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Notes on the Geography of Northern India: Darjeeling

India has hill stations that few foreigners have heard of--places like Nainital and Dalhousie and, from the old days of undivided India, Ziarat. Then it has the hill stations that everyone knows: Ooty in the south, Mahabaleshwar in the west, Shimla in the north, and Darjeeling in the east. Ranking is silly, but Darjeeling claims to be the queen of them all, perhaps because it was once the summer capital of Bengal, for a time India's richest province. From time to time, in addition, Darjeeling catches a view of the Himalaya, which doesn't hurt. Still, its glory days are behind it. This is partly because Darjeeling has grown from 17,000 people in 1900 to over 100,000. Translation: Darjeeling is another congested Indian town. Then there's air conditioning, which hurts because nobody down below is panting as they did in the old days when reading Murray's Handbook for Travellers in India.... Darjeeling, they read, is "a most agreeable residence.... The temperature averages 2 degrees above that of London all the year round."

See the 1924 edition of Murray's, p. 431.

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You can fly to Shimla, and there's a new road up to Sri Lanka's Nuwara Eliya. No luck at Darjeeling: you've got to take one old road or another. Here's the one used most often as it starts the climb up from the lowlands near Siliguri. The alternatives are even twistier--and unpaved.

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This one is two lane, more or less. It's National Highway 55 if you like, but it's really the Hill Cart Road, built in the 1860s to replace a road now known as the Old Military Road.

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Until 1883, visitors came up the Cart Road by tongas, light carriages. Then, in 1883, the famous narrow-gauge railway opened and took away the jobs of a brigade of tonga-wallahs.

If we're polite, we'll call this a rest area. The gentleman in the red shirt is enjoying the freedom that is a perquisite of his gender.

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Often the road is superimposed on the track, which means that vehicles have to be ready to move aside. That's not as tricky as it sounds, because the trains move at the speed of an entrained monarch. Anyway, when this picture was taken in 2016 most of the line was shut down; some kind of blockage.

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The last few miles were still in use, ferrying people back and forth between Ghum (or Ghoom) and Darjeeling, five miles farther. At 7,300 feet, Ghoom is the highest point on the line; from here on, the track descends to Darjeeling, which is about 600 feet lower.

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Most of the trains are pulled by diesel, but a few steamers are still in use.

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Ready to roll.

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The trains are too cute for use in action films.

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Except maybe here. This is the Batasia Loop, the fifth on the line. If you walk it, you'll find yourself above (or below) where you were five minutes before--provided you walk in the right direction.

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It's mid-morning, but this guy, at Batasia, is packing up and going home. He had hoped to rent binoculars to tourists eager to see the Himalaya, especially Kangchenjunga, 50 miles to the north, but clouds have shut him down. This is March, which is supposed to be the clearest month. Don't hold your breath.

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Here, in red stripes, is the Darjeeling train station. The turn-table is nice, but the most interesting thing is just off to the right. It's the steam-engine shed.

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So you're not a railway buff. Too bad: suffer. The gauge is 24 inches.

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The engines run on coal, delivered by truck. Doesn't that seem a little perverse?

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Enough trains. First impression of the town: good Lord.

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Could you find a less-suited place to build? Could you pack it any more tightly?

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Streets run more or less on contours, while paths and steps make shortcuts.

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Looking to open a fitness center? Don't even think about Darjeeling. Coals to Newcastle. Ice to Eskimos.

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You'd think the whole place would slide to oblivion, but there are lots of retaining walls. Someday someone will write a dissertation about who built these walls, when and how. Until then, we're stuck merely appreciating them.

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The sign reads "For Sale," as though building a house on this slope here would be the most sensible thing in the world. Duck soup. Don't mind the trash; learn not to see it.

