Daily doors

Exactly 22 years ago, on 26 January 2001, the continental plate of India stretched a bit, relaxing kinks that had formed during the breakup of Gondwanaland 140 million years ago. The resulting earthquake, around 8 on the Richter scale, flattened the town of Bhuj. When we visited two years ago, the town had built back. Signs of this were in the profusion of metal grilles that stood where wooden doors would earlier bar an entrance. Disasters can accelerate trends, as all of us see today.

Some have gone back to the old style panelled doors which were common across the edge of the Thar desert. More than taste, it was clear that practicality was important. Open metalwork was visible where privacy was not a concern, like blocking entrance to stairs that led up to a flat on an upper floor. In the villages that cluster around the town, doors usually stand open. A locked door, like the one in the featured photo, seems to be more a symbol than actual prevention. That seems to be a nice relaxed lifestyle. What are neighbours if they cannot be trusted?

Gate keepers

Art projects sprouted across Mumbai during the pandemic like moss during monsoon. At the same time architects who were talking about reuse of buildings began to write about revitalization of neighbourhoods. The creep of the revitalizing moss continues with new areas in the city’s decaying core being “discovered”. The latest is the Sassoon docks, built in 1875 on land reclaimed and paid for by David Sassoon. This is a place where many fishermen land their catch, and large retailers and wholesale dealers make their early morning deals. Around it are the usual ice factory, cold storage, a large fish market, and boat-related businesses, and even a couple of small restaurants. Now one warehouse has become an art gallery.

My gentrification alert system started flashing red lights as I saw that the door to the gallery space was controlled by uniformed guards with metal detectors. A detector beeped madly when I walked in, but nobody said anything. In a place like this your clothes matter more than a machine’s chatter. Outside a lift truck backed towards a whitewashed wall with two people on a raised platform ready to sketch out a new mural. Fish trucks and trolleys came to a halt as it created a small traffic jam. A fisherman stopped his scooter outside the gallery space to ask a guard what was going on. Further down the road, fish was being loaded on to a cold truck. Rubble from a dilapidated building was neatly packed into sacks, presaging another reclamation and reuse project.

When stock prices soared in the early 90s, small fish restaurants around the stock exchange suddenly became fancy. One made enough money to grow from a single establishment into a chain. Others sold out to fancier establishments. A kind of equilibrium was reached where you could still find the old regional food in small holes in the wall next to the fine-dining restaurants which could seat walk-ins in the magic moments between happy hours and the late-night sitting. I wonder whether the future of Sassoon docks will be like that, or will it be the contentious route of gentrification that other countries have seen? The equilibrium of the stock exchange neighbourhood is again under threat because the pandemic wiped out many businesses.

But visually there was much to enjoy on my walk around the old dockyard. In my first days in the city I had to hold my nose against the stench of a day old fish when I passed Sassoon dock at night. There is much improvement today. We have N95 masks. With all the talk of reuse and improvement, I wonder whether there is a solution that keeps the fresh catch in the heart of the town but banishes the smell forever.

Meghma

About a third of the way down we came to the village of Meghma. It seemed very appropriately named, since it loomed out of a sea of clouds as we approached. A small forest guards’ checkpost stood on the road. They’d taken down our details when we went up, and now we had to tell them that we were on our way down. The guard was very considerate, perhaps he’d not met many walkers our age. Were we okay? How far were we planning to walk? Could we reach before sundown? Did we want to sit down? Call our vehicle for a pickup? We thanked him and walked along.

The Singalila ridge runs north to south, with Nepal lying to the west. The Family recognized a lichen encrusted stone slab as a border marker and took the photo you can see above. The villages are tiny. The whole area is a protected bioreserve, slowly recovering from the intense capitalist assault that was the British empire. People who had lived there earlier continue to have the right to live and utilize the ecosystem, but new settlements are not allowed. We saw little temples, prayer flags in plenty, and a field of chortens protected by a gate.

Tamso ma jyotirgamay

The houses were weathered and beautiful. I was intrigued by the shape of the chimney. Why is the top three branched? Perhaps an engineer who reads this blog will be kind enough to explain. There is heavy rain here, so the sloping metal roofs of the old buildings make sense. The flat concrete roofs of the more recent buildings did not seem appropriate, they probably need a lot of maintenance. As a city dweller, I always wonder about the lives of people who live in such remote and isolated places. How do you cope when you can’t just pop out to buy some eggs? What if the nearest school is thirty kilometers away? How would you deal with an emergency when the nearest doctor is four hours away? People manage, so there are ways. We walked on through the fog, as it waxed and waned.

