Still life season

Sakura bloomed this year in Tokyo by the 15th of March, one of the earliest bloomings on record. Around that time Mumbai recorded a temperature of 39 Celsius, the highest ever temperature recorded for that date. The Atlantic had the largest Sargassum bloom recorded, almost 8000 kilometers across at some places. In the US, bird migrations are affected by the weather, with males beginning to move northwards earlier than the females. Here, where I’m spending some time away from home, the weather has been very unsettled. It was much warmer than I’d expected in the previous week, whereas this week has been full of rainstorms roiling the upper atmosphere and bringing that cold air down.

Holi is over, and in a couple of days we will hit the spring equinox. Instead of venturing out for photos celebrating that astronomical event, I thought it better to stay indoors and try my hand at photographing seasonal produce. Still life is not something I’ve seriously tried before.

So here it is, the pumpkins are the last of the season (we ate pumpkin flowers after a long time), and the potatoes have just been harvested. These small bananas, a wonderfully sweet and flavourful local variety called champa, will disappear as the heat builds up. Oranges are winter fruits, and we are clearly getting the last ones. They are still tangy and juicy, thankfully. I have no idea what the season for pomegranate is, but we seem to get them the year round. And the ber! I haven’t eaten such wonderful fruits from Ziziphus mauritiana trees in years. We’re lucky to be here in this season.


Jewellery is always a statement about the wealth of the person wearing it. A tasteful heavy golden crown studded with diamonds, sapphires, and rubies stolen from across the world makes the same sort of statement as the coin necklaces (puste) worn by tribal women. I was quite as enchanted by the technique and history carried by these tribal necklaces as any other museum-worthy bling. You can tell which tribe made them by the construction of the necklace, but the coins tell a different story. The Mankirdia tribe make necklaces of plaited strands of thread, the Bonda use colourful beads, the Gandia will knot cord together, and the Koya coil rope over cord.

But the coins that they fix on these necklaces vary from one family to another, and also from person to person. The gold coins that I saw on a Mankirdia necklace (the featured photo) had inscriptions in a script which I do not know. Was this pre-British, or from one of the kingdoms that coexisted with the British Raj? The silver coins in the Gandia necklace raised similar questions.

The aluminium coins in the Bonda necklace were from the mid 1960s. The 10 paisa coin may now be worth anywhere between 25 and 250 rupees, depending on the state of the coin and the mint where it was struck. The rounded squares of the 5 paisa coins cost slightly less. They are not a fortune, but their current price in the coin collector’s market means that have gained a little bit above the purchasing power that they once had. I remember buying one lemon sweet with one of these coins. Today I might get twenty or more of these schoolchild’s treat with the money I get from one.

The two necklaces from the Koya were perhaps the most interesting. Both had coins from the early 20th century, bearing the face of Edward VII. The half rupee and one anna (one sixteenth of a rupee) coins will each fetch about a thousand rupees in the coin collector’s market, and therefore would have roughly retained their original purchasing power. Interestingly, one of the necklaces also contained a silver medal from the early years of the independent republic. That indicates that at some time coins from different puste were shuffled together. So these coins served as inheritance, and when inherited by an younger owner, coins from several sources were mixed. The idiosyncratic histories preserved in these puste can be endlessly fascinating.

People and pigeons

A short auto ride from the Janpath Metro station in Delhi is a lovely old step well called Agrasen ki Boali. Ever since someone pointed out that these step wells are a water management system known since the third millennium BCE, I’ve tried to take the time to look at examples whenever I heard of one. After all, a system which has been in use for five millennia is a part of the human technological heritage as old as cities, and certainly older than history. So The Family and I entered the gate to this old step well.

How old? No one has a clue. An information panel put up by the Archaeological Survey says this quite explicitly. Wikipedia pointed to the architecture, which resembles that of 14th century buildings in Delhi. The structure is the simplest possible: a single flight of stairs led down to the reservoir. The step wells are no longer being maintained, but an open reservoir of this kind is wonderful for harvesting rainwater and recharging ground water. In these days, as we begin to run out of usable water, it is good to look at, and adapt, a technology which had been useful throughout our history. In that spirit, one can also figure that the well could be easily older than the current walls that we see around it.

