The beauty and variety of the Indian subcontinent defies description, and trying to pick out a “favorite” place is sort of like trying to decide whether to go on a date with Harry Belafonte or Harrison Ford. Nevertheless, if I have to choose my favorite city just from the point of view of sheer magnificent beauty, I would choose Darjeeling. It’s the town to which my heart harks back often and with great awe. I’ve chosen to show it to you as a series of “photographs.”
CLICK. The scene is on the drive from the airport at Bagdogra. The drive is only about 60 miles, but the enormous climb to seven thousand feet means a three-hour trip and an absolutely spectacular drive. At first we saw the road wind through low tea plantation country. Now, though, we’re climbing through a richly-forested game reserve. Notice the houses built on stilts - this is to protect the inhabitants from the wild animals. As we near Darjeeling, we can look down on the foothills of the Himalayas, covered on their terraced slopes with tea gardens...... and upward, to the higher slopes, dotted with evergreens. If this were not just a photograph, you would smell the fresh coolness of the air, pine-scented and sweet. And you would feel the need for a sweater .... and after the sweltering heat of the Ganges plain, you would welcome the change.
CLICK. Here is the Windermere Hotel. It is small and cozy, with fireplaces in the rooms, and hot water bottles hanging from hooks - welcome , as are the warm blankets on the beds, during the chilly nights. How clean and brightly-painted it is, reflecting the cleanliness of the whole city, an anomaly in India, for, much as we love Calcutta, “clean” is not the first word that jumps to mind as we describe it! We have arrived in time for lunch. The dining room is already full of guests, mainly tourists from Calcutta and beyond. Here, too, are the film cast and crew of “Sree & Indira,” shooting on location and as boisterous as holiday makers. The room’s decor is the vistas that spread out and up through its large windows - the mountains and the pine forests and the prayer flags blowing in the breeze, and the occasional Buddhist monk gliding by, saffron-robed and graceful. The road, visible through the windows, leads from the hotel into the center of town, where there are shops full of wonderful treasures for tourists and antique collectors. We order a salad, and if this were not just a photograph, you would taste the fire of the hot peppers. And you would relish, in turn, the delicately-curried Mulligatawny soup, one of the agreeable residuals from the colonial regime.
CLICK. Here we are at Observatory Hill. Yesterday morning’s hard rain has cleared the mists which so often shroud the peaks, and Khangchenjongna rises before us in all her magnificence. She is but the third highest peak in the Himalayas, but, we think, the most breath-takingly beautiful. The sunlight catches her slopes and reflects in a palette of pinks and bronzes and blue-greys, throwing into relief her steep escarpments and her majestic heights and crevasses. In the corner of our picture we can see the long line strung between two poles from which hang the prayer flags, each one displaying a prayer which the wind, as it blows the flag, sends out to the gods. If this were not just a photograph, you would feel that the gods were very near.
CLICK. Here we are at a Buddhist Monastery. A monk is standing just outside the doorway, spinning his prayer wheel. Who knows what invocations are painstakingly penned onto the long strip of paper which has been lovingly rolled and placed in the intricately-carved silver cylinder. Look - you can see the open work on the wheel - windows through which fly the supplications or adorations from the rapidly-spinning wheel. Through the doorway we can see the small, dark interior of the monastery worship room. There are the prayer boxes for the prayer scrolls , lining two walls. See, along the far wall, the several statues of Buddha in various poses - perhaps various incarnations. The flickering oil lamps light his kindly, if somewhat sardonic, face. Our gaze turns to the lamas, perhaps forty in number, seated face to face at a long, central table. They are quietly chanting, and look absorbed and at peace. Sometimes we meet one or two of them on the street, and we are struck by their friendliness and by the twinkle in their eyes. Into our picture come two monks with cloaks draped over their saffron robes, and with sherpa-like hats covering their shaved heads. They are carrying horns, like Swiss alpenhorns, probably seven feet in length. One stands to each side of the doorway, and as we watch, they blow their horns. If this were not just a photograph, you would hear the low, lovely music echo up through the hills and the mountains, bounce from Khangchenjunga up to Everest, and reach the gods. And you would never, never want to leave this enchanted place.
CLICK. Here we are at Sandakphu - 12, 000 feet above sea level. We’ve come to get an early morning view of Mount Everest before the clouds roll in and cover it. Our four-hour trip from Darjeeling was breathtaking. The Jeep trail runs right along the Indian border with Nepal, and we traveled along the top of the owrld, with sharp cliffs falling off to one side. The mountainsides were covered with towering rhododendron trees, their red and pink and white flowers vying for pride of place with the magnolia blooms, as big as platters. Our party is standing in front of the tourist bungalow. We can see the smoke rising from the chimney, signalling the presence of a welcome fire in the big stone fireplace. Standing next to me are the Turners, a terribly British couple and their daughter from Kuala Lumpur. Our guide is there also, a young and quite delightful civil engineer doing a bit of moonlighting. We’re all bundled into warm down-filled jackets against the extreme cold. We have just arisen for wildly uncomfortable straw-filled pallet beds. It is 4:30. The sun has just risen, and our eyes are straining to catch a glimpse of Mount Everest. The clouds don’t break, and we are thwarted, but almost instantly rewarded by the most magnificent view of Kantchenjunga. We are joined by a party of climbers - monks from Kurseong, about 15 miles beyond Darjeeling. These hardy fellows have walked 50 miles and climbed more than 5000 feet on the trail, and they’re looking as fresh as if they’d just arisen from a week’s repose. If this were not just a photograph, you would feel the bond that united us all, a bond formed of having witnessed such great beauty and majesty and knowing that neither words or photographs would ever be sufficient to make it come alive for others, a connection borne of sharing an experience that was truly spiritual.
(Scroll down for pictures of Darjeeling)