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Second impression, besides steep and crowded? Well, like many hill stations this one arose in part as a sanatarium for ailing colonial officers. Then-captain George Lloyd came by in 1829 and wrote that he "was immediately struck with its being well adapted for the purpose of a sanitarium". A few years later, in 1835, the Raja of Sikkim ceded the site "out of friendship for the Government of the Company... for the purpose of enabling the servants of his Government suffering from sickness to avail themselves of its advantages." The text of the cession is a model of simplicity: "I, the Sikkimputtee Rajah, out of friendship for the said Governor-General, hereby present Darjeeling to the East India Company."

Splendidly generous, wasn't he? Well, it wasn't quite that simple, but the British got the land and then a simple sanatorium. It was greatly expanded in 1883 with the opening of the Eden Sanitarium, named for the just-departed Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal, Ashley Eden. It's still in business, greatly expanded. For the history of the British acquisition of Darjeeling, see L.S.S. O'Malley, Bengal District Gazetteers: Darjeeling, 1907, p. 19.

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We've come around to the other side of the hospital. There's a ravine here that passes the town's botanical garden.

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Close-up of the ravine. Fifty years ago, V.S. Naipaul got in trouble for castigating Indian sanitation. Maybe things have improved since then, but there's a way to go.

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So--second impression--the place is dirty as well as steep and crowded. It's also--third impression--busy, as this picture of the central taxi stand suggests. The building is a reminder that contractors didn't go home with the Brits. There's plenty of new stuff, unremarkable except for the speed with which it gets grimy.

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Here you go: a fine example of work in progress.

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New buildings squeezed in behind the old.

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Back to the taxi stand and the place to buy tickets to Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim and about 60 miles to the north. Call it four hours. No longer a monarchy, Sikkim since 1975 has been part of India.

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The taxi stand adjoins the bazaar.

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You associate India with rice and wheat and maybe sorghum and sugarcane, but somewhere in the last couple of centuries corn came along.

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So did formula retail. The British built an enclosed skating rink here; it also served as a dance floor. Time moves on, and now this is the Rink Mall, a shopping center whose main tenant is an India-wide supermarket.

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As slogans go, this one is unusually accurate: "New India's Market."

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We're come up to the ridgetop and Chowrasta, the plaza of the "four roads." Call it Darjeeling's Piccadilly Circus. The good thing about it is that vehicles are prohibited.

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The bad thing is that a theater has been created at one end of the plaza so a monster television can play Nat Geo Wild. The site used to be Brabourne Park, named for a governor in the 1930s.

The golden statue is of Bhanubhakta Acharya, a 19th century poet who translated the Ramayana into Nepali.

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Plaques get carried to an extreme in India, but the officials who unveil them today are only following in the footsteps of the Britishers. You don't believe me?

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Then come over here to the other end of the plaza and this defunct fountain.

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The inscription recalls Sir Ashley Eden, CSI, CIE, Lieutenant-General of Bengal. He's the same Eden we met at the sanitarium. It's easy to confuse him with his more famous uncle George, who was governor-general of India about 1840.

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On the plaza early in the morning.

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How long has Oxford Book been here? At least since 1956, when it was listed in that year's edition of Murray's Handbook--without which thou shalt not set foot on the subcontinent. Unless you have an earlier edition, of course.

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The neighboring store claims to have been in business a lot longer than that.

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This pharmacy is listed in Murray's for 1924.

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Interior.

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You can see at least two rows of the retaining walls that keep the building from sliding to oblivion.

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Glenary's bakery and cafe.

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Same, from another angle.

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Keventer's belonged to Edward Keventer, who had came from Scandinavia and then opened stores here and also in Delhi and Calcutta. The stock today is sparse, probably because Big Bazaar is two minutes away.

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Here's one of the oldest hotels in town: the Bellevue, from about 1872. As of 2016, this wing of the hotel was closed, but in its day it was probably a considerable improvement on the competition. An 1863 district handbook warned that accommodation in the hotel of that time was "inferior both in quantity and quality, the cuisine is bad, the khansama's charges are exorbitant...." Visitors were warned of "the stringy sheep, the muscular goat, the indigestible bread and the altogether-to-be abominated fowl."