Little houses, steep lanes

We stood at our favourite lookout over Darjeeling and saw a sea of interesting rooftops in many colours. Most of them were steeply angled sheets of corrugated metal, painted in bright colours. There’s snow one day in a decade in this place, so the angle does not have anything to do with snow. It is all about the monsoon rains. But the newer buildings are the usual cheap designs that you see in the plains: flat terraced roofs on which to dry your pickles and chilis, on top of a box full of rooms. Unfortunately the number of such buildings already rivals those in the old style.

When I mentioned this to The Family she showed me a photo of one of the nicest such homes I’ve seen. It is a small house, just one floor, but with a nice roof and front door. I loved the colours of the house and the beautiful wooden fretwork attached to the eaves. I also admired the half-curtain on the front door.

This style of woodwork is common around the colonial era hill stations. I suppose this is part of the fancy work imported from Europe which was picked up and propagated locally. Some of it was really elaborate. I’d been photographing them for three days since we arrived in Darjeeling. Here are a couple of nice examples.

The decorative elements on these older houses are really charming. Here are two examples which I liked. The more colourful one is an elaborate gable-front decoration. Some of the panels could do with a bit of paint, but it still looks charming. The second example contains all the elements of local construction that I admired: the cast iron railings on top, the fretwork on the eaves, the scrolls and brackets in concrete, and the lovely clock-face.

We waled a lot through the town to look at all this. As you can see from these photos, Darjeeling is built on a really steep ridge. The climb from a street to the next one is often the equivalent of two or three floors of a house. The fastest way to go up or down is to take steep stairs that connect roads on different levels. A holiday in Darjeeling is guaranteed to leave you fitter than you were when you arrived. At least, it worked that way for us.

We loved these narrow lanes. Instead of walking through heavy traffic on the winding main roads, we kept looking for stairs, once we figured that all the locals use them. Sometimes we would find ourselves walking past someone’s kitchen, or living room. We came across cats scurrying across our paths, and young children gaping at us (presumably tourists don’t often take these roads). It’s all very charming, and wonderful for your appetite. We learnt to laugh at Google’s estimates of how long it was between two points. When it told us that something would take seven minutes, it was closer to an hour for us.

Apart from stairs, we discovered that Darjeeling was a town of wires criss crossing above our heads. In many small towns in India there are loops and whorls, almost a lacework of wires overhead. Here it was different: tight lines of wires crossed each other at different heights, making a minimalist Mondrian in the sky. The whole town was like a painting.

Down Mall Road

On our first morning in Darjeeling wed decided to walk through the town. The previous evening I’d looked at all the pins on the map that I’d put and realized that many of them lay along the Mall Road. So the early part of our walk would be along that storied road. The later part would take us down the steep ridge on which the town lies, to the railway station and back up again.

We started with a short but steep climb from our hotel’s gates to the Mall Road. From there it was a pleasant walk up to the Government House. The building originally belonged to the erstwhile Maharajah of Cooch Bihar. The Government of India had bought it in 1877 CE to serve as the summer residence of the imperial Viceroy of India. It then devolved to the state of West Bengal, and remains a second residence of the governor of the state. Just beyond it is a terrace with benches which provide a lovely view of the Kanchenjunga hills. We sat there for a while, looking at the world’s third highest mountain floating white above a railing trailed with fairy lights. I thought to myself that it might be nice to come back for sunset, but I never did.

We turned past the little grotto with a statue of the famous mountaineer, Nawang Gombu Sherpa, and walked towards Chowrasta. The road was lined with tall trees. I recognized only the deodars, the storied Himalayan cedar. The tall straight trunks of this tree were in demand as far away as Beijing, where they were used as pillars in palaces and imperial tombs. But there were many I could not recognize. I think I saw a fugitive Pinus pinea, the Roman umbrella pine, hiding somewhere. In its imperial heydays, the British would have planted exotics in these hills. I found evidence of these crimes against nature elsewhere in the hills. Under the trees, there were shelters with seats. Perhaps they were bus stops, although I saw precious few buses in this town.

Further on, the highest point in this part of town was dominated by St. Andrew’s church. This was founded in 1843 CE by the Scottish engineers and army men who came here. The present gothic style structure dates from 1879. We walked into the grounds. The church was closed, and we were told that it opens only for Sunday services. No chance of seeing the memorial plaques that are said to line the walls, then. I took a photo of the door and waited for The Family as she took photos of the marigolds planted in rows of beds outside.

