(c) satisshroff :The Kanch, revered by the Lepchas, Gorkhalis (Nepalis), Tibetans and Indians alike.
Gorkhali dancers doing the "Maruni" from Gorkhaland
Gangtok, Sikkim (c) satisshroff, freiburg, germany
Darjeeling sahar, battiko lahar, hernama dherai ramailo
Oh, Kanchenjunga (Satis Shroff)
A splash of the crimson rays of the sun appeared on the tip of the 8598m Kanchenjunga Range. Then it turned into orange and was gradually bathed in a yellowish tint, becoming extremely bright. You could discern the chirping of the Himalayan birds in the surrounding bushes and trees, amidst the clicking of cameras. I was on Tiger Hill. But my thoughts were elsewhere.
I was thinking about Kanchenjunga, my Hausberg as we are wont to call it in Germany, and the former memories of my school-days in the foothills of the Himalayas. These mountains had moulded and shaped me to overcome odds, like other thousands of other Gorkhalis, Nepalese, Lepchas, Bhutanese, Tibetans and Indians, from both sides of the Himalayas. I have watched the Kanchenjunga ever since I was a child in its different moods and seasonal changes. Cloud-watching over the Kanchenjunga was always a fascinating pastime whether from Ilam, Sikkim or Darjeeling´s Tiger Hill or even Sandakphu. To the Sikkimese the Kanchenjunga has always been a sacred mountain, and on its feet are precious stones, salt, holy sciptures, healing plants and cereals. It is a thousand year belief and tradition that the Himalayas, the abode of the Gods, should not be sullied by the feet of mortals.
Oh Kanchenjunga, you have taught us Gorkhalis and Nepalis to keep a stiff upper-lip in the face of adversity created by humans in this world and to light a candle, rather than to curse the darkness. To adapt, share and assimilate, rather than go under when the going gets tough in foreign shores. The Himalayas have taught us to be resilient and to bear pain without complaining, to search for solutions and to keep our ideals high, and not to forget our rich culture, tradition and religious beliefs.
After a brisk drive through pine-forested areas and blue mountains, I was rewarded by a vision of the Kanchenjunga Massif in all its majesty. At Ghoom, which is the highest point along the Hill Cart road, we went to the 19th century Buddhist monastery, about 8km from Darjeeling. In the massive, pompous pagoda-like building with a yellow rooftop, was a shrine of the Maitree Buddha, with butter lamps and Buddhist scarves in gaudy scarlet, white and gold.
It´s was a feast for the eyes. Tibetan art in exile. You go through the rooms of the museum which has precious Buddhist literature, traditional Himalayan ritual masks and a numismatic collection in the centre of the room, with coins and currency from Tibet that were in circulation till 1959. A small friendly lama-apprentice posed for a photograph of the tourists. And another little Buddha,with jet-black hair, suddenly came up, behind a mask of a Tibetan demon with ferocious-looking teeth, and sprang in front of us to get photographed for posterity.
A blue coloured Darjeeling Himalayan train built in 1881 by Sharp, Steward & Co, Glasgow, chugged along on its way to Kurseong (Khar-sang), another hill station along the route from Darjeeling to Siliguri in the plains of India. There were young Gorkhali boys from Ghoom, having a jolly time, jumping in and out of the running toy-train, with the conductor shouting at them and doing likewise, and trying to nab one of them. But the Ghoom boys were far better and faster than the ageing, panting train-conductor, whose tongue almost hanged out of his red face. It was a jolly tamasha indeed. A spectacle for the passengers amidst the breath-taking scenery in tea-country.
I thought about my friend Harka, who used to live in Ghoom, and who was one of those boys during my school-days. The last I heard of him was when he and his dear wife invited yours truly and a student friend named Tekendra Karki, now a physician in Katmandu, to have excellent Ilam tea with Soaltee Oberoi sandwiches. Tek and I were doing our BSc then at Tri Chandra college in Katmandu.