The quotation is from J.G Hathorn, Handbook of Darjeeling, quoted in W.J. Buchanan, "Notes on Old Darjeeling," in Bengal: Past and Present, 2:6, 1908, p. 445.

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The New Elgin (now simply the Elgin) it was built a few years later as a summer home for the Maharaja of Cooch Behar, a small state about 100 miles to the southeast.

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And here, much modified, is the Darjeeling Club, once the social bastion of the ruling class. Originally it was called the Planter's Club and catered to the managers of the tea plantations surrounding Darjeeling.

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Old photos are on display.

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Judging from the vehicles, this photo was taken in the 1960s. Even then, the town was more spacious than it is now.

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The ultimate parking space, with its own verbose plaque. Buchanan begs to differ and says the the club "was purchased from the Maharajah of Cooch Behar for 95,000 rupees." See "Notes on Old Darjeeling," p. 448.

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The Art Deco wing was funded by and for a disbanded military unit.

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View from the club now. That would be Keventer's at the corner across the street.

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Behind the club there's this odd building.

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Any ideas?

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Here's the other side. You'll have to ask somebody.

What did they tell you? Right: it was built as residential quarters for the club's staff.

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View from those quarters down to the back of the club.

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We're going to go look for more colonial relics. Here's the most precious of them all: a path through the woods that's still a path through the woods.

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And here's the gate to the governor's house. This is about as close as we'll get to the house, but maybe we're not missing much: the place burned down and was rebuilt in stylish concrete in the 1930s.

The big trees all over town, by the way, are Cryptomeria japonica, or Japanese cedar, presumably a British introduction.

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On the grounds of the governor's house, perhaps this was offices or staff quarters. Not very interesting, you say? The British would have agreed with you. The district gazetteer published in 1907 sniffs: "The buildings in the town are all modern and of little interest."

See O'Malley, p. 188.

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The more things change, the more they same the same.

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Here's the house. The walkway seems to be an addition designed to carry a procession of pachyderms.

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I bet $100 that Rainbow in 1940 didn't have a fence.

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No fence here at what is probably the grandest house in town: it's the Anglican bishop's house, built originally as a summer home for the Archbishop of Calcutta but reassigned to the Bishop of Darjeeling after a new diocese was created.

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Lesser mortals made do with piles like this.

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Or this.

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Or this. Good luck if you think you can work out the history of who lived in these buildings over the generations.

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Lower-grade officials were assigned quarters in dormitories.

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Another view.

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A point in favor of these dormitories: they have splendid views of the mountains, if and when the clouds lift.

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This is the Town Hall, built (unbelievably) in 1921. Maybe we can blame the gloom on the clouds or the stained masonry.

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Another view of the same cheerful complex.

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Here's the contemporaneous post office, of which the most that can be said is that it's big. As the sign suggests, we're standing at the entrance to the Rink Mall.

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Here's the former Imperial Bank of India. Its coolly Ionic columns will have nothing to do with the gothic nonsense down the street.

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Another bank, noteworthy for the date over the gate. Modern architecture began to spread over the colonial world a few years later but never made it to Darjeeling, unless you count utilitarian blocks like the one on the right here.

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Sporting a new roof and new paint, this is the old Secretariat, built in 1898 to house the Government of Bengal when it moved up here during the hot weather in Calcutta. The brick used to be unpainted, and the roof was probably red to match. Metal roofs, by the way, have been standard here from the very beginning. As early as 1840, when every building in the settlement was wattle-and-daub, the roofs were already all of corrugated metal. It does raise a question about how the sheets were lugged up the Old Military Road, but perhaps the answer is just that simple: they were lugged up.

See Buchanan, p. 452.

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Looks a bit like a church, no? Darjeeling is no longer Bengal's summer capital, and so the building has been reassigned for use as offices by the local government.

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The courthouse or cutchery, built in 1897. It replaced an older building "which had been burnt, with nearly all the records, in the preceding year...."

See O'Malley, p. 189.

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The public library seems permanently closed. Who needs it anyway? We all have smart phones, right?