In front of the church was the most terribly impressive building that I was to see in the town. The ornate gates were shut tight and barred entry to anyone without appointment. This was the seat of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration, which governs Kalimpong and Darjeeling districts. The rooftop finial didn’t make it into my photo of the gate, but fortunately I had a photo of the gurkha rampant with his kukri and bayonet atop the globe taken from further up the road.

As the Mall Road passes from the chowk between the admin building and the church, it turns into a pedestrian zone. The traffic passes through the lower road, which is the upper end of the oldest road in town, the Hill Cart Road. These two are called Nehru and Gandhi roads today, but known locally by the old names. The public library was closed. It was founded in 1958 and housed in this building which was earlier a hotel called Carlton House, and has been run by the district administration since 1975.

Every town worth its salt now sports a I ♥ <insert name of town> installation somewhere. We passed one with a distinct lack of selfie takers before coming to Chowrasta, the touristy heart of the town. Two of the institutions here have a long history. One is the Oxford Bookstore, with its interesting collection of books on the Himalayan region. I lost myself for a while there, browsing books which I hadn’t known that I need to read immediately. Fortunately they ship books to your home. I can’t figure out how long it has been in this location. its neighbours, the two curio shops, Habeeb Mullick & Sons, each belonging to one of the sons, presumably, was apparently the first business in Darjeeling to be owned by an Indian, when it opened in 1890.

We passed quickly by the shops and restaurants which we would come back to later, and came to the clock tower. This stands atop the municipal building. We found that the foundation stone of the municipal building was laid in 1917, and half the cost of the building and its 100 feet (30.5 meters) tall tower was borne by the erstwhile Maharaja of Cooch Behar. It was inaugurated in 1921. Across the Laden La road from the tower stood a whimsical building with a steeply sloping roof, pointy towers and gable windows. Built in 1920, this now serves as a hotel.

We stopped at the Himalayan Tibet Museum run by the Manjushree Foundation. Our next stop was the heritage building which houses the Head Post Office. We had to climb down a steep staircase in order to get to it. The building was inaugurated in 1921, and is on the UNESCO world heritage list, but it is a typical charmless post office from inside, run by a part of the central bureaucracy which runs on a shoestring budget. The outside was covered with bright signboards. The only charming thing about it were the chimneys. From here to the railway station took us through a narrow and steeply sloping path down a dilapidated house which turned out to be an interesting stop, our last before we came to the railway station.

We’d noticed that there are more wires per cubic meter of “open” space in Darjeeling than in most towns we’ve been to. Thick optic fiber lines entered this building which looked dilapidated even before its was finished. It belonged to an organization called the British Gurkha Ex-Servicemen’s Association, a reminder that the racial stereotyping characteristic of the Empire continues in its rump even today. We stopped at the corner and I took photographs of these shoes all washed and drying. I noticed that The Family was busy taking photos next to me. Later I saw that she’d found a view of Kanchenjunga from this spot. Neither of us saw what the other did! One day I’ll ask her to write about this walk. It might be an eye opener for me.

Thoughts in a traffic jam at Kurseong

When had I last come up this road? After 1861 certainly, since the Hill Cart Road did not exist before that. The Look told me the question was serious. Maybe ten years ago, and again a few years before that. And how much longer will it take? I understood the question now. The distance from Bagdogra to Darjeeling can mislead you about the time of travel. The old road winds around hills, following contours which keep the slope to something that horses could once take. But then you need to add in another factor: the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway joins the road around Kurseong, and from there on can cause major traffic jams. So it can often take almost three hours to go up. We’d done the first part quite quickly, but now I could see Kurseong on a ridge just above us. We were going to slow down for the permanent traffic jam through the town.

These “hill stations” are so much a part of colonial economics that it is worth a separate post about them. For the moment it is enough to recall that in the 19th century there was a firm belief that “the tropics” had unhealthy climates (humans there had degenerated, and the best races could only be found in cold climates). Such notions of racial purity aligned with comfort and led to the founding of urban outposts in the hills. This was triply convenient for the East India Company, because the hills were then sparsely occupied, and could be cleared for easy exploitation: first timber, then coffee, and finally tea. Fourth, after 1857, when the number of British troops in India increased many fold, these new urban centers served as cantonments for the army. All these developments eventually led to an increase of locals in these towns. This led to a strict division between the “European” and “native” parts of these town.

