Return of the queen

Published : Jan 14, 2005 00:00 IST

Darjeeling, the "Queen of the Hills", is making an all-out effort to recapture lost glory.

DARJEELING is on its way to regain its former glory, which once prompted tourists and travellers to crown it the "Queen of the Hills". Nestled in the lap of the Himalayas and covering a total area of 1,164 square miles (2,980 sq km), Darjeeling district falls naturally into two tracts - the Terai at the foothills, and the ridges and deep valleys of the Lower Himalayas.

In the 1980s, with the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) movement in full sway, Darjeeling became a seat of unrest and soon began to lose its position as a favourite tourist destination. As normalcy returned, it was up to the Darjeeling Gorkha Autonomous Hill Council (DGAHC) to lure tourists back to the region. This was essential as the tourism and tea industries were the primary sources of income for the region's people. "We are now focussing on not only Darjeeling town as a tourist centre, but also the region outside it," D.T. Tamlong, Principal Secretary, DGAHC told Frontline.

The Chunnu Summer Falls and the Ganga Maya Park are two such aesthetically designed spots offering an eco-friendly ambiance. The Chunnu Summer Falls or the Rock Garden, as it is popularly known, is located around 8 km from the main town. It has a small and pretty waterfall that adds to the scenic charm of the place. The Ganga Maya Park is another popular tourist site. A highland brook runs through the park, which also has a small lake where boating facilities are available. Some of the other major sites of tourist attraction are the Tiger Hill, known for its magnificent view of sunrise, the Yiga Choeling Tibetan Monastery and the Nipponzan Myohoji Temple. Constructed with Japanese support, the temple was inaugurated in 1992.

Observatory Hill, another important site of tourist attraction, dates back to the 18th century when a monastery was built here. Its significance increased under British rule as many British officials and affluent local families chose to reside in the locale. It now houses the temple of Mahakal and is said to be the religious centre for all local inhabitants. It has a natural cave formation and offers a view of the Kanchenjunga. The famous Bhutiya Busty, the oldest monastery in Darjeeling, was also originally located on the Observatory Hill. The monastary was built in 1765 by Lama Dorje-rinzing. The name Darjeeling is believed to have originated when monks of the monastery referred to the region as `Dorje-ling', meaning the land of the thunderbolt. Another school of thought believes that it was named after Dorje-rinzing. The monastery was sacked by the Nepalese in 1815. It was rebuilt in 1861 and was moved to its present location near the Chowrastha in 1879.

Undoubtedly, the most popular place in Darjeeling town is the Chowrastha. The meeting place of four main roads, the Chowrastha is frequented by tourists to shop for souvenirs, make pony rides and view the mountain ranges. Another new feature in the town introduced by the DGAHC is the Shrubbery Park - a flower garden brilliantly lit up after sunset. Then there are the Lloyd's Botanical garden and the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute established in 1954, a year after the conquest of the Everest. Tenzing Norgay, one of the first two persons to conquer the Everest, was the director of the institute for several years. Next to the institute is the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park, internationally famous for being one of the few breeding centres of red pandas and snow leopards. Other animals found in the park include Ussurian tigers, Tibetan wolves, Himalayan black bears, clouded leopards and exotic Himalayan birds.

About 45 minutes' walk from the Chowrastha is the picturesque location of the Tibetan Refugee Self Help Centre. Set up on October 1, 1959, when the Dalai Lama and his followers sought refuge in India, it is home to more than 650 Tibetans. The Tibetans are engaged in various activities such as production of handicrafts - carpets, woodcarving and so on. The various workshops in the centre are open to visitors. Not far away is the ropeway site located at North Point. The ropeway provides the unique experience of an aerial journey with a panoramic view of the breathtaking Rangeet Valley with its lush tea gardens and the snow-capped peaks of the Kanchenjunga range.

