The precise etymology of the name Kalimpong means Land of Kings. There are many theories on the origin of the name. One widely-accepted theory claims that the name “Kalimpong” means “Assembly (or Stockade) of the King’s Ministers” in Tibetan, derived from kalon (“King’s ministers”) and pong (“stockade”). It may be derived from the translation “ridge where we play” from Lepcha, as it was known to be the place for traditional tribal gatherings for summer sporting events. People from the hills call the area Kalempung (“the black spurs”).
According to K.P. Tamsang, author of The Untold and Unknown Reality about the Lepchas, the term Kalimpong is deduced from the name Kalenpung, which in Lepcha means “Hillock of Assemblage”; in time, the name was distorted to Kalebung, and later further contorted to Kalimpong. Another possible derivation points to Kaulim, a fibrous plant found in abundance in the region.
Until the mid-19th century, the area around Kalimpong was ruled in succession by the Sikkimese and Bhutanese kingdoms. Under Sikkimese rule, the area was known as Dalingkot. In 1706, the king of Bhutan won this territory from the Sikkimese monarch and renamed it Kalimpong. Overlooking the Teesta Valley, Kalimpong is believed to have once been the forward position of the Bhutanese in the 18th century. The area was sparsely populated by the indigenous Lepcha community and migrant Bhutia and Limbu tribes. Later in 1780, the Gurkhas invaded and conquered Kalimpong. After the Anglo-Bhutan War in 1864, the Treaty of Sinchula (1865) was signed, in which Bhutanese held territory east of the Teesta River was ceded to the British East India Company. At that time, Kalimpong was a hamlet, with only two or three families known to reside there. The first recorded mention of the town was a fleeting reference made that year by Ashley Eden, a government official with the Bengal Civil Service. Kalimpong was added to district of Darjeeling in 1866. In 1866–1867 an Anglo-Bhutanese commission demarcated the common boundaries between the two, thereby giving shape to the Kalimpong subdivisionand the Darjeeling district.
After the war, the region became a subdivision of the Western Duars district, and the following year it was merged with the district of Darjeeling. The temperate climate prompted the British to develop the town as an alternative hill station to Darjeeling, to escape the scorching summer heat in the plains. Kalimpong’s proximity to the Nathu La and Jelep La passes (La means “pass”), offshoots of the ancient Silk Road, was an added advantage. It soon became an important trading outpost in the trade of furs, wools and food grains between India and Tibet. The increase in commerce attracted large numbers of migrants from Nepal, leading to an increase in population and economic prosperity. Britain assigned a plot within Kalimpong to the influential Bhutanese Dorji family, through which trade and relations with Bhutan flowed. This later became Bhutan House, a Bhutanese administrative and cultural center.
The arrival of Scottish missionaries saw the construction of schools and welfare centres for the British. Rev. W.Macfarlane in the early 1870s established the first schools in the area. The Scottish University Mission Institution was opened in 1886, followed by the Kalimpong Girls High School. In 1900, Reverend J.A. Graham founded the Dr. Graham’s Homes for destitute Anglo-Indian students. By 1907, most schools in Kalimpong started offering education to Indian students. By 1911, the population had swollen to 7,880.
Following Indian independence in 1947, Kalimpong became part of the state of West Bengal, after Bengal was partitioned between India and Pakistan. With China’s annexation of Tibet in 1959, many Buddhist monks fled Tibet and established monasteries in Kalimpong. These monks brought many rare Buddhist scriptures with them. In 1962, the permanent closure of the Jelep Pass after the Sino-Indian War disrupted trade between Tibet and India, and led to a slowdown in Kalimpong’s economy. In 1976, the visiting Dalai Lama consecrated the Zang Dhok Palri Phodang monastery, which houses many of the scriptures.