One still finds much of this history written into the geography of the towns, and into the language around them; the phrase “hill station” is an example. “Kurseong (or Darjeeling, or Simla, or Mussoorie) is no longer what it was”, is a complaint that seems to make an appearance around the 1870s. There was more of it in the early 20th century, when the Indian elite could not be kept out of the “European towns”. The various rajah’s palaces date from that time. Now you only have to sit in a tea house to hear the upper crust complain about the kind of houses that new traders build.

Kiosks for these small traders lined the road on my side of the car. I love them: the tea shops, the little places selling biscuits and fruit. All very colourful. The Family had a wider field of view across the road. She said her first impression was that every house was painted dark blue like the clear sky. It was only a little later that the wood and corrugated metal gave way to the more expensive brick and mortar houses. These were different colours, quite as cheerful, but not blue.

The wooden kiosks continued on my side of the road and then suddenly the narrow gauge railway line crossed the street. We’d arrived at the Kurseong railway station. As you can see, it is at a height of 1400 meters. The colonial geography of the town meant that this was the border between the lower “native” town, now just the bazaar, that we had driven through, and the higher “European” town, now just the part that has government offices and more expensive stores, that we were about to enter. One day I will look for the old Lepcha village that gave its name to the town. Everyone else here is an immigrant.

The road opened up, and the traffic jam eased. The main reason was that the railway track did not run parallel to the Hill Cart Road in this part of the town. The Family angled her phone up a little to take a photo of a church on a height. There are a couple of churches here, one Anglican, the other Roman Catholic, and we didn’t know which this was. On my side of the road I saw a fire station. Interestingly the fire engines were all of different makes, bought at different times presumably.

These “hill stations” once were known for their schools. The colonial British preferred to send their children to school in the hills instead of in the cities in the plains. They retained a certain cachet until the time of the independence. The last of the elite Indians who went to these schools are a little older than me: the politically connected elite disparagingly called baba-log. A positive outcome is that schools have remained quite good in these hills and even the less well off people can look forward to their children getting a reasonable education. I could see signs of that everywhere, including a line of young boys squatting on a platform waiting for a train to take them to school.

In case you were wondering, lace up or die is a good slogan to live by in these steep hills.

The old monastery

Ghoom is a small town below Darjeeling which you reach by the Hill Cart Road. We arrived at the old monastery in Ghoom, Yiga Choeling, about an hour after sunrise. An old man sat on a bench outside the main shrine with his rosary. A few regulars went in and came out a while later. A lama came out, greeted the few people around, and disappeared. The Family came back and reported clean facilities. We went in, took off our shoes, and realized that we would have to pay for the cameras. The lama appeared, took the money, and ushered us in. The sunlight streamed through an open window and touched the feet of the giant statue of the Maitreya Buddha. A nice touch, that.

The Gelugpa (the yellow hat sect from Tibet) monastery building was completed in 1850, almost a century before many monks fled from the Chinese occupation of Tibet and took refuge here. The Darjeeling hills have become home to a significant Tibetan minority, just the latest of immigrants in this place. The building is peaceful but in need of repair, and I did not grudge the small payment I had to make in order to take photos. From what I saw, the local Tibetan population does not have a very high income, and the donations that they can make to the upkeep of this calm and peaceful monastery i minimal. The place needs visitors.

The monastery is small but exquisite. The murals are wonderful. The four images in the gallery above are just a small sample. I’m far from an expert in the iconography of Tibetan Buddhism. The only one of them I recognize is the fearsome figure of the Mahakala (also called Yamantaka). This lovely panel in orange and blues faces the statue of the Buddha. The figure seated on the lotus has to be a representation of the historical Buddha, Gautama, the Sakyamuni. I cannot identify the other two, although one of them is definitely a benign and powerful being, given his green halo. If you are in the neighbourhood, this small monastery is worth a visit.

The way up

Our flight had left too early in the morning for us to have a decent cup of tea before starting from home. We had a little time for an early breakfast after checking in, and then we caught up on sleep through the flight. It landed in Bagdogra airport, just before the land slopes up to the mountains. When we met our driver at the exit, I requested a halt for tea at the earliest. He insisted that we should not have tea on the plains, but that he would halt as soon as we started out climb to Darjeeling. That was good enough for us. Half an hour later we’d stopped at John Restaurtant. It wasn’t clear whether it was named after the owner or the apostle. When we walked passed the rolled up shutters we found that, in spite of the advertisement, there was no tea. We could have coffee instead. It was definitely the apostle. The yellow chair looked too good not to take a photo of, and I was happy that I could also get a door through a door through a door in the same photo.

