Feeling spiritually elevated is inevitable in the Darjeeling hills. Out there, one tends to feel that much closer to God – not geographically because the mountain you are on is literally kissing the heavens, but because the surroundings are so very ethereal.

Uday, my photographer friend accompanying me on a tour of tea gardens, and I were feeling positively buoyant after a few days in the hills. Our souls felt cleansed, Uday was even moved to humming a few bars of a Bengali song that said something to that effect.

At the same time, we could not help marvelling at how indifferent some of the locals, the Nepali people of the hills, seemed to be to the sheer beauty God had ladled out.

On a rare clear evening, when we gazed at the star-spangled sky in wondrous awe, our Nepali driver Aaryan let loose a raucous yawn and declared he was turning in for the night.

At another point, when driving through the mighty pines in thick silence and thicker mists, Aaryan shattered our reverie with: “Anik sir, do you believe in ghosts?”

But I reckon that for the locals, being born in the midst of such serenity makes them immune to it, and they need a priestly nudge now and then. Or why else would there be a temple at every plantation you visit? If you do not come across a mandir, you probably took the wrong turn.

To be honest, these temples are quite touching in their simplicity. I have had kitsch shovelled down my throat in the name of “temple art”, and I found the tea garden temples to be endearingly quaint.

DIVINE REST

I saw my first plantation temple on the first day of the tour; it was built in a leafy bower near the entrance of the Jungpana plantation’s factory premises.

The temple was a small structure comprising one puja (worship) room, where an idol of Hanumanji or the monkey-god had been installed. It also had a veranda in front with a protective grille – probably to keep monkeys from the wilds at bay.

Like its grander cousins in the plains, this temple too had a conical top, and was painted in off-white pink and what artists would call “candy apple red”. If the builders had in mind the colour saffron – the colour of choice for holy men among the Hindus – they could not be more off the mark.

I have a sneaking suspicion that the temple was located at the end of a 1,300-feet climb, up some 600 steps for strategic reasons. For, who would possibly decline the chance to rest on the temple porch after a steep ascent– the only route to the factory — and be somewhat forced to meet God? I, for one, welcomed it.

A priest emerged on hearing us; I guess my wheezing was too loud. I forget his first name but his last name was “Jha” – signifying he was a Brahmin from Bihar, a state once notorious for dacoits.

But Jha seemed meek as he rang the temple bell piously.

MEETING POINT

The temple at neighbouring Goomtee tea estate, similarly sans frills and painted red, was lost in the clutter of houses in the workers’ colony by the road. In fact, we missed it completely while driving by.

This temple, we discovered later, also serves as a hub of social gatherings. When we visited, we found labour leaders in deep consultation with the managers not too far from the mandir. It transpired they were discussing the expenses of a proposed puja at the temple.

While the rituals would be conducted at the temple, cultural programmes were scheduled to be held at an adjacent community hall.

The workers told me a similar get-together is organised every year near the temple during the Durga Puja – a festival popular in Eastern India – and celebrated by plantation workers, most of who are Nepali Hindus.

Frankly, the Goomtee temple led me to view these places of worship in a new light; while the tea garden managers had their clubs to unwind at, tea garden workers had their temples.

If nothing else brings them together other than a calamity such as a landslide, why not a house of God? I would vote for a temple any day.

LAST STOP

The last temple we stopped at was just ahead of Mim tea estate; actually, right then, we had no idea that the factory and the estate bungalows were round the next bend.

After driving for over an hour through pine forests – the same stretch that goaded Aaryan to seek my views on ghosts – we were convinced we were lost.

There was no human habitation anywhere. The people we saw on the fogged-out road had long disappeared. As Aaryan quipped bitterly, there was not even a stray dog to take directions from.

To make matters worse, I could not get any signal on my cell phone; the mountains and the tall pines cut us off totally.

It was when we were in such a troubled state of mind that we stumbled upon an utterly desolate temple by the roadside. We called into the empty structure… our voices echoed back eerily. The small bell chiming in the wind heightened the desolation of the place.

It was more out of a sense of hopelessness that we pressed forward – and came upon a beautiful sight downhill: the shining roof of the Mim tea estate factory. We were not lost, we were safe.

Aaryan, who had to have the last word, said all credit was due to him. “Do you know why we found the factory?” he asked me. “I said a small prayer at that temple.”

Featured photograph taken enroute to Mim tea estate. Photograph by Uday Bhattacharya.

(Visited 1,276 times, 1 visits today)
Author

2 Comments

  1. I adore your stories. Can you send me more or tell me where I can read more, please.

    Karl

    • Aravinda Ananth Reply

      Hello Karl, Anik Basu is a regular contributor to Still Steeping, so you can search for his stories by clicking on the author byline or using the Search. For regular updates, do subscribe to our weekly newsletter. And thanks!

Leave a Reply