Most travellers visit Darjeeling for its tea plantations, lovely views and cooler climate but there’s also a thriving Tibetan culture in Darjeeling India. Beneath the snow-capped peak of Mount Kanchenjunga, Darjeeling is located in the Indian state of West Bengal.
A Touch of Tibet
When asked if he misses Tibet, Gyalo Thoundup lowers his eyes and sighs wistfully.
I’m standing in the courtyard of Darjeeling’s Tibetan Refuge Self Help Centre, a facility set up for Tibetan refugees who followed the Dalai Lama to India in 1959.
The site of this charitable organization, of which Thoundup is president, was a gift from the American Emergency Committee and has its own school, dairy, living quarters and numerous workshops.
In the centre’s courtyard, elderly men are gathering bundles of wool to be sent to the spinning factory.
A homemade wooden ladder with crooked rungs leans against one of the buildings, where wool lies drying on the rooftop.
In return for labour, each member of the centre receives free medical assistance, food and pocket money.
Although it’s a simple existence, the Tibetans I meet have cheerful dispositions and an unshakable zest for life.
In the spinning room, rows of elderly women offer toothy smiles as they feed rolls of wool into a rotating bicycle wheel.
With the influx of Tibetan refugees over the years, the centre has grown from just four people to several hundred craft workers, many of them highly skilled.
However, it’s not only the skilled workers who contribute but the very young as well as the elderly.
The latter perform simple chores such as winding thread into balls and caring for the toddlers in the centre’s nursery.
In the carpet weaving hall, young women work in pairs fastidiously weaving gay Tibetan carpets.
Thick white threads are attached vertically between horizontal wooden poles. The weavers use their fingers to painstakingly tie multicoloured threads around each white strand to produce colourful knots which are packed tightly together using a heavy bronze comb.
While the centre’s handicraft shop has a large range of items like placemats, silk wall-hangings and woodcarvings, handmade carpets are the shop’s most popular item and are exported overseas.
The present waiting period to obtain one of these labour-intensive works of art is six months.
Tibetan singing bowls
I find myself attracted by the melodious chimes of the solid brass Tibetan singing bowls. The shop assistant demonstrates the musical resonance of the bowls by running a wooden stick around each rim to produce a different tone. The song of a mid-sized bowl beckons me and pretty soon I’m hooked.
As I wait for my bowl to be wrapped up, I notice a sign indicating that the 11th Panchen Lama – a Tibetan religious leader second in command to the Dalai Lama – has been held in custody by the Chinese government since 1995.
The six-year-old Panchen Lama, who vanished from his village, is believed to be the world’s youngest political prisoner.
As Tibetans are a spiritual people, it’s not surprising that there are plenty of Tibetan monasteries in Darjeeling.
Early one morning, at the ungodly hour of four am, I find myself freezing at the lookout on top of Tiger Hill.
Unfortunately, the clouds stubbornly refuse to reveal the spectacular view of the mountains at dawn.
On my way back to the town, my driver winds through a narrow street to arrive at the Ghoom monastery, an ancient monastery considered to be one of the holiest in Darjeeling.
Outside the monastery, Tibetan worshippers spin the long row of prayer wheels before removing their shoes to enter the monastery.
Several winding roads away from Darjeeling towards the nearby hill station of Mirik lies a brand new monastery, the Bokar Ngedhon Chokar Ling Institute.
Golden lions with green decorative trimmings and sharp teeth guard the entrance against evil spirits, as do the melodic voices of hundreds chanting monks.
Peering curiously through the vividly colourful door hangings, I’m surprised when a senior monk waves me in.
“Go ahead and take all the photos you want” he invites pointing at my camera. In many Buddhist cultures, monks are especially shy of women and hesitant to disrupt their daily prayers.
As the institute runs on donations, mainly from France, it’s not so surprising that these monks are accustomed to receiving visitors.
Stepping into the temple’s main prayer hall is just like stepping into a movie set, only better.
The harmony of the mantra lifts my spirits while the colourful – orange, yellow, green, blue and red – wall-hangings assault my senses.
A giant golden statue of Buddha surrounded by colourful patterned wall-hangings dominates the hall.
Two groups of crimson-robed monks sit in cross-legged rows facing each other. The very young novices, some look like they are seven or eight years old, sit at the back staring at me with interest while the senior monks are absorbed in their chanting.
My guide, Mickey, insists that we stop for a drop of tongba, a fermented millet drink popular among the Himalayan regions.
We pull up in front of a row of village shops at the India/Nepal border town of Pashupati.
The shop owner, a smiley woman in her 30’s whose parents had fled Tibet over 40 years ago, leads us through the shop to her living quarters.
There are two dilapidated single beds with mattresses that have seen better days, a chair and a homemade wooden table.
Giant bamboo mugs filled with dried millet and boiling water are placed in front of us.
Chattering away in Tibetan, our host is as excited about meeting me (I’m her first foreign guest) as I am about being in the home of a real Tibetan villager.
She disappears into the next room and returns with a pile of traditional Tibetan clothing which she obligingly models for us.
Many photographs and a few mugs later, it becomes clear to me that the Tibetan people in this land have mastered the art of being happy no matter what the circumstances.
I can’t help thinking that it’s an attitude towards life that many of us who live in more sophisticated societies could learn a lot from.
Windermere Hotel (Observatory Hill, Darjeeling, West Bengal) is a charming place to stay in Darjelling.
When in Darjeeling, it makes sense to visit Sikkim, the Himalayan Shangri-La, which is about a five-hour drive away.
For more ideas on information, see www.incredibleindia.org.