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.