A trip to Darjeeling is incomplete without a ride in the World Heritage Darjeeling Himalayan Railways. The tracks of this 19th century technological wonder rise from sea level to 7,546 feet (2,265 metres) in just 70 km. The Batasia loop is an engineering marvel where the railway tracks intersect to form a figure of eight. The war memorial at the centre of the loop honours those sons of Darjeeling who died in the several wars since 1947. On alighting at the Darjeeling railway station, with its old sheds and engines, one is taken back in time by the archaic charm of the surroundings.

Darjeeling is also a paradise for trekkers. The region abounds in rhododendrons, magnolias, primulas, ferns and orchids of many varieties. In fact, around 600 species of birds inhabit the forests of the region. The length of the treks may vary from 160 km (four days) to 26 km (one day). Arguably the best and certainly the most popular of the treks is the 118-km-long Darjeeling-Maneybhanjang-Tonglu-Sandakphu route. A four-day trek, it offers travellers a beautiful journey through verdant forests and flowering hills, with a spectacular view of the Kanchenjunga and the Everest ranges. The tourism wing of the DGAHC has set up `trekker's huts', wayside inns and resting places for travellers.

The DGAHC has been successful in promoting adventure sports in the region. Rafting on the rivers Teesta and Rangeet is a major attraction for tourists. The range in the intensity of the rapids does not confine this sport to only the rugged and the intrepid. The tourism wing of the DGAHC has well-trained supervisors and quality equipment to ensure a safe and pleasant ride for all visitors. Recently, the department introduced hang gliding.

The tea gardens have played a pivotal role in placing Darjeeling in the world tourism map. In 1835, Dr. A. Campbell, the first Superintendent of Darjeeling, planted the first tea seeds in the garden of his Beechwood lodge. Darjeeling tea has come a long way since then, becoming the most famous and sought-after brand in the international market. Its quality and aroma can be attributed to the rich soil of the region and the mountain mists that envelope the tea gardens.

But with the tea industry in the doldrums, a large number of the gardens in Darjeeling are in a bad shape. However, their distinct and quaint beauty is not lost. To make these gardens financially viable again and also to ensure that those dependent on them earn their livelihood, the DGAHC and the West Bengal government are aggressively promoting "tea tourism". The bungalows in specific gardens are being renovated to accommodate visitors seeking seclusion in the company of nature. The Happy Valley Tea Estate, located 3 km away from the main town of Darjeeling, is the most accessible.

Another unique feature of Darjeeling is its status as a holiday resort meant for all segments of society. A plethora of hotels and resorts right from Siliguri, up the mountain path, to Darjeeling, cater to the needs of those looking for luxury, and the seasoned backpacked travellers. The charming Viramma Resort lies at the foothills amidst lush green planes. This luxury resort with gardens, ponds and adjoining tea estates is an idyllic getaway in itself and not just a transit stop for tourists on their way up the hills.

Once in Darjeeling, however crowded it might be, one will rarely find oneself without accommodation. Just as there are cozy rooms for the economical traveller, there are sprawling, grand embodiments of luxury such as The Mayfair Hill Resort and the New Elgin for the rich.

The 31-room Mayfair resort is ideally located in the heart of the town, opposite the Raj Bhavan, about 1 km from the railway station. The influence of the British Raj on the tiny hill station is so apparent in the elegant decor of this hotel. The oldest hotel in Darjeeling is the 120-year-old New Elgin. It is yet another example of `old world charm' reminiscent of the days of the Raj.

The last, but not the least, attraction in Darjeeling is the people. While it is true that tourism is one of the main sources of income for the people, the hospitality shown by them is not just for the sake of sustenance. There is genuine warmth in the attitude of the people of Darjeeling, which finds its expression during the various festivals organised by the DGAHC. For the past two years the residents of Darjeeling themselves have been organising an immensely successful annual `Darjeeling Carnival' in November.

For 10 days the whole town breaks out in a flurry of colours and infectious mirth, as different communities living in and around the town put on display their own unique traditions and customs. This was an initiative taken by the people of Darjeeling not just to enliven their own lives, but to welcome others to share it with them.

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