Legend has it that two English officers found the place while looking for a decent location for a sanatorium, pastoral and peaceful. The locale was just that; it was also unspeakably picturesque. Set in a craggy mountain ridge at 7000 feet, it had a fresh and brisk air. With emerald plantations all around, it looked like a dream nestled in the grandeur of the Himalayan range. The British, then ruling India, with Calcutta as their capital, quickly chose it as their summer capital. It was christened, after a famed Buddhist shrine in the area, Darjeeling, place of the thunderbolt.
The name hints at an interesting history. The land once belonged to the Buddhist Chogyals of Sikkim, but was wrested by the martial Gorkhas of Nepal. When the British gained control, they returned the land to Sikkim but leased the Darjeeling area for a trifling sum and started tea plantations, which became a giant money spinner. Darjeeling tea is still unmatched in its reputation for a unique flavor in the world market.
The first thing you want to do in Darjeeling is simply walk up and down the Mall road. Look up and you have a breathtaking view of sparkling snow-capped Kanchenjunga, the highest mountain of India, a pentad of Snow Treasures, which mountaineers climb but respectfully never to the top. Look down and you are in a cavalcade of tourists, residents and jobbers of infinite variety, mingled with the local Nepalis, Lepchas, Bhutias and Tibetans, your heart lifting with the energy of rubbing shoulders with friendly strangers and pushy vendors. All aroung you are cafés, hotels, booksellers and souvenir shops, waiting to be explored and remembered.
There are a dozen ways you can amuse yourself in Darjeeling. You can learn the secrets of mountaineering at the Institute Tenzing headed; you can see the variety of Himalayan flora at the botanical garden; you can see pandas and Siberian tigers at the zoological garden; you can visit the world class tea estates; you can hear the touching stories of Tibetan refugees at their center; you can explore the natural history museum; and you can take a break from all this and be at the beautiful Choling Monastery.
But for me Darjeeling itself is the greatest amusement. As the large and well-known cities get larger and more modern and start looking like each other, this beautiful town remains defiantly small, old-fashioned, almost old-world. It also remains quiet and tranquil, a balm to the wounds of living. It is the most unbelievably romantic place. I haven’t seen Darjeeling in years, yet it glitters in my heart.