The gorgeous snow peaks, a dawn trip to Tiger Hill, a toy train ride, savouring the flavours of Darjeeling tea, and the customary sightseeing rounded up with some rest at the Mall are the activities that most visitors to Darjeeling busy themselves with. But have you ever wondered if there is more to Darjeeling than meets the eye? Perhaps through the joy of discovering an out-of-print book, through a culinary lesson, by picking up local ditties while staying at a homestay, or a forest walk to know more about the medicinal plants found in the wild.
To most of travellers, Darjeeling is about nostalgia woven around an old British hill station and the eponymous tea which is still grown here. But there is more to Darjeeling and its neighbouring districts, says Anirban Dutta, cofounder-explorer at Darjeeling Walks, an organisation that curates walks and programmes to see the hills in a different light, and in collaboration with the local people.
The place was already inhabited by a hill tribe called the Lepchas or the Rongpas when the British arrived here, says Datta. Besides, owing to the region's proximity to one of the corridors which linked India with the Silk Route, it was also home to people from Tibet and Nepal, which has naturally fostered close cultural ties between the two countries.
According to Datta, there is no dearth of travellers to Darjeeling. But either they retire to the luxurious tea gardens or opt for the de rigueur sightseeing trips. As a result, travellers often miss the multi-layered core that lies within: the hill tribes and their culture, forest villages, the culinary inheritance, and more.
The Sound Of Music
One of their programmes includes a regular event called Baithak in the Hills where guests are taken to remote hill-villages, accommodated in simply furnished but clean and comfortable homestays, served regional cuisine consisting of locally produced ingredients, taken on walks in the countryside, treated to along with musical sessions where they get a chance to listen to in-residence folk singers. The musical sessions are interspersed with stories about the folk music of the hills, the songs being rendered, the musical instruments being used, etc.
Datta points out that the musical programmes can be easily organised in urban settings but the main idea behind hosting them in the villages is that travellers can understand the background of the songs, mostly written in a rustic setting, talking about simple lifestyles, romance, or even some incident which happened in the past.
"I find there is an existing insufficiency of cultural, social, and historic storytelling tours in the Himalayan region," says Datta. "Travellers even after several visits to these places hardly get acquainted with the history and cultural heritage that had influenced the lives of people in these remote areas."
Through A Different Lens
Darjeeling Walks also collaborates with similar organisations and individuals on events.
For instance, they have collaborated with Tathagata Neogi, co-founder of Immersive Trails, a Kolkata-based organisation that curates specialised tours based on in-depth research.
Along with Datta, Neogi decided to look beyond the usual through a specially curated tour called "Darjeeling Revisited." It went against the tide of mass tourism and created a niche experience that made travellers aware of the local culture while helping to boost the local economy.
Guests are taken to a Sherpa or a Lepcha village where they had an opportunity to connect with the villagers and their culture and attend a class highlighting the respective tribe's culinary heritage.
Visiting tea gardens and staying in elaborate tea estate bungalows may be a grand affair but it does not give the visitor an understanding of the workers' lives, especially those who pluck tea. One of the programmes hosted by them was called "A Tea Plucker's Day," and aimed to bring about a dialogue between the traveller and the tea garden workers.
The Stories Behind The Toy Train
A trip to Darjeeling is never complete without a ride on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR), or the Toy Train as it is popularly known. The second railway to be recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site (and now a part of the same tag which covers the Mountain Railways of India), it is not merely a quaint journey on these wee coaches running on narrow gauge and pulled by impossibly small engines. It is an engineering marvel, with umpteen stories attached to its foundation and operation. Darjeeling Walks takes you on a ride over a significant stretch of the railway line and recounts the stories.
For more info, check their website here.