Nepali Times


Nepalis were first taken to Darjeeling as labourers in British tea plantations because they could work at high altitudes. They stayed on in India and today their children and grandchildren make up Darj society. They still identify with Nepali music, culture, art and tradition, but they are Indian. As Niraj Lama, senior reporter here for the Calcutta newspaper, The Statesman, puts it crisply: "We are politically Indian but culturally Nepali."

Norbert Sharma, a student from St Michael's College, gives it another spin: "Like you say American Indians, I guess you could call us Nepali Indians."

As you walk down Chaurasta, you pass groups of school children led in lines by their teacher. They are all singing 1974 AD's famous song Nepali ho. The people here manage to stay in two completely different countries and still balance the eccentricities of both. Though, as a woman of high standing in Darjeeling society who is originally from Nepal maintains, "I would never consider myself an Indian. I still say I am a Nepali."

The people of Darjeeling live in a tightly-knit community and identify more with Nepal and its cultural heritage than Nepalis themselves. Almost everyone speaks Nepali and those who don't, understand it. They have Nepali names, sing Nepali songs, eat Nepali food and have Nepali features. They honour Bhanubhakta more here than in the bard's native land.

But there is a disconnect. Most Darjeelingays can't figure out why Nepal is going to the dogs. Kushal Rai, proprietor of Penang Restaurant, says, "I go to Kathmandu often but I don't understand what is happening there." He holds a Nepali passport due to his ex-British Gorkha status. It is clear that the people of Darjeeling fear the insurgency in Nepal, but they are underinformed about its severity.

To be sure, Darjeeling has her own problems. There has long been an autonomy struggle, often violent, against the distant state capital in Calcutta. Darjeelingays say they have nothing in common with Bengalis and want their own state. As Sharma says, "We are different. Our language, culture and even the way we think does not match."

To add to these problems, Darjeeling society has begun to see a gradual split within its own community. When the labourers came from Nepal they left behind their caste communalism and came together as Nepalis. They celebrated all festivals from Christmas to Dasain. Now they are growing more caste and class conscious. The reason behind this phenomenon, according to Lama, is the quotas the Indian government reserves for 'scheduled castes, tribes and other backward castes'.

The reservation makes it easier for certain groups to get an education and employment. Although it would benefit some Darjeelingays on a personal level, it will created a rift in society that wasn't there before and make their fight for increased autonomy more difficult. In spite of the problems Darjeeling has faced or will face, it remains the undisputed 'queen of the hills'. The town's splendid location on a high ridge overlooked by Kangchenjunga is unparalleled. The town has seen recent bloodshed and hard times, but has managed to overcome both.

The people of Darjeeling remain incredibly friendly and helpful. They may have started to search for their roots, but are just as happy being themselves.


Eating out

Darjeeling may not have the varied cuisine of Kathmandu but it has some great eating places dating back to the British days. Glenary's, a two-storey restaurant with a basement has pastry, confectionery, coffee and an Internet cafe on the ground floor and a proper restaurant with Chinese, Indian and continental food on the second. Keventer's is the place for breakfast with reasonable prices and good quantities of food that taste as good as it looks. Fiesta and Amigo caf? are located in the heart of Chaurasta and offer a range of food from South Indian to Italian pizzas. Fiesta also has an Internet caf? for the Net savvy who like to surf as they eat. The Park serves Indian food and for vegetarians there is the famous Aangan chain. Darjeeling has a new club called Velocity, which caters to the DJ music crowd. Buzz, a basement pub below Glenary's, caters more to the live music and rock crowd while Joey's is an Irish-type pub where you can lounge.

A must-do in Darjeeling is to visit the local bajar and stack up on the famous Sikkim churpis (solidified yak milk) and local candy. Most places in Darjeeling close early or run out of food by 9:30-10PM. It would be prudent to make it an early dinner.

Getting there

Travelling to Darjeeling is as simple as going to Pokhara. Tourist buses offer direct services from Kathmandu to Pashupatinagar for about Rs 550, a ride of 15-17 hours (barring blockades, bandas and curfews). From there a taxi into Darjeeling costs about Rs 800-1,000. The scenery is beautiful with tea gardens on both sides of the border. If you are in a hurry, take one of the several daily flights to Bhadrapur (Rs 7,000 roundtrip) which doubles as a mountain flight with spectcular views of the entire eastern Himalaya. Bhadrapur to Pashupatinagar by taxi is Rs 1,500. Non-Nepali and non-Indians are not allowed to cross over by Indian immigration at Pashupatinagar, they have to cross at Kakarbhita.


Darjeeling's 3 Ts

The Darjeeling carnival began last year in an effort to promote tourism. Says Ajay Edwards, organiser of the festival: "The 3 Ts of Darjeeling's economy has been tea, timber and tourism. Tea is no longer that big and timber we have done away with." That leaves only tourism and the carnival brings together the music, culture and people of Darjeeling and the northeastern states in a celebration of the hills. This year the telecom company, Hutch, launched itself in Darjeeling and was the main sponsor of the carnival. The festival comprises of events such as the chungi competition, where the locals participate. The highlights of the carnival this year included the Aziz Ibrahim concert organised in association with the British Council and Rock Street Journal, the 1974 AD concert, a fashion show by NIFT graduates, the porter Olympics and a youth conference of the northeastern students called ' Way forward - Resilience and Hope'.


Tiger hill

Tiger hill is situated 15 km from Darjeeling at a height of 2,590m. It is a prime location for locals and tourists alike for viewing the amazing sunrise and its reflection on Kangchenjunga. Well worth the early morning wake-up. A tour package including the Monastery and Batasia Loop will cost you IRs 450. If you want to catch the sunrise, you have to wake up at 4AM to avoid the traffic. The crowd at Tiger hill can be a major turn-off when you want to enjoy a quiet sunrise with about 300 other people clamouring for the same view. They will show you Mt Everest, but it looks as tiny as viewing Everest from Nagarkot.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)