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.