Darjeeling, aptly known as the Queen of the Hills, is one place where Christmas comes out alive in silent nights. Scores of fascinating stories prevail as to why and how so many churches of all hues decorate the hills of Kurseong, Kalimpong and Darjeeling and their outskirts. St Andrew’s Church in Darjeeling’s Mall Road built in 1843 is both an architectural feat and an epitome of the history of Darjeeling. After these hills with their  alubrious climate were chosen as a sanatorium by the East India Company and later the British India government, a range of educational and religious institutions were established. Then Hill Cart Road and the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway ‘toy train’ were constructed in 1869 and 1881 respectively.

Tea gardens thrived, producing the finest orthodox variety, and brought a global brand name to these hitherto unknown hills. Cinchona plantations that produced quinine to cure the dreaded disease malaria soon spread over the inaccessible topography of Mungpoo and Lathpanchar. All these rural activities generated the now famous Dak bungalow culture, where amazingly gorgeous resting homes were set up in some of the best vantage points. An extraordinarily dedicated set of missionaries from Scotland, Germany and Canada thronged Darjeeling that existed on the lap of Mt Kanchenjunga.

It was Rev William Macfarlane who devised vernacular education in Darjeeling district in 1869. O’Malley’s Darjeeling Gazetteers mentioned that by 1894-95 the number of schools had increased to 109 with 3,830 pupils.

They brought with them knowledge, resources, skills and technology and, more critically, a pluralistic culture and democratic values. Along with them came Campbell, Hooker, Lloyd and Atchison who started exploring the botanical wealth of the eastern Himalaya. JA Ayton’s A Grammar of the Nepalese Language published in 1820 and Ganga Prasad Pradhan’s Gorkhe Khabar Kagat published in 1901 were inspired by the vibrant culture in the hills. Travellers and explorers like Alexander Csoma de Korös (1784-1842) of Hungary and freedom fighters like Chitaranjan Das and Sister Nivedita have their tombs in Darjeeling. Mother Teresa’s journey actually started in Darjeeling. The almighty ordained her to serve the poorest of the poor ‘call within the call’ when she was travelling from Siliguri to Darjeeling on the toy train on 10 September 1946.

Each missionary settlement like in Pedong and St Marys Hills started promoting local livelihood projects, mainly by adding value to animal husbandry. This is when cheese, chocolate and lollypop making cottage units sprouted across the hills. Some of them having piggeries made supplies of ham, frankfurter, blood pudding and sausages to Kolkata’s New Market.

British households brought a new genre of fruits and vegetables like avocado, leek, parsnip, celery, squash and tangerine and also tree tomatoes from America. These triggered modern restaurants like Pleeva and Keventers and hotels like the Windamere and Planters Club. Many of them are now in the heritage list. Along with this, the first hydel power project in Asia was built in Sidrapong in 1897.

After the festivals of Dashain and Diwali, the most sought-after festivals are Christmas, New Year and Maghe Sankranti. Cold and sometimes deserted Darjeeling remained agog with bells ringing from the bell towers of the churches during Christmas. Varieties of fruits, foods, greeting cards and gifts flooded the lanes and bylanes with talented young boys and girls preparing Christmas carols in Nepali.

Occasionally, heavy snowfall added charm and occasion to warming up with homemade liquor. We were taught the essence of Christianity in school and also Sunday school, and always shown on the globe where Bethlehem was located. We sang hymns and prayers everyday with great devotion despite belonging to other faiths like Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. We prayed every day in school assembly that solemnly ended with the holy word amen.

Moral science was taught as a subject at every level in school. Hygiene, discipline and etiquette and manners were special segments of our learning process. We knew the fine difference between the Old and New Testament. We sprinkled ourselves with holy water chokho pani to cleanse our sins. However, we were never told that to adore Lord Jesus, one must be a Christian. This is how we imbibed a trait of being secular and nurtured the value of mutual respect and tolerance. Maybe because of this culture, pictures of Jesus, Buddha, Vishnu, Laxmi and kool devatas and holy books of other faiths coexist in the altars of worship in a large number of homes in Darjeeling. This pluralistic image of Darjeeling needs to be conserved at any cost.

We were witness to an era where missionaries taught in the classrooms, set up several socio-cultural institutions, promoted the local language, literature, handicrafts, music and arts, and dispensaries, and brought big relief and rehabilitation to the victims of natural disasters like that of 1950 and 1968. They worked closely with the Red Cross and Gorkha Dukha Niwarak Sammelen to design and build an entire resettlement colony like Frymal Village in Singamari. The pioneers came from the Church of Scotland Mission. Fr EP Burns, G Van Walleghem, Gerald E Leclaire, Rev Murray and Mother Damien of Loreto and Miss Sahib of Nepali Girls High School and Johnston of Mount Herman left behind a strong legacy of sacrifice and social work that were taken over by Bishop Benjamin, Noreen Dunne and Bishop Ghose and Mahendra Pradhan.

They left behind iconic institutions like Hayden Hall and Forest Rangers College. Many of them never went back to see their families and are buried in the serene and calm cemeteries in the hills.

‘The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom’ and ‘Sursum Corda’ were engraved on the logos of Turnbull and St Joseph’s Schools as their mottos. St Pauls, Mount Herman, St Teresa and St Roberts, where a large number of foreign dignitaries studied; Goethals, St Helen, St Alphonsus and St Joseph’s in Kurseong; and Graham’s Homes, Scottish Universities’ Mission Institution, St Philomena and St Joseph’s in Kalimpong were once destinations for the entire South and Southeast Asian regions. Football, cricket, Western music, food and elocution contests bought laurels to these institutions. This is how Darjeeling occupied a distinct status among educational destinations in Asia.

Every Christmas brings hope to the people of the hills and joy to their plural and inclusive cultures. Tangerine, fried snacks and plum cakes are still presented to non-Christian families as a symbol of collective celebration. Roasted meat, homemade liquor, fresh vegetable curries, sel roti and chimfing paste and shilam dip continue to adorn the dining table. Church bells continue to vibrate the hills, and forgiveness makes the core of their culture. We all celebrate Christmas not because we are Christians, but because of the message of love, humanity, inclusiveness and sacrifice Jesus Christ adorned our hearts with.

Religion and faith are so very personal and private that they can neither
be confiscated nor propagated; and neither can they be imposed nor deprived of by any visible and tangible force. The tone, tenor and contents of the choirs in church are exactly the same as those sung in Somalia, Brazil, California, Brisbane and Nagaland. The musical instruments could be different, yet it symbolises that all religions have the same meaning, Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, that is universal brotherhood.

(The Kathmandu Post/ANN)