Nestled high in the Himalayas at the northernmost tip of the state of West Bengal in India, Darjeeling is a well-known tourist destination with so much to offer. The town overlooks the treacherous and awe-inspiring Kanchenjunga Mountain, the highest mountain in the Himalayas, which is shrouded in a cold mist for most of the year.
Darjeeling is perhaps best known for its tea cultivation, and connoisseurs from all over the world pay premiums to import rich and flavorful tea leaves. Apart from tourism and tea, Darjeeling is home to some of the finest and most inspired architecture -- a most fitting townscape against the breathtaking backdrop of the snowy mountains.
The History Of Darjeeling, India
Prior to British colonization, Darjeeling was home to a number of ethnic groups, namely the Lepchas and Limbu people.
Given the geography of the settlement — surrounded by Sikkim to the north, Nepal to the West, and Bhutan to the East — a great many ancient Kingdoms squabbled for dominance over the region.
For many centuries Darjeeling was part of the Kingdom of Sikkim, but was later acceded to the Gurkha Kingdom of Nepal.
As a result of these changes in the empire, the demographics of Darjeeling changed, and have continued to change to this day.
Today, the primary languages spoken are Nepali and Bengali, and the dominant ethnic group is the 'Indian Gurkhas', who are distinguished from Nepali Gurkhas by nationality.
There are also prominent settlements of the indigenous Lepchas, Bhutias (from Bhutan), and Tibetans.
In the nineteenth century, the British East India Company decided that Darjeeling would be an ideal location for sanitariums of the body and mind and, as a result, a number of specialized retreats were built in the area along with infrastructure such as roads, trains, and churches.
Early in the 1800s, when the British lost their monopoly over the tea industry in China, they began experimenting with tea cultivation in the fertile valleys of the Himalayas.
The land was more than amenable and from then on a bustling industry sprouted in Darjeeling. The new economy attracted laborers, estate managers, and botanists from all over the world, which had the effect of diversifying and modernizing the town in unprecedented ways.
By the time the British Empire declined and pulled out of the region, the land was inherited by the Gurkhas, who had made up a large portion of the workforce and had even fought alongside the British in World War II.
Across the region, there are war memorials for the fallen soldiers; proud remembrances of the history and struggle of the people who fought for independence.
Visitors will find that many men today who drive the cabs and man the stalls of Darjeeling are former veterans of the Indian Army's Gurkha Regiment and many of their fathers and grandfathers were similarly men of military honor.
When Is The Best Time To Visit Darjeeling?
Given the title of this article, it is probably clear that the most popular time to visit Darjeeling is in the summer, which spans from May and July.
The temperature is warm but pleasant and the mist that shrouds the town clears up, giving way to vivid panoramas of Kanchenjunga and the verdant foothills of the Himalayas.
However, there is no wrong time to visit. There is a distinct charm in the winters of Darjeeling when the town and landscape are graced by artist's light.
In the words of Joseph Brodsky, "Beauty at low temperatures is beauty."
The monsoons are similarly an interesting time to visit, especially for visitors with a proclivity for coziness.
How To Get To Darjeeling
There are two ways to get to Darjeeling and neither of them is necessarily easy. The most popular way is to fly to Bagdogra Airport in Siliguri, which is a city a few hours south of Darjeeling.
From there, visitors will have to take a taxi or bus to Darjeeling, which takes about two and a half hours.
The roads are well maintained and transportation is easy to come by.
If tourists do not wish to haggle with taxi drivers or if they wish to travel as locals do, there are safe and reliable shared taxis managed by the state. It costs a little more than $3 per seat and locals will happily assist respectful tourists in managing the logistics.
The second way to get there is by flying to Gangtok in Sikkim, which is about four hours north of Darjeeling.
Similarly, from Gangtok, there is ample transportation available at minimal cost to travelers.
What To Do In Darjeeling
In short, visitors will want to stay somewhere near Mall Road, which is at the center of Darjeeling.
From here, the town square, also known as Chowrasta Square, is accessible as well as the main markets. This will be a good place to pick up locally made textiles and the famous Golden Tip Darjeeling Tea (the official brand).
Chowrasta Square has a stage and a large screen where concerts and public events are held. There are horses, dogs, and birds walking freely among the people and the surrounding landscape is truly a sight to behold.
There are also a number of fancy restaurants and bars in the vicinity as well as street stalls selling local favorites such as momos (Himalayan dumplings) and Thukpa (Himalayan ramen noodles).
The synthesis of the ponies, Himalayan landscape, steaming momos, and sprawling markets culminate into a picture of perfect peace and vibrancy.
Any taxi driver or concierge will also let visitors know about classic sights such as the Ghoom Monastery, which is a gorgeous temple near the Darjeeling Toy Train station and is connected to the Mahakal Temple by a mysterious and sacred cave that runs through the mountain and emerges on the other side of town.
Another sight worth visiting is the Japanese Peace Pagoda, which is a Buddhist temple adorned in gold and surrounded by cherry blossoms.
The Pagoda tells the story of the Buddha's enlightenment through intricate gold relief on the four walls of the structure.
Be sure to catch a sunrise over the mountains at the Tiger Hill Observatory. Visitors will have to plan ahead and get there at around 3:30 AM. While it may sound strenuous, there are plenty of ladies selling coffee and tea in clay cups for $0.10 a pop.
This is merely a sliver of the things available to do in Darjeeling and visitors will find that their time is best spent wandering around town and inhaling the fresh perfume of the flowers and wet earth.