The architecture changes as soon as you climb a few hundred meters up the hills. Brick and mortar is no longer the rule. Wood and metal begin to become common. I suppose hauling bricks up to the hills is costly, and there are those who’ll use materials which are mostly brought downhill. The other noticeable change is the colours of the houses: they are always bright and cheerful. And, of course, many of the houses have gardens, or at least window boxes and planters. At these lower heights this is a wonderful season for flowers.

Soon we began to see the typical Pahari construction, with entrances to houses being at the uppermost floor. I always envy the views that they must have over valleys. In the hills of Bengal construction workers tend to be less careful than those in other hills. You can see evidence of this in the steel rods which jut out of walls and posts, posing a common danger. In other parts of the hills these are cut off before plaster and paint are applied. However, the colours are always cheerful, matching the winter’s beauty of flowers.

Bhowali

Passersby like me know the little town of Bhowali in the Nainital district of Kumaon as a great market place for fruits. On our journeys north, we’ve stopped here every time (not a mean task, considering the crowded and narrow roads) to pick up a few days’ stock of fruits. This time The Family decided to take photos. I’d never really paid attention to the place before, but her photos revealed an interesting town.

Her most distant view, the one you see in the header photo, showed a picturesque town laid out on the slopes of a hill. I’ve always been too focused on the road to notice how nice it looks from far. The approach from Bhimtal passes by a school on the outskirts of the town. The road there is so crowded that my attention is always on it, instead of the view you have on one side. This diptych looked very familiar to me, but I’ve never had time to examine the different buildings and notice that everything except the school is hunkered down against winters.

The construction on the outskirts is all concrete and steel, but in the center of the town these old style buildings still stand. The oldest tradition here is wood and stone. There’s quite a bit of it in evidence in the center. The closed box balconies on the upper floor are common across the hills, but these are in a typically Kumaoni style. The cast iron and corrugated metal sheet next to it is a colonial style popular from the late 19th to the middle 20th century. That is perhaps the time when Bhowali grew from a village into a little market town on a cross road.

One of the buildings that The Family had captured was very interesting. It had boxed balconies in the traditional style, but the line of the roof and the fretwork decoration was colonial. Such a lovely construction deserves to be better preserved. The houses lining the main roads through the town are all built to have shops on the ground floor and living space above. I liked the modern door behind the balcony on the first floor above where the group of women have taken a break from their Diwali shopping. All towns in this district have walls with art work of the kind that you see in the last photo. I liked that boy not really interested in minding the stall with Diwali pottery.

Tales of the Tals of Kumaon

Glacial scouring and rainfall and stream accumulation formed the lakes of Kumaon at the foot of the Shivaliks. This area is just up-slope of where rice was first domesticated in India immediately after the retreat of the glaciers. The study of sediments in the lakes show the growth of agriculture around them only in the last thousand years or so, although the first settlements left their mark on sediments long ago. Since colonial times, population growth and slow urbanization has begun to degrade the waters. With concern growing, I hope the degradation ceases, and the beauty of the area remains more than just an appearance. We keep going back to the lakes every now and then; after all, they are a pleasant stop on the way to higher altitudes.

This year we spent a couple of days just before Diwali in this area. The anticipated hordes of post-Diwali tourists had not arrived, and we had the lakes to ourselves. The large Ram Tal (in the featured photo), the small and deserted Garuda Tal, the extremely tourist oriented Bhim Tal, and our favourite Naukuchia Tal were wonderful places to walk around. The silence was broken only by bird calls.

With new buildings sprouting in the area every time we visit, it is hard to say what the local style of architecture is. They are mostly quick concrete constructions, but they follow the forms of either the traditional Pahari style, or the nondescript boxy architecture of small towns. If I had to identify what sets this place apart architecturally, I would point to the kind of architecture that is meant to give access to the waters of the lakes. That could be either the traditional steps of ghats, or boat houses with doors that open into the lakes. Sometimes you find both, because the level of water can fluctuate dramatically from year to year, depending on the monsoon.

We walked, but it is clear that boating is the main leisure activity here. I’m always charmed by sails gliding over the lake. From Mall Road in Naini Tal I took the photos above. The foot-operated pedal boat in the second photo looked wonderful against the sparkle of the sun on the waters.