A quiet hill retreat,
far from the tourist crowd
KALIMPONG isn’t your average hill station. No mall on the upper ridge, no fashionable promenade with classy restaurants and curio shops.
But then, Kalimpong, 50 km east of Darjeeling, probably never cared much for tourists. It was, and still is, more of a, shall we say, "hill residency" rather than a hill resort. More a place where people lived rather than visited or vacationed.
Which is not to say, of course, that there isn’t much here for the visitor or vacationer. For one thing, there are the old British residences, sloped roofs, chimneys and gables, with lovely gardens and great views. Houses that many Brits and wealthy Indians, opting to live in the town, built early last century. And then there are the Tibetan monasteries, and the fascinating twice-weekly bazaars where Lepchas, Bhutias, Nepalese and other local hill people trade their wares. Not to forget Kalimpong’s famous nurseries that export a mind-boggling variety of cactii, gladioli, orchids and other flowers.
And then, of course,
there is the view: the entire Kanchenjunga range with its high snowy
peaks glittering in the distance. But most of all, Kalimpong has a
certain charm, a placid ambience you wouldn’t find in the Shimlas or
Darjeelings, tourist-choked hill stations that double up as
And, surprisingly, the town boasts some excellent hotels, many of which have been converted from former residences. Silver Oaks, where we stayed, is an extension, for instance, of what was once the summer home of a Calcutta-based British jute merchant. And like most other luxury hotels in the town, it has lovely multi-level gardens with wrought iron chairs where you can sip your Darjeeling tea, look at the mountains and while away a dreamy afternoon in perfect peace and solitude.
The mountains are a wonderful green here, thickly wooded with pines and junipers. The town sprawls over the saddle of a ridge that peaks at either end, both high points — Deolo Hills (5,590 ft) in the north and Durbin Dara in the south — commanding excellent views of the surrounding mountainside and the mighty Kanchenjunga range.
The drive to Durbin Dara, through Rinkingpong Road, winds through a gently sloping hill, still redolent of the Raj. All along are houses with big gardens that seem to have been transplanted from the English countryside. One such that you can freely explore is Morgan House, a stone structure with glass windows and chimney stacks that functions today as the government tourist lodge.
On the other side of the road is a beautifully laid out golf course maintained by the Indian Army that has a large presence in this part of the town. Durbin Dara at the very top of the ridge gets its name, apparently, from the Nepalese word for telescope: once upon a time, perhaps, a telescope was installed here on the windy summit to view the snowy peaks and the wooded valleys down below. Today, a Tibetan monastery, Zong Dog Palri Fo-Brang, built in the mid-1970s and consecrated by the Dalai Lama, graces the high ground. There’s a large level field below the monastery where helicopters can land, where children play, dogs frolic, couples hold hands and where on a clear day, and helped by their guides, tourists spot distant Siliguri in the plains, tea garden on the mountain slopes, the Teesta river in the valley, the high Kanchenjunga peaks and even the Nathu-la pass leading to Tibet.
The views are even better from the Deolo Hill on the other side of the town; here a garden has been laid out and a government hotel set up. On the slope below Deolo is the famous Dr Graham’s Homes, a rather unusual educational institution that was started as an orphanage in 1900. Today, it sprawls over 500 acres and has its own bakery, poultry and dairy. There are some 50 buildings, mostly cottages, in the campus; the residential students are accommodated in some of these cottages. The institution encourages a wide range of activities, from farming to sport to engineering, with the school having its own mechanical workshop. Tourists are welcome to visit the campus.
Funded partly by charity from India and abroad, Dr Graham’s Homes was initially meant for poor Anglo-Indian children from the tea gardens and Calcutta. It was founded, as the name implies, by the Rev Dr J.A. Graham, a Scotsman with immense energy and dedication. His wife, Katherine Graham, established another famous Kalimpong institution, the Arts and Crafts Centre, that trained locals in producing handicraft items. (The institution barely exists today.)
Dr Graham and his wife were preceded by another dedicated Scottish missionary, the Rev. W. Macfarlane, who in the early 1870s established the first schools in the area. Kalimpong’s biggest church, its tower dominating the town’s skyline, bears his name today. When Macfarlane came to Kalimpong in 1870, the place was barely a village. Just five years earlier, one visitor, Surgeon Rennie, wrote of "a few huts constituting the hamlet of Kalimpong...the population of the hamlet consisted of two or three families looking very dirty and smoky." The hamlet’s only claim to fame then was the Thongsa Buddhist monastery founded in 1692. Located not far from Dr Graham’s Homes, it still stands, though housed in a more recent building, and is certainly worth a visit.
In 1865, when Rennie explored the area, the British had just ousted the Bhutanese forces then ruling the region; within years, the hamlet of Kalimpong began growing in importance but it really shot into prominence after the Young husband expedition to Tibet in 1905. British India, following the expedition, began trading with the roof of the world and the town became the terminus of mule caravans from Tibet carrying wool, musk, furs and yak tails and taking back a whole host of essential commodities. The Chinese invasion of Tibet in the 1950s put a stop to that trade, robbing Kalimpong of much colour and excitement besides, of course, business.
Ever since, the town has remained a quiet hill retreat — barring, of course, the mid-80s when the entire Darjeeling area was rocked by the Gorkhaland agitation. Life is unhurried here, unless you go to the bazaar and motor stand with its narrow roads and chaotic traffic. It is a small town and you can even walk up to Deolo, descend and walk up again to Durbin Dara on a single day. And then, of course, there are the nurseries. Kalimpong, because of its moderate climate and elevation, has a whole host of them, offering hundreds of varieties of flowers, from orchids and gladioli to cactii and ornamental plants.
Keep one day aside, as we did, for an excursion to Lava and Loleygaon. About 35 km from Kalimpong, Lava (7,160 ft), is reached by a road that winds through virgin mountain forests. On and off, there are little grassy clearings, lovingly illuminated by subdued sunlight filtering in through the maze of tall pine trees. Lava itself seems to sit on the lap of nature, but there’s a brick and concrete monastery that seems out of keeping with the surroundings. There’s also a small museum about local flora and fauna and traditional life here that’s worth a visit.
Loleygaon, another 20 km away, is at
a much lower altitude — 4970 ft — but the view of the Kanchenjunga
range from here is breathtaking, rivalling that from Darjeeling’s
Tiger Hill. The forest around Loleygaon has some exotic flora but the
chief attraction surely is the ‘canopy walk’. A suspended wooden
walkway spanning across trees, it hangs on steel wires and sways as
you gingerly walk through it. It is a great feeling, a sense that you
have outstepped human limitations, skipping from tree to tree without
having to come down. Unfortunately, the feeling doesn’t last too