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We've come down to the Lloyd Botanic Gardens, named for William Lloyd, a banker who donated this land to the government for use as a garden. He was the nephew of George Lloyd, the military officer who had recommended the establishment of a sanitarium here.

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It's not Kew, but it's not nothing.

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There is something interesting here, though, apart from the ribbony columns.

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See that vine growing right through the wall?

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It's Chinese wisteria and was planted when the garden was established. Energizer Bunny: take note.

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We won't get much closer than this to the nearby Loreto Convent, now a private girls' school run by the Sisters of Loreto.

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A few more steps before we're chased away. There are about 150 Loreto schools around the world including some in Australia, Canada, and Kenya, as well as India. This one is in amazingly good condition.

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Which is more than can be said for Darjeeling's Anglican church. It's St. Andrew's, built in 1870 on the foundations of an earlier building.

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Still, it seems pretty happy on its perch.

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As usual, the most interesting things are the memorials. We'll scout around.

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Somehow we've got this far with barely a mention of tea, which surrounds Darjeeling today as it did a century ago. The church hasn't forgotten.

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One thing you learn is that the Victorians just about wore out the word esteemed.

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Any word used this much raises doubts.

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Same estate; more esteem.

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First mention of a cemetery; we'll go find it in a minute.

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Kurseong is down the road about an hour. The cemetery's still there, though we won't get to it today.

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Who else is remembered, besides tea planters? Civil servants, of course. Here's a memorial to Governor Thomas Gibson-Carmichael's surgeon, who in 1914 died at age 54 of heart failure following an operation at the Eden Hospital.

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Allen had arrived in India fresh from Balliol in 1887, aged 23. Twenty three years later, he died as chief secretary of the Bengal government.

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Younger still.

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And younger still: Minnie, a civil-servant's wife, was formally Mary Margaret.

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Husband William grew up as Wilhelm and earned a doctoral degree in Germany in 1867. He then joined the Indian forest service and rose to become Inspector-General of Forests in 1883. He moved to England, became a professor of forestry, and wrote a five-volume forestry manual. He remarried and lived to 85.

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And of course there's the military. Esteemed? Absolutely.

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Military wives were esteemed, too; other favorite adjectives include "beloved," "virtuous," and "disconsolate." At 23, this women is the youngest person we've met on this walk-around.

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Here's the oldest. We met this Lloyd earlier: it was he who, then a captain, wangled from Sikkim the land on which Darjeeling sits.

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We've drifted over to the old cemetery. It's not in great shape.

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As you'd expect, it's built on terraces cut into the slopes.

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And here's old General Lloyd, not given a lot of attention these days, despite his importance in the history of Darjeeling.

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Another tea planter: dead in 1905.

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Many of the gravestones have lost their inset metal letters and are hard to read.

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Andrew Thomas Jaffrey, "the first curator of the Lloyd Botanic Garden, who died the first of November 1865. Aged 61 years."

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Here's undoubtedly the most celebrated grave, not to mention the most memorialized.

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Alexander Korosi Csmo was a Hungarian philologist who wrote the first Tibetan-Englsh dictionary. A great traveller, he was planning a return to Tibet when, at age 58, he contracted malaria and died in Darjeeling.

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Everybody wants to remember him.

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And a wife, remembered with a plenitude of adjectives, including good-ol' estimable.

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We've climbed up behind St. Andrews. There's a hill here worth seeing. The British called it Observatory Hill, but the observatory is gone.

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The hill is the site of both Hindu and Buddhist shrines. The Buddhist one is older, but mapmakers label the hill as Mahakal Mandir, which is to say, Shiva temple.

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It's an especially busy day.

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It's the Maha Shivaratri, the annual auspicious day to worship Lord Shiva.

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Things get seriously crowded up top. Hundreds of people have waited for several hours to get up here.

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Next to the Shiva shrine, there are Buddhist prayer wheels.

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Coming down the hill, what do we see? Straight above the pole, there, about where the sky lightens! It's a mountain, not a cloud. Tell me that's what it is. Don't destroy my faith.


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