The history of Darjeeling is intertwined with that of Sikkim,Nepal, British India and Bhutan. Until the early 19th century, the hilly area around Darjeeling was controlled by the kingdom of Sikkim, while the plains around Siliguri were intermittently occupied by the Kingdom of Nepal, with settlement consisting of a few villages of Lepcha and Kirati people. The Chogyal of Sikkim had been engaged in unsuccessful warfare against the Gorkhas of Nepal. From 1780, the Gorkhas made several attempts to capture the entire region of Darjeeling. By the beginning of 19th century, they had overrun Sikkim as far eastward as the Teesta River and had conquered and annexed the Terai. In the meantime, the British were engaged in preventing the Gorkhas from overrunning the whole of the northern frontier. The Anglo-Gorkha war broke out in 1814, which resulted in the defeat of the Gorkhas and subsequently led to the signing of the Sugauli Treaty in 1815. According to the treaty, Nepal had to cede all those territories which the Gorkhas had annexed from the Chogyal of Sikkim to the British East India Company (i.e. the area between Mechi River and Teesta River). Later in 1817, through the Treaty of Titalia, the British East India Company reinstated the Chogyal of Sikkim, restored all the tracts of land between the Mechi River and the Teesta River to the Chogyal of Sikkim and guaranteed his sovereignty.
In 1828, a delegation of the British East India Company (BEIC) officials on its way to the Nepal-Sikkim border stayed in Darjeeling and decided that the region was a suitable site for a sanatorium for British soldiers. The company negotiated a lease of the area west of the Mahananda River from the Chogyal of Sikkim in 1835. In 1849, the BEIC director Arthur Campbell and the explorer and botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker were imprisoned in the region by the Sikkim Chogyal. The BEIC sent a force to free them. Continued friction between the BEIC and the Sikkim authorities resulted in the annexation of 640 square miles (1,700 km2) of territory by the British in 1850. In 1864, the Bhutanese rulers and the British signed the Treaty of Sinchula that ceded the passes leading through the hills and Kalimpong to the British. Further discord between Sikkim and the British resulted in a war, culminating in the signing of a treaty and the annexation by the British of the area east of the Teesta River in 1865. By 1866, Darjeeling district had assumed its current shape and size, covering an area of 1,234 square miles (3,200 km2).
During the British Raj, Darjeeling’s temperate climate led to its development as a hill station for British residents seeking to escape the summer heat of the plains. The development of Darjeeling as a sanatorium and health resort proceeded briskly. Arthur Campbell, a surgeon with the Company, and Lieutenant Robert Napier were responsible for establishing a hill station there. Campbell’s efforts to develop the station, attract immigrants to cultivate the slopes and stimulate trade resulted in a hundredfold increase in the population of Darjeeling between 1835 and 1849. The first road connecting the town with the plains was constructed between 1839 and 1842. In 1848, a military depot was set up for British soldiers, and the town became a municipality in 1850. Commercial cultivation of tea in the district began in 1856, and induced a number of British planters to settle there. Darjeeling became the formal summer capital of the Bengal Presidency after 1864. Scottish missionaries undertook the construction of schools and welfare centres for the British residents, laying the foundation for Darjeeling’s notability as a centre of education. The opening of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway in 1881 further hastened the development of the region. In 1899, Darjeeling was rocked by major landslides that caused severe damage to the town and the native population.
Under British rule, the Darjeeling area was initially a “Non-Regulation District”, a scheme of administration applicable to economically less advanced districts in the British Raj; acts and regulations of the British Raj did not automatically apply to the district in line with rest of the country. In 1919, the area was declared a “backward tract”. During the Indian independence movement, the Non-cooperation Movement spread through the tea estates of Darjeeling. There was also a failed assassination attempt by revolutionaries on Sir John Anderson, the Governor of Bengal in 1934. Subsequently, during the 1940s, Communist activists continued the nationalist movement against the British by mobilising the plantation workers and the peasants of the district.
