chowrastra.
Other places of interest
Bhutia Busty Monastery, Lebong race track, Victoria falls, Rock garden and the Ganga Maiya park etc.
Apart from tea there are many items which Darjeeling offers in its shopping malls. Tourists love taking home the locally crafted curios and carpets.
The nearest airport to Darjeeling is the Bagdogra airport which presently caters to domestic flight only. However international flights to neighboring countries like Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Thailand may soon commence. Presently Baghdogra is connected to Delhi, Kolkata and Guwahati by Jet Airways, Air Deccan, Spicejet, Kingfisher Airlines and Indian Airlines.