I walked down to the level of the dark water. Although pieces of plastic were floating on it, there was no sign of eutrophication. Does this mean that the baoli can be made usable again with some cleaning? In these days of municipal water piped into your house, there is little use for this expense, but it would be worth finding out. Unfortunately, I could not find any articles on the hydrology of this well.

I looked at the surrounding walls. They are made of dressed sandstone with the surkhi mortar which was common across northern India. The highest level of the wall looks different. The stone is badly dressed and the mortar is barely visible. At some time the outer wall was clearly raised. Why? And by whom? There seem to be two kinds of niches on the walls: one level seems to be deep niches, and another looks today like architectural fancy. Both sets are topped by well constructed load-bearing arches. Why would you go to the trouble of building them? The lower set is at the same level as the main entrance doorway. Could they be ghost doors, ie, doors which served a proper doorly purpose before they were filled in? There are more questions in this quiet place than answers.

Public art of Darjeeling

Darjeeling had taken the trouble to make the main tourist drag as interesting as possible. Not content with the charm of the old colonial buildings around the pedestrian section of Mall Road, the town had commissioned local artists to make public art. We stopped at the musical frieze on the large square called Chowrasta. “Is this place known for jazz?” The Family asked. Perhaps not exactly known, but we saw a poster for a jazz festival just past later in the day. And in the evening when we walked into Glenary’s for a drink we heard some live music. It is hard to make a living on music anywhere in the world (the number of concert pianists in the world is perhaps smaller than the number of living Nobel laureates), and Darjeeling is much too small to support a lively local music scene. It is clear from the frieze that bars are the main places which support music here.

The wall with the mural of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railways marks the other end of the pedestrian zone. This mural crowds in all the high points of the town, including a portrait of Tenzing Norgay. We were told that the school of mountaineering he set up was worth a visit. But when we called, we found it was open to visitors only once a week and, sadly, not on a day when we were in town. The mural could be better maintained, we thought.

The fountain in the middle of Chowrasta was in much better condition, and we were happy that it was not gushing water in the cold. It had all the signs of being a late colonial structure. “Late 19th century?” The Family guessed. “Quite likely,” I responded, “Either that or early 20th century. Depends on when they built this square.” The Family looked around and said “More oblong than square.”

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.

Darjeeling Himalayan Railway

Bucket lists are now pins on a map, and Darjeeling railway station definitely had a pin on it. We planned our first walk through Darjeeling to take it in. The narrow gauge, 610 mm, “Toy Train” between Siliguri and Darjeeling was inaugurated in 1881, and was an immediate hit. It became possible to go from Kolkata to Darjeeling by train in a day. A hundred and forty years later, it has become a romantic thing, helped by the succession of Bollywood hits set around it. When I looked I found a fairly long list, from Jab pyaar kisi se hota hai (1961, Dev Anand and Asha Parekh), Aaradhna (1969, Rajesh Khanna and Sharmila Tagore), to more recent movies like Parineeta (2005, Sanjay Dutt, Saif Ali Khan, Vidya Balan) and Barfi (2012, Ranbir Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra). Not only is the station charming, it also has one of the best views of Kanchenjunga floating over the town. A tiny locomotive was working up a head of steam, and everyone on the platform queued up for selfies against it. A train came in while we were in the station, and we exited with the crowd. We worked up quite an appetite during the uphill walk back to Mall Road.

By all accounts the construction of the railway line from Siliguri to Darjeeling (80 Kms and a rise of 2048 meters) cost at least as many lives per kilometer as the infamous Burma Railway. When it was started, after the completion of a railway line joining Kolkata to Siliguri in 1878, deaths were so frequent that labourers left their jobs. The Bengal Government conscripted famine relief recipients to work on it, according to Mary H. Avery in her book on Darjeeling. Later, its upkeep required the use of a captive work force of sappers from the army. Unlike the 20th century Japanese wartime railway, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway remains in use and has been inscribed in the UNESCO world heritage list. It would be good if the various commemorative plaques mention its cost in human lives.

I tried to get photos of the train chugging along the road at various times. It moves only a little faster than walking pace, but often much faster than the traffic on Hill Cart Road. I finally succeeded in taking an uninterrupted video clip only as we drove out of Darjeeling: literally the last minute. We’d stopped for a last tea, a last look at the hills, and there it was, the train whistling its way past us.

