Christmas in Darjeeling


Of all places to spend Christmas in India, I think we hit the jackpot with Darjeeling.

dar-christmas-tree.jpg From the moment we first spied the fruit mince tarts with their dustings of icing sugar piled high in glass cabinets at the local bakery, I knew we were in the right place. For a country such as India, where the syrupy, ghee-laden balls of ‘gulab jamun’ dominate the sweet displays of most cities, this seemed to be a little sign that there was a touch of Christmas spirit in the air.

Of course, India is a country renowned for its incredible religious diversity. Hindu, Muslim, Sufi, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist, Christian, Zoroastrian, all co-exist – generally peacefully, sometimes unfortunately with fiery consequences – and pursue their individual brands of faith and worship all over the country. We can awake to the morning chant of ‘Allah Akbar’; stumble upon a monastery where clanging bells and haunting horns announce the puja; witness the daily, ritual bathings of Hindus in the holy lake. Even so, it was a little surprising to encounter a Christmas with all the trimmings in this remote Indian city.

Four local churches invited people to attend their evening services on Christmas Day, and wandering the steep lanes of the city, you would frequently come across small timber houses (named ‘Ave Maria’ and the like) – their verandahs decorated with nativity scenes, metallic stars and colourful, holly-entwined wreaths. Even the non-Christian community seemed to get into the decoration action (although I suspect this was a consequence of the Indian penchant for a bit of colour-and-movement… nothing like a couple of thousand fairy lights to brighten things up a bit!)

For a while there, it seemed as though we might even have ourselves a white Christmas to complete the picture. As it was, Darjeeling was almost a postcard example of yuletide bliss with fir trees soldiering down the hillsides of the city and garlands of tinsel festooning the local streets. Instead, we just had some crisp wintery weather and brilliant blue skies to accompany our own ‘joyeux noel’ in the Himalayas.

Darjeeling is an old hill station town with a curious blend of olde-worlde English architecture (a relic from the colonial days of the British Raj), a strong cultural influence from both the local Tibetan and Nepalese populations (courtesy of a history of rather porous borders between Darjeeling and the neighbouring regions), as well as a bit of the usual Indian mayhem thrown in for good measure. As a result, we celebrated a rather quirky Christmas that seemed to typify the eclecticism of the region.

To begin the festivities, we started with a fry-up for breakfast at the local dining institution – ‘Glenary’s’. This restaurant was apparently bequeathed by the original English owners to a local Nepalese family in the mid 19th century, and their descendants have subsequently carried on the fine English tradition of providing greasy breakfasts and tipsy pudding to the grateful, hungry local masses ever since. With a superb view over the valley, a copy of the local ‘Indian Times’ in hand and the (not so) sonorous sounds of Celine Dion-style Christmas carols in the background, Glenary’s provided the perfect spot for a leisurely morning, a phone-call home and a drop of Darjeeling tea (though of course, being sacrilegious caffeine fiends, we opted for coffee instead)

Afterwards, we enjoyed a little present-opening beneath our D.I.Y. wrapping paper Christmas tree and the gaze of the omnipresent mountain ranges peeking through our hotel window. (Thankyou Christophe, for the comb. My dreadlocked hair shall surely appreciate it! I hope you like the clean socks – you won’t need to wash again til next year. Aaah – the joys of Christmas!) We then joined our new Dutch friend and trekking buddy, Rocky (not his real name!) for a splash-up Christmas lunch – a Thai stir-fry-meets-Indian curry-meets-Danish-beer extravaganza. Nothing, if not cross-cultural!

To add to the eclecticism of the day we then hit the local cinema for a little Bollywood action. (We briefly dabbled with the idea of attending one of those church services for some peace-and-serenity-and-hymn-singing, but decided that we would worship at the altar of Bollywood instead. We prefer our idols with blow-waved hair and a bit of lip-syncing). This time, for our viewing pleasure, it was a stupendously over-the-top comedy flick – think ‘Plan 9 from Outer Space’ dodgy special effects meet ‘Pussycat Dolls’ dance routines. Curiously, for the generally conservative and puritan India, there was more bare flesh and gratuitous bikini-shots on-screen than an episode of ‘Temptation Island’. Needless to say, everyone lived happily-ever-after and we emerged from the cinema beaming ear-to-ear from the wonderful inanity of it all.

Afterwards, it was off to the pub for some fiery Indian hot toddies. We settled into the red vinyl booth at ‘Buzz’, the hip-and-happening local watering hole (the decor seemingly lifted straight out of an episode of ‘Happy Days’), and enjoyed the festive, musical program for the evening – a local garage band oscillating between their favourite Nirvana tracks and some cheesy, jingle-bell rock. All-in-all, a very merry Christmas…

Anyway – we hope you all had as lovely and surprising a Christmas as we did. And just in case we are a little tardy with our future seasons greetings – all the very best for the new year as well!

(By the way, we even managed to polish off the evening with a serving of plum pudding. Not a patch, of course, on the sacred O’Brien family recipe consisting of 1-part dried fruits to 2-parts 18-year-old Jameson’s Irish Whisky – but very tasty all the same!)

2 Responses to “Christmas in Darjeeling”

  1. 1 Greg Posted January 5th, 2008 - 1:57

    Bonne année à tous les 2 et Bonne route!

    A bientôt

  2. 2 christophe Posted January 11th, 2008 - 17:23

    Salut Greg,

    Bonne Annee a vous 3 egalement!
    Et bon Anniv’ tant qu’il n’est pas trop tard!


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