Socio-economic problems of the region that had not been addressed during British rule continued to linger and were reflected in a representation made to the Constituent Assembly of India in 1947, which highlighted the issues of regional autonomy and Nepali nationality in Darjeeling and adjacent areas. After the independence of India in 1947, Darjeeling was merged with the state of West Bengal. A separate district of Darjeeling was established consisting of the hill towns of Darjeeling, Kurseong, Kalimpong and some parts of the Terai region. While the hill population comprised mainly ethnic Nepalis, the plains harboured a large ethnic Bengali population who were refugees from the Partition of India. A cautious and non-receptive response by the West Bengal government to most demands of the ethnic Nepali population led to increased calls, in the 1950s and 1960s, for Darjeeling’s autonomy and for the recognition of the Nepali language; the state government acceded to the latter demand in 1961.
The culture of Darjeeling, India, is quite diverse and unique. Apart from the major religious festivals such as Dashain, Tihar, Christmas, Holi, Ram Navami, etc., the diverse ethnic populace of the town celebrates several local festivals. Buddhist ethnic groups such as the Lepchas, Bhutias, Sherpas, Yolmos, Gurungs, and Tamangs celebrate new year called Losar in January/February, Maghe Sankranti, Chotrul Duchen, Buddha Jayanti, and Tendong Lho Rumfaat. The Kiranti Rai people (Khambus) celebrate their annual Sakela festivals ofUbhauli and Udhauli. Deusi and Bhaileni are songs performed by men and women, respectively, during the festival of Tihar. All these provide a “regional distinctness” of Darjeeling’s local culture from the rest of India. Darjeeling Carnival, initiated by a civil society movement known as The Darjeeling Initiative, was a ten-day carnival held yearly during winter that portrayed the rich musical and cultural heritage of Darjeeling Hills as its central theme. Every year, cultural festivals are held in the town of Darjeeling and its surrounding areas.
The people of Darjeeling consume a diverse variety of foods. Each ethnic group has its own distinct traditional food. A popular food in Darjeeling is the momo, a steamed dumpling containing chicken, mutton, pork, beef or vegetables cooked in a doughy wrapping served with a watery vegetable soup and spicy tomato sauce/chutney. Indigenous fermented food products such asgundruk (fermented and dried leafy vegetable), kinema (fermented soybean), and sinki (fermented and dried raddish) are consumed by the people. Wai-Waiis a favorite packaged snack of Darjeeling hills comprising noodles that are eaten either dry or with soup. Hard chhurpi, a type of hard cheese made from cow or yak’s milk, is another popular mini-snack that is both nutritious and masticatory. Soft chhurpi, a traditional soft cheese, is consumed along with green vegetables as savoury dishes, used as filling for momos, ground with tomatoes and chillies for chutney or made into a refreshing soup. A type of noodle called thukpa, served with soup and vegetables/meat, is extremely popular in and around the hills of Darjeeling. There are a number of restaurants offering a variety of traditional Indian, Continental and Indian Chinese cuisine to cater to tourists. Tea is the most popular beverage, procured from the famed Darjeeling tea gardens, as well as coffee. Chhang or jaanr is a local alcoholic beverage made from fermented millet, maize or rice.
Colonial architecture characterizes many buildings in Darjeeling; several mock Tudor residences, Gothic churches, the Raj Bhawan (Governor House), Planters’ Club and various educational institutions are examples. Buddhist monasteries showcase the pagoda style architecture. Darjeeling is regarded as a center of music and a hotbed for musicians and music admirers. Singing and playing musical instruments is a common pastime among the resident population, who take pride in the traditions and role of music in their cultural life. Western music is popular among the younger generation, and Darjeeling is a major centre of Nepali rock music. Prashant Tamang the winner of Indian Idol 3 is a resident of Darjeeling. Football is the most popular sports in Darjeeling. An improvised form of ball made of rubber garters is often used for playing in the steep streets.
Some important places to visit include the Tiger Hill, the zoo, monasteries and the tea gardens. The town attracts trekkers and sportsmen seeking to explore the Himalayas, serving as the starting point for climbing attempts on some Indian and Nepali peaks. Tenzing Norgay, one of the two men to first climb Mount Everest, spent most of his adult life in the Sherpa community in Darjeeling. His success provided the impetus to establish the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling in 1954. In the Tibetan Refugee Self Help Center, Tibetan crafts like carpets, wood and leather work are displayed. Several monasteries like Ghum Monastery (8 km or 5 miles from the town), Bhutia Busty monastery, Mag-Dhog Yolmowa preserve ancient Buddhist scripts.