Along the side of the mini railway track, reminiscent of the Schwabian Eisenbahn from Biberach , were groups of vendors of Tibetan origin selling used clothes, trinkets, belts, bags and most other accessoirs that you find being sold along the Laden La road, leading to Chowrasta in Darjeeling.
A short drive to the Batasia loop, where the blue train made a couple of loops during its descent to Darjeeling, and suddenly you saw the clouds above the silvery massif, rising languidly in the morning.
The families of the British officers used to retreat to the hills of Darjeeling, Simla, Naini Tal to escape from the scorching heat of the India summer, and carried out their social lives and sport under the shadow of the Himalayas. Cricket, polo, pony-riding,soccer. You can still go to the Gymkhana and do roller-skating, try out a Planter's Punch and, of course, a First Flush or dust Darjeeling tea to suit your pocket. The Chogyal of Sikkim gave the hill-station Darjeeling to the British as a gesture of Friendship, for the Sikkimese fought with the British troops against the Nepalese in the Anglo-Nepalese Wat (1814-15). The British government thanked the Chogyal of Sikkim and rewarded him with a handsome annual British pension.Didn't he become a vassal of Great Britian after this act?
I went with my burly Gorkha school-friend to Dow Hill via Kurseong, past the Tuberculosis sanatorium, in a World War II vintage jeep driven by a Gorkha named Norden Lama, who had blood-shot eyes and a whiff of raksi. There´s no promillen control (alcohol-on-wheels) in Darjeeling, and in the cold winter and rainy monsoon months it isn´t unusual to find jeep and truck-drivers stopping to take a swig of raksi, one for the road, to keep themselves warm. I must admit, I felt relieved when we reached our destination in one piece.
Driving along the left track of the autobahn at 150 km per hour is safe compared to all the curves that one has to negotiate along the Darjeeling trail on misty days. We were rewarded with excellent ethnic Rai-cuisine comprising dal-bhat-shikar cooked with coriander, cumin, salt, chillies, garlic, ginger and love. My school friend who´s a Chettri, a high caste Hindu, known for the ritual purity and pollution thinking, had married a Rai lady, much to the chagrin of his parents, but unlike Amber Gurung´s sad song "Ma amber huh, timi dharti," they were extremely happy and had come together after the principle: where there´s a will, there´s a way. Or "miya bibi raaji, to kya kareyga kaji."
As is the custom among Gorkhalis, we ritually washed our hands, sat down cross-legged, put a little food symbolically for the Gods and Goddesses, and relished our meal without talking. Talking during meals is bad manners in the Land of the Gorkhas, Nepal and the diaspora where the Gorkhalis and Nepalese live.Gorkhaland is a dream of people who cam from Nepal through migration to the British tea gardens, roads and toy-train workshops in Tindharia, and since the roads have gained importance after the British left and in the aftermath of the Indo-Chinese conflict in 1962, there was a need for the roads to be repaired by the Indian government and what better workers to hire in the foothills of the Himalayas than the sturdy, willing helpers of Nepalese origin who have lived in the area since generations.
Just as the government of Nepal under King Mahendra and Birendra carried out resettlement programms for the hill people who were eternally foraging for work in the plains (Terai) and India, the Bengal government did the same through its bureaucratic rules of transferring the Nepalese of Darjeeling district who had worked in the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway to the plains at Katihar and other places. It was a difficult transfer for the Gorkhalis, and they not only had to battle with the beastly and scorching sun of the the Indian plains but also had to learn to communicate in Hindi, Bihari, Bengali and English with the arrogant Bengalis. On the other hand, the Bengali babus started coming in teeming numbers to the hills of Darjeeling fleeing from the plains of Calcutta, and delighted at the prospects of living in the hills of Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong with perks and enjoying the fresh air and Nature, especially Kanchanjunga. The mountain took a new meaning for the Bengalis and Satyajit Ray was inspired to produce and direct a film with the title Kanchenjunga. It became „Amar Kanchanjunga" for the Bengalis.And thereby hangs a tale.