We left North Sikkim early in the morning.
We had breakfast at 6AM and were packed and in the jeep by 7AM.
The drive south was beautiful, despite the narrow treacherous roads that were full of pot holes.
We had to exchange our car for a car that was registered in the state of West Bengal, and not in Sikkim.
At that point, we also said our warm farewells to our Sikkim guide Tashi, and, by the side of the road, we met again our old driver Raju, and drove south to Kalimpong.
Our guesthouse in Kalimpong belongs to General Jimmy Singh, who organized our lovely tour in Sikkim.
General Jimmy does not live in the house any more, as he has moved to the rural village of Samthar, a few hours away.
The house is now operated as a guest house by his business partner Catherine, who is also our guide Sudesh’s sister.
Catherine welcomed us with open arms and a huge smile.
Her young boy, Ron, is a delightful and very confident little boy who speaks very good English.
They took us to our cottage, which has a separate living room, a warm bedroom and even a separate sitting area for drinking tea, along with a cable TV.
The city of Kalimong spreads over the hills that surround it.
Only the busy market area is down by the main road, while most of the nice houses are spread out over the hills.
We stayed in Kalimpong for two days.
We had some interesting conversations with Catherine about the political situation in Gorkhaland and how it all started, how it developed and what the Gorkhas were hoping to achieve.
Many of the Gorkhas initially arrived form Nepal to work in the tea plantations in Darjeeling, Kalimpong, and the surrounding areas.
This happened in the 1800’s, and by now, those who had come from Nepal and lived and settled in India, do not see themselves as Nepalese any more, but as Indian nationals.
They are very PROUD to be Indians, and they are deeply offended when they meet people from other parts of India, who ask them where they come from…
They say that they are from Darjeeling or Kalimpong, and they report that people furrow their brows as if trying to locate those places on an imaginary geographic map… And then they inevitably say: “Oh! You are Nepalese!”
Catherine said that it hurt her very much that people do not consider her and her people to be Indians.
In fact, she said that all the Gorkhas feel this way….
They are Indians and they want to be acknowledged as such.
The Gorkhaland movement does NOT aim for separation from India, but only from the West Bengal State, with the hope of establishing their own separate state which the rest of India will recognize.
When Catherine spoke about how proud she was to be an Indian, her little boy Ron, who is a very animated kid, got off his chair and started demonstrating around the living room how he marched holding the Indian flag, on India’s Independent’s day…
I was a bit confused…. I asked Catherine to explain how had the situation escalated to become bloody, and why people had gotten shot over this conflict… After all, why would the West Bengali people object to the separation, and wish to harm the Gorkhas over this issue?…
Catherine said that it was NOT the West Bengalis who had gotten violent, but her own people who had turned on one another, over the conflict about who should lead the hill council in this region.
Yes, West Bengal does not want this separation to occur for a few reasons.
One of them is tax revenue, voting influence and resource control, and the other is a matter of national pride.
West Bengal sees itself as the most beautiful State in India, with the stunning Himalayas to the North and the Bay of Bengal to the south…
No other State in India is as beautiful and geographically diverse as Bengal.
The local Gorkhas are those who are fighting amongst themselves, over who will lead the battle to establish their own state of Gorkhaland.
Almost twenty years ago, the central Government of India legally appointed a Gorkha Hill Council.
A lot of money and funding goes to this area from the central government, to support good schools, programs and hospitals.
For a long time the Gorkhas had their own leaders who served on the hill council, and were elected by them.
In recent years, newer and younger leaders have emerged.
Some shootings of opposing politicians have occurred, and the new politicians have convinced the people to believe that the old hill council is outdated, out of touch, and will never get things done…
They did it with the help of popular TV.
Believe it or not…. It was the popular television show “Indian Idol” (like “American Idol”) which tipped the scales, and convinced people to support the opposition.
This is how it went down…
A boy from Darjeeling had made it to the finals of Indian Idol.
The whole of Gorkhaland was exploding with pride….. One of their OWN…. A Darjeeling- born boy… was FINALLY being recognized as an official INDIAN…
The whole of the population of the region, text messaged the show to vote for the boy from Darjeeling.
Even old ladies who did not own mobile phones nor watched TV, even school kids, EVERYONE voted multiple times for the boy from Darjeeling.
Rallies were held to promote awareness that their own pride was on the line, and to urge everyone to vote for him.
At the same time, the leaders of the Hill Council were traveling on business.
In TV interviews, they made no reference to the Boy from Darjeeling, nor to the “Indian Idol” show.
The opposition took this opportunity to inflame the people, by saying that their leaders were very out of touch with what was “happening” in their own land…. They were so out of it, that they did not even realize what monumental times those were….. That their OWN boy was competing in the finals….
The boy from Darjeeling won.
The ecstatic happiness turned into a round of riots.