Tibetan bronzes

Khen Lop Choe Sum is the Tibetan phrase that refers to the religious triumvirate who are said to have founded Buddhism in Tibet. In the 8th century CE the Tibetan king, Trisong Deutsen, requested the Abbot of Nalanda university, Shantarakshita, to promote Buddhism in his kingdom. This move was opposed by practitioners of the indigenous Bon religion. Shantarakshita advised the king to invite the tantric Guru Padmasambhava to Tibet. Padmasambhava travelled through the Himalayan kingdom and preached Buddhism, subduing all adverse forces, and eventually founded the first Tibetan monastery in Samye. Monks from Tibet travelled to Nalanda and brought with them translations of commentaries by Buddhist scholars. The bronze piece shown in the featured photo is of Guru Padmasambhava.

The Himalayan Tibet Museum on Gandhi Road in Darjeeling was an unknown gem. Opened in 2015, it concentrates on history, culture, and art, rather than the religion. I’ve seen Tibetan bronze statues before, they are rather common across the Himalayas and trickle down through trade into the homes of people in the northern plains. But these were a class apart. The exquisite detailing on the statue of Tara which you see above arrested my feet immediately. Bronze, two colours of wood, precious stones! The artistry involved was tremendous.

This large statue of Amitayus, the Buddha of Eternal Life, was donated to the museum by the Dalai Lama. This larger than life size statue is another piece which is hard to walk away from. The elaborate forms of the Bodhisattva’s clothing and head-dress are so different from other schools of Buddhist art that I wondered about the influences which led to the development of this form. Some day I hope to run into an art historian who’ll tell me all about this history. Until I meet that guru, I’m content to search the mountains.

This was the single unlabelled piece in the museum. I puzzled over it, and noticing the left hand in the abhaya mudra, realized that it had to be a depiction of a Bodhisattva. I asked one of the staff, and they said immediately that it is a statue of Manjushree, “The book of knowledge on his left, the sword to cleave ignorance in his hand.” The museum is run by the Manjushree Foundation, a Tibetan non-profit.

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.

Darjeeling is a town

Perched on a steep ridge below the Kanchenjunga (8586 m), from a distance the town of Darjeeling looks like something out of a fairytale. About two centuries ago the grand panjandrums of the East India Company scouted the hills north of Bengal and decided that this 2000 m high ridge could be a pleasant place to spend summers. The region had been politically volatile for half a century before that, since the Gurkha kingdom of Nepal expanded west to the current borders of Bhutan. Then it was annexed by the Chogyal of Sikkim. The EIC entered this dispute in the sheepskin of an honest broker, awarded the holding to the weaker kingdom of Sikkim, from whom it rented the crescent of the ridge for a while before declaring that it should rightfully be part of their domain in Bengal. From there it passed on to the British Raj and later to India. By the time the Sikkimese parliament initiated its merger with India, the question of who it belonged to had already become academic.

On our drive up to the town we’d seen it spread out below Kanchenjunga. What was not apparent from those distant views is how steeply the town falls away from the ridge. You can get a sense of this from the way roads turn back on themselves as you approach the town. The view from our hotel window, above, gave a sense of the slope. Most of our walks would be confined to around the ridge. But the walk to the botanical garden would take us far down the ridge, and back up again. For the locals it is part of their lives. Still, seeing a young lady overtake us in stiletto heels, The Family let out a sigh.

Kanchenjunga looms over the town; that’s its special charm. From turns in roads and balconies you get sudden breathtaking views of the peak. It was long regarded as the highest peak in the world (it was only during the Great Trigonometric Survey that Radhanath Sikdar found that Chomolungma was higher). When the British empire ebbed, it left high water marks in the hills of India in the form of “hill stations” like this. The town of Darjeeling now has a majority population of Nepali speaking Gurkhas and Lepchas, a significant number of Sikkimese Lepchas and Bhutias, and many Tibetans, Bengalis, Biharis, and Marwaris. The crowded bazaars of the town are a wonderful mixture of the many people who first came here to work, and then made their home in the steep slopes of Darjeeling.