The sight of the misty hills with homes perched on their edges is what greets you as you drive towards Darjeeling.
Known as land of thunder, Darjeeling, this hill station of West Bengal has mesmerised all with its quaint character of narrow lanes and winding roads with the rail track of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) running on the right through most of Darjeeling and at places cutting across the narrow winding main road. Smiling hill folk walk on the side everywhere right from going to school to getting groceries. The homes along the edges of narrow lanes are lined with potted plants on their porch.
The rising glory
The most popular experience of Darjeeling is viewing the sunrise from Tiger Hill. Believed to be one of the most beautiful sunrises in India, it is worth waking up at 4 am to see the sunrise.
Note: It takes about 50 minutes to get to Tiger Hill from Darjeeling. Go there early to avoid traffic jams and also to get a good viewing spot. In anticipation of the sunrise and to beat the cold, you can enjoy hot coffee sold by local women in colourful attire. With the waiting crowd ready to capture the moment, the sun rises as a bright orange ball and depending on the weather, you can get to see the changing colours of Kanchenjunga snow peaks.
From Tiger Hill go to Ghoom Monastery which is one of Darjeeling’s oldest Buddhist monasteries. Located in Ghoom area, it contains the statue of Maitreya Buddha which is the Buddha of the future. This statue is 12 feet in height. The monastery also has prayer Chortens and the happy monks who smile at you make you feel welcome.
Batasia Loop and Gorkha War Memorial
The loop is an engineering marvel in itself as the toy train makes a double spiral loop as it moves to Darjeeling. The purpose of the loop is to help the train to climb the steep gradients. It is constructed in such a way that the railway track circles round and crosses over itself gaining the required height to chug on the severe gradients. The loop was damaged when the earthquake hit this region in 1934 due to which a temporary zig-zag was built. The War Memorial, which was inaugurated in 1995, pays tribute to the brave martyred soldiers of this area and is encircled by the Batasia Loop.
Don’t miss the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park and Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) which are on the same premises. Padmaja Naidu was a former governor of West Bengal and the daughter of Sarojini Naidu, who was popularly known as the nightingale of India.
Situated at an altitude of 7,000 feet, this zoo is the largest high altitude zoo in India. It has spearheaded research on endangered Himalayan fauna and is the first zoo in South East Asia to successfully breed red pandas in captivity and release them in the wild later on. The snow leopard, the critically endangered Himalayan wolf which is snow white in colour, clouded leopard, common leopard, Himalayan palm civet, royal Bengal tiger, Himalayan monal which is the national bird of Nepal and the state bird of Uttarakhand, temminck’s tragopan, markhor, grey peacock pheasant, yaks, jungle cat, Himalayan newt, blue sheep and deer are the other interesting animals and birds here. Outside the zoo, you can relish momos, maggi, burgers, boiled eggs and chicken roti.
HMI’s foundation stone was laid on 4th November 1954. It also has the Samadhi of Tenzing Norgay Sherpa, who was the first man to climb Mount Everest along with Edmund Hillary. The Samadhi carries a quote of Tenzing which reads thus- “I have been able to give my family a much nicer home and a much better start in life than I had foreseen before the great climb. This is what gives the greatest satisfaction; my family is my first concern and my greatest pleasure.” The HMI museum gives an insight into various aspects of mountaineering.
The Train Ride
A trip to this hill station would be incomplete without a train ride. Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) is a pioneering example of an efficient and ingenious hill passenger railway. Started in 1881, not only is it fully operational, it still carries many of its original features as they are. It has 13 stations and Ghoom is the highest station in India at 7,407 ft above sea level. A UNESCO World heritage Site, DHR has a length of 87.48 km.
As you drive across Darjeeling, flaming red flowers in bunches catch your eye. These are Rhododendron flowers that are used to make wine. The markets here can be reached on foot. In the evening, local women sell corn on cob. The cuisine of Darjeeling includes both Tibetan and Nepali, so one can enjoy momos with vegetarian, mutton and chicken filling, thukpa, Nepali aloo dum made with potatoes and red chilli and churpee, a cheese based snack.
Written by Khursheed Dinshaw