The road from the busy city of Siliguri all the way to Darjeeling, and further on, to Kalimpong, was completely blocked by cars who were there to welcome the winning boy home…
The opposition won the support of the people, even though it was not recognized by the central Indian Government.
When the leaders of the Gorkha hill council came back from their trip, they were stopped on the road, and were not permitted to go back to their houses.
They were forcefully told that if they resisted and tried to go home, they would be killed.
Most of them resettled in Siliguri, and have not returned home since then…
The rest of the old leaders had no other choice but to move to Delhi or Mumbai, leaving their family homes in the hills empty, and full of their memories and belongings.
The next day we went with Catherine and Sudesh to a Sunday mass at St. Theresa’s catholic church.
Catherine is Christian, along with about twenty five percent of the other locals in the region.
The rest of the locals are Buddhists or Hindus.
It was a lovely old church, which has been decorated by local artists.
There were paintings and wood carvings and stained glass.
The services were charming, with the local congregation singing along with the choir.
Their sweet voices carried up into the high ceilings of the church.
The women sat in a separate section from the men and they wore head coverings.
Most of the songs were in the local Nepalese language, but some were in sweetly accented English.
I remember one which went something like this:
“You are won-dii- full
You are Beau-tii- full
The paintings on the walls of the church used to depict Jesus and his disciples as bald and wearing saffron colored robes.
This is how the locals who, before they had heard of Jesus and only knew how Buddhist monks dressed, believed that holy men must have looked.
Holy people were those who had given up lives of desire, pleasure and the search for material comforts. They had shaved their heads, and wore only saffron robes.
For a long time, images of a bald Jesus with his bald disciples decorated this church.
Only in the last few years, when the paintings had faded and needed to be redone, did someone who had been overseas tell them that Jesus does not at all look bald, and that he had not worn a saffron colored robe.
Jesus, they were admonished by “educated people,” “was supposed to have long hair and a white robe, as depicted in many of the Churches in the Western world.”
Of course they were wrong….
Renaissance artists were those who started depicting Jesus as wearing his hair long and with long white robes.
It was their attempt to show Jesus as an attractive young man, as was the fashion in those times.
Fashionable men used to wear their hair long at that time in Europe, and so they concluded that the Prince among men MUST have worn his hair long also…
But in fact, two thousands years ago when Jesus lived in the land of Israel, in a hot climate and with a culture of middle-eastern people, it was NOT fashionable for men to wear their hair long at all, regardless of how the painters, artists and movie makers in the past few hundreds of years depicted him.
So…. at Saint Theresa’s church, they repainted Jesus and his disciples and gave them long flowing blond hair.
But inside the church, the old woodcarvings still depict Jesus and his disciples as bald monks wearing saffron robes, and the wood carvings on the church door hold similarities to Buddhist auspicious symbols, and not to any Christian symbols.
That Sunday, we also visited a Buddhist monastery called Sanga Tharpa Choling, and
a Kali Mandir Hindu temple, which is frequented by Kali devotees.
We also visited a Lord Krishna Temple called Mangal Dham, which was a huge temple with a most impressive collection of colorful statues depicting scenes from Lord Krishna’s life.
Lord Krishna’s life had a lot of similarities to that of Jesus of Nazareth.
Both were born to a virgin,
Both were able to perform miracles like avert or stop storms, heal the sick, and multiply the physical to manifest food or whatever was needed for the fearful people.
By sunset, we visited another Buddhist monastery on the hill called Zang Dhog Phelri Nyingmapa Monastery.
Or more accurately:
Hogmin ngayab zangdok palri phodang tsenpo
The visibility was excellent, and we could see the whole mountain range of Kanchanjanga .
Before dinner we walked around town, visited some of the curio shops and bought an old and used hand-held Buddhist prayer wheel, and a unique drum.
Food was excellent at Gurudongma house where we were staying in Kalimpong.
Lunch was served on the lawn, and consisted of delicious Veg meatballs with a tomato sauce, okra, roasted eggplant, a fresh salad, tomato soup, tea, and a slice of fresh pineapple with honey.
We had our last dinner with Catherine and her son Ron, who told us about the evolution of the Christian community in Kalimpong.
The churches do a lot of good in bringing the community together and urging people to help one another and be charitable.
The priests asked people in the congregation to divide into small home groups of no more than ten households, and to meet weekly to study together, pray together and help one another understand the Christian teaching.
This effort to divide people into small communal groups in which they get to know one another very intimately, inevitably helps everyone, and uplifts those of lower consciousness by giving them a chance to see how other people live and think.
Aside from the volatile political situation and the busy, smoky market area, Kalimpong is a very livable city, with beautiful Raj-era homes on the hills, and with flowers overflowing onto the roads from every property.
There is great religious diversity here, and as I look over the snowy peaks of the Himalayas surrounding this city, a feeling of peace and calm settled over my heart.