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Darjeeling: the Culture, the People and the Railway

By: Kent Courtney

People from India

An increasing number of people from India are moving into these United States as they seek the opportunities we have.  Many are opening businesses and are often seen running restaurants, motels, clothing and convenience stores.  They are frequently working in the information technology sector and many practice the healing arts.

It is little wonder that many people come to these United States from so many different countries.  Small business is the backbone of the free-enterprise system and small businesses emody the American Dream.

That Dream has been shared by many hard-working immigrants for generations.  The French, Spanish, English, Irish, Italian, Polish and many others have streamed through our welcoming gates to make this country what it is today.

A Diverse Country

India is a land of many contrasts.  Cultures, customs and cuisine define the sections of India into its various parts.  The Toda tribe and their huts in the Nilgiris contrast sharply with the Calcutta of Mother Theresa.  Let us take a look at one section of India that is probably one of the most well-known.

Darjeeling and its Tea

Since the time when the British started the tea plantations in 1841, Darjeeling is probably best known for its tea.  Nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas, it became a perfect place to grow distinctive hybrids of black tea.  Some of the finest teas in the world come from these hybrids, but it is the process of fermentation that gives the Darjeeling Tea its distinctive taste.  Mixing well with cream, vanilla and honey, it becomes an excellent base for what Americans think of as Chai.  The spicing of teas varies from region to region, but can contain cinnamon (from the peeled, dried and rolled bark of a Southeast Asian tree), cardamon, cloves, and peppers.

West Bengal

You have heard of the Bengal tiger.  They are from the region known in northern India as Bengal.  After the Independence of India in 1947, Darjeeling merged into the Indian state of West Bengal.   The town, Darjeeling, is the headquarters of the Darjeeling district.  It's about 7,000 feet high.  The British used Darjeeling as a Summer Capital during the intense summer heat of the plains.  After the Communist Chinese annexation of Tibet in 1950, thousands of Tibetan refugees settled across the Darjeeling district.  Because of its proximity to Nepal, there is a lot of Nepalese influence on the culture of Darjeeling.

Railway to the Clouds

Starting at Siliguri, crossing the Mahanuddy River and climbing up the steep hillsides using switchbacks and loops, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway was engineered by Franklin Presage and his staff, starting in 1878.  It only took two years to build the line from nearly sea level at Siliguri to the 7,000 foot elevation of Darjeeling.  This is because Presage chose a gauge of only two feet for the railway.  That means the distance between the rails is only twenty-four inches.  It was easy to construct, on the account of its small size.  For that reason, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway is nicknamed the Toy Railway. 


Darjeeling and its railway are very popular tourist destinations.  Because of the tremendous change in elevation, there is an incredible variety of vegitation.  Near Siliguri there are tea gardens, bamboo rushes, paddy fields and a forest of sal trees.  As the elevation increases, there are pines, oaks, chestnuts, then birches and maples.  Once you reach thousands of feet in elevation, the oaks and walnuts become draped with lichens, orchids and mosses.  Flowers are everywhere with rhododendrons, hydrangeas and magnolias covering a surreal mountainscape.

Educational Center

Darjeeling, because of its beauty and climate became an elite center.  Affluent Indian Maharajas of princely states and land-owning zamindars often visited Darjeeling.  There was also a seasonal influx of British during the period of the British Indian Empire.   In the 1800s, Scottish missionaries began the construction of schools.  To this day,  students can be seen in school uniforms in the streets of Darjeeling.

A Kaleidoscope of Darjeeling

In putting together the Darjeeling Video Channel, I've tried to include a selection of sights and sounds inspired by this remarkable section of India.  There is some good music here, including two polished versions of world music with Indian inspired styles.  There is folk music from the streets of Darjeeling and even an introductory lesson on Tabla Drums.  I am struggling to learn this complicated pair of drums, myself.

Click on the arrow, below, to view The Darjeeling Video Playlist.  Flash Player is required.


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Darjeeling: the Culture, the People and the Railway

By: Kent Courtney
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