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Darjeeling

The name `Darjeeling` came from the Tibetan words, `dorje` meaning thunderbolt (originally the sceptre of Indra) and `ling` a place or land, hence `the land of the thunderbolt`. Darjeeling is the northernmost district of the Jalpaiguri Division in West Bengal. It is part of the Eastern Himalayan geographic zone and is a buffer state bounded on the north by Sikkim, on the south by Kishanganj district of Bihar state and North Dinajpur, on the east by Jalpaiguri district, on the west by Nepal, on the North East by Bhutan and on the South East by Bangladesh. Darjeeling town is the headquarters of the district. 

On 14 February 2017, Kalimpong Municipality and the three community development blocks of Kalimpong I, Kalimpong II and Gorubathan were split from Darjeeling to form the 21st district of West Bengal.  The new district of Kalimpong has its headquarters in Kalimpong town.

1835 was a landmark year in the history of Darjeeling. Formerly a part of Sikkim (now one of the federal states in India, but then an independent kingdom) and for a brief period of Nepal, it was acquired by the British East India Company under Lord Bentinck through a Deed of Grant. Thus the Hill Territory of Darjeeling, a narrow enclave of 138 square miles, was gifted to the British – an unconditional cessation - for which the Raja was rewarded with a handsome gift and an annual allowance.  

Immigrants from neighbouring states of Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan were encouraged to move and cultivate the mountain slopes to stimulate trade and commerce. As a result, it is believed that from not more than 100 in 1835, the population rose to 10,000 in 1849. By 1852, an excellent sanatorium had been built and experimental cultivation of tea, coffee and fruits had been introduced. There was a huge growth in population, due not only to the influx of settlers but also because of the phenomenal growth of the tea industry which rose from a mere 74 tea gardens in 1872 to 177 in 1891.

Meanwhile, the British annexed the entire Sikkim Terai, that is, the sub division of Siliguri and in the hills, `the whole southern part of Sikkim, between the Great Rangeet and the plains of India, and from Nepal on the west to the Bhutan frontier and the Tista river on the east`. By 1864, the Bhutan Duars (Dooars) with the passes leading into the hills and Kalimpong were ceded to the British and by 1866, Darjeeling district had assumed its present shape and size.

The district extends from sub tropical plains at about 91 metres above sea level to an altitude of 3658 metres on the Sandakfu-Phalut ridge. The hill areas of Darjeeling District are located within the Lesser and Sub-Himalayan belts of the Eastern Himalayas, bounded by the Sikkim Himalaya in the north, the Bhutan Himalaya in the east and Nepal Himalaya in the west. The southern foothill belt, the Terai, stretching from the Darjeeling Hill to the west and Kalimpong Hill to the east and overlooking the southerly flowing Tista valley is demarcated by terraced slopes. The prominent rivers of this region are the Tista, Great Rangit, Mechi, Balason, Mahananda, Lish, Gish, Chel, Ramman, Murti and Jaldhaka. There are different climatic zones with distinctive attributes and there are endangered animals like the red panda, etc along with memory orchids and medicinal plants  available in this hilly region. 

However, the district’s forests and other natural resources have been affected by the ever-growing population during the last several decades. According to the 2011 census, the urban agglomeration in Darjeeling today has a population of 1,846,823 of which 60.58%  live in rural areas.  

The population of Darjeeling is exceedingly heterogeneous. The original inhabitants of the hilly regions are the Lepchas or Rong-pa (the ravine people)and of the Terai region, the Rajbongshis; but Darjeeling owes a large proportion of its population to immigrants. Encouraged by the prospect of easily acquired wealth, as labourers in the tea gardens or as “coolies” (porters) and “dandy bearers” or as cultivators -  the majority of the people in the hills are various ethnic tribes of Nepalese origin, with the Gorkhas, renowned for their military prowess the world over, constituting the greater bulk of these people.There are also a large number of Bhutias and Tibetans; settlers from the neighbouring districts of Purnea (in Bihar) and Jalpaiguri who came in as cultivators;and a large number of tribes from Chhota Nagpur and Santal Parganas who were lured by the wages in the tea gardens. Communities who later settled in the district include Bengalis, Marwaris, Biharis and Anglo Indians, to name a few. 

Darjeeling thus offers a vast mix of spoken languages: in the hills, mainly Nepali, Nepali-Hindi or Khas and in the plains, Bengali, Hindi and English. Other spoken languages that prevail are Tibetan, Lepcha and a whole host of Northern tribal dialects; in the Terai tea gardens, Oraon, Mundari and Santali are spoken.

The two main economic activities in the region are tea manufacturing and tourism. The district has been a major tourist destination since 1860. Due to the unique climatic condition of the region, Darjeeling tea, the main crop in the region, has a distinct flavour and is internationally reputed. In 2004, it became the first product in India to be registered under the Geographical Indications of Goods Act of 1999 (GI Act). There are 87 tea plantations in and around Darjeeling town today.

The cultural diversity of Darjeeling makes it quite distinct from the rest of West Bengal. The major religions are Hinduism and Buddhism, both of which seem to have influenced local Nepali folk culture. In addition to Hindu festivals like Durga Puja, Diwali, Saraswati Puja etc., there are local folk rituals and festivals unique only to this region. The Lepchas and Bhutias celebrate the New Year in January, while the Tibetans perform the masked Cham dance in their monasteries on the eve of the Losar festival to celebrate their New Year in February. Other folk dances performed during festivals and fairs include robust folk dances like the Dhan Naach and the Chyabrung of the Limbus, the Damphu Naach or Tamang Selo of the Tamangs, and the most popular of them all, the scintillating Maruni. Folk songs like the Jhowre, Juhari, Rosia, Baloon and Malsiri are popular. Lahankari is a popular form of folk music in the Terai region. Similar to Bhawaiya, it is sung in simple Rajbongshi.

The folk crafts of Darjeeling show influences from neighbouring Tibet, Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan. Apart from hill jewellery and handlooms like the Lepcha chador, there is also fine craftsmanship in its metal sculptures, wood carvings, wooden masks and bamboo and cane basketry. Beautiful copper and brassware studded with red and blue stones with engravings of replicas of deities are made by the Bhutia artisans.Striking woollen carpets with traditional iconography are created by both the Bhutias and Tibetans, and the unique Thanka paintings, depicting the life of Lord Buddha, by Nepali and Tibetan artists.




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