The charming if now tumbledown (and often polluted) hill town of Darjeeling is an important tea-cultivating centre. More obviously, it is a welcome retreat from the clammy heat of the plains.
Dorje Ling (“the place of the thunderbolt” in Tibetan, and the name of a monastery on the ridge) is ever popular with vacationers seeking respite from the heat of the lower altitudes, with walkways like Chowrasta (which, quaintly, also has a bandstand) and the Mall swarming with holiday cheer, and the narrow streets full of atmosphere. But it is Darjeeling’s stupendous mountain views that stand out – literally: Kanchenjunga (the planet’s third-highest peak) and a host of other snow-capped summits dominate the skyline to the north.
This is the home, too, of modern mountaineering. Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, who accompanied Sir Edmund Hilary on man’s first successful attempt at Everest, lived and died in Darjeeling. Norgay was also the first director of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (he is buried on the HMI grounds), a superb primer on the story of mountaineering. Above all, Darjeeling is superb trekking territory, and opportunities for trekking around town abound. Whether you’re looking for a pleasant, non-gruelling ramble or to test your lung and muscle endurance, there’s something for every type of hiker here.
Darjeeling was part of Sikkim before being taken by the Gurkhas of Nepal, whose expansionist tendencies brought them into direct conflict with the British. The forces of the East India Company ultimately beat off the Gurkhas to secure the area in 1816, giving Darjeeling back to Sikkim (in exchange for acting as a broker in future boundary skirmishes). And when the British wanted to build a sanatorium in what was still an empty and unpopulated stretch of land, the chogyal (ruler) of Sikkim obliged his protectors by leasing them the land, in 1835.
When the British started planting and producing tea – with the help of Nepalese labourers – Darjeeling’s commercial clout grew, leading to the annexation of the town, and neighbouring Kalimpong, in 1861. Early in the 20th century, Darjeeling became a byword for glamour. It would, later on, become a magnet for mountaineers, playing a major role in the conquest of the Greater Himalayas. After Independence, the hill station was absorbed into the state of West Bengal though over the years there have been demands, at times vociferous and violent, for self-rule. Till date, however, Darjeeling continues to be governed from Kolkata.
The town of Darjeeling is located at a height of 6727ft (2050m) in the Lesser Himalayas, swathed over a steep and wooded mountain ridge shaped like a crescent, and encircled by terraces of tea and forests of conifer.
Darjeeling is at her best during the spring and the autumn (after the monsoon and just before the cold weather sets in). Avoid visiting during the monsoon, for the deluges often result in landslides (not helped by haphazard development in the town).
How to reach
Darjeeling, 600km north of Kolkata, is reached via Siliguri. Buses run between the two towns (67km, 3hrs), as well as jeeps and shared cabs.
The nearest airport is at Bagdodra (90km), 12km from Siliguri. The nearest railhead is at New Jalpaiguri (40km from Siliguri), which connects to Kolkata. Take the renowned Darjeeling Mail to New Jalpaiguri (from Sealdah, Kolkata), before hopping on to the leisurely Toy Train (link to Attractions) from New Jalpaiguri or Siliguri, onwards to Darjeeling; while this can be a tedious ride (7-8hrs), the views more than make up.