Tea Tourism is a relatively new concept in the world and Darjeeling is a taking a lead in this area. And why not? Darjeeling is after all the Mecca of tea and sprawling estates producing what we know as the “Champagne of Teas” to the delight of the world. There are 80 odd operational tea gardens in Darjeeling that span across thousands of acres of land area on open hill slopes. High on the hills with cool breeze and misty weather, planters and workers come together to form a wonderland where tea grows in the finest form like no where else in the world.
So what does tea tourism mean? Imagine you are spending a few days in a sprawling tea garden. You will stay in a Bungalow that was typically the residence of a British tea planter built during the old colonial time. The bungalow retains the antique furnishing & aura of the colonial days, and setup amidst lush garden setting within the estate. Food served is made of fresh organic produce from the backyard garden.
You wake up and sip a cup of finest aromatic tea that was plucked fresh from the gardens, a brand that has made a great name for itself in the world. You take a stroll through the garden, talk to the garden workers and see how they deftly pluck the two leaves with a bud, and learn about their lives. You are also invited to take a look and learn about the tea processing in the factory where some of the best teas in the world are withered, rolled, dried, sorted and packaged.
A jeep takes you to the nearby attractions and places of interest for you to soak in the nature. Later you take a walk through the villages and nature trails, and get deeper insight into the lives of the people living in the mountains. In the evening, you are entertained with local cultural dance and music specially performed for you as you drink a glass of wine. Ultimate, isn’t it? That’s tea tourism.
And where else will you get best of all the elements of a garden tour other than in Darjeeling? Several tea estates in Darjeeling area offer vacation packages to tourists to experience life in the gardens along with stays in heritage bungalows, plus activities and entertainment that are rarely found anywhere else in the world.
However except in few cases, tea tourism is not yet meant for the budget travelers. The luxury and special intimate experience in the gardens don’t come cheap. Having said that, there are some gardens where tea tourism is affordable for the mid-budget travelers as well and the experience is no less in any respect.
And in some others like Makaibari Tea Estate, the garden workers and villagers have extended their houses to make home stays for tourists on low budget and offer them homemade food and a nice glimpse into the tea garden life as well. In most cases, there are all inclusive packages available including transfers, meals and garden activities. And in some estates, you get options for room only rates and additional charges for food and other activities offered by the estate.
Remember, staying in plantation estates is not like staying in a five star luxury hotel. You cannot compare the amenities one to one. Tea garden stays are meant to bring you closer to the nature and the tea garden life, organic food etc. In most tea gardens, the properties are managed and services provided by those who are picked up from the estate workers community and not by professionals as in the five star hotels.
Some Popular Tea Estates
Glenburn Tea Estate & Retreat, Darjeeling
A 1,600 acres of sprawling tea estate perched on a hill slope with elevation ranging from 3,200ft down to 800ft where there are two rivers flowing through the estate. There is also a forest along the river side which is part of the estate. There are two plush bungalows with 4 suites each and having stunning views of the valleys and mountains, and a campsite lodge by the river side. Glenburn is about 1 hours 15 minutes from Darjeeling town and 3 hours from Bagdogra Airport or Siliguri.
Tumsong Tea Estate & Retreat, Darjeeling
Located in Ghoom area of Darjeeling, Tumsong has a rolling tea garden on an estate that spreads over 186 hectars of land area and on an open hill slope with elevations varying between 5,500 ft to 2,700 ft. The Manager’s Bunglow retains the old colonial aura and offers four large suites. Tumsong is about 3 hours from Bagdogra airport / Siliguri, and about 1 hour 15 minutes from Darjeeling town center.
Selim Hill Tea Estate & Retreat, Kurseong
Setup in 1870 by a British planter, Selim Hill has a 170 hectare tea plantation area located 50kms from Darjeeling with sweeping views of the mountains. The tea garden employs over 200 workers who come from four different villages that are part of the estate. The old Planter’s Bungalow has four luxurious double rooms, a living room, dining room, a large veranda and a wonderful garden with many different flowers and magnificent views.
Goomtee Tea Estate & Resort, Kurseong
Located near Kurseong, Goomtee Tea Estate is an organic tea garden producing some of the finest orthodox Darjeeling tea. The Bungalow located within the estate has sweeping views of the mountains, valleys and gardens. It has four double rooms and used to be the residence of a British planter and his family. Goomtee is located 48kms from Darjeeling (2hrs) and 40kms from Siliguri/Bagdogra.