Kurseong – The Story of the Idyllic Hill Town

It was April 2019, precisely a year back that I went on a holiday to Kurseong. People were surprised at my choice for Kurseong,for it has often been neglected as the less beautiful sibling of the Queen of the Hills -Darjeeling. Kurseong is at best a stop over for a hot plate of momo en route Darjeeling or a one day sightseeing trip squeezed in. I wanted leisure and I wanted a respite from schedules, itineraries and time lines. Just a couple of days before the trip I realized that my trip had clashed with the dates of the Lok Sabha elections there. I remained undettered and looked forward to soak in the election fever of the sleepy town.I did not choose any luxurious resorts or tea garden home stays.I planned to put up at the wooden bungalow of Kurseong Tourist Lodge which had lot of memories of a second flush tea and soft chicken sandwiches on way to Darjeeling with my parents.The skylights, the tall pines and firs had remained etched in my thoughts for long and wanted to experience it all in silence and happiness.About 60 km from the airport at Bagdogra, Kurseong nestles among undulating valleys, mountain flowers and the winding DHR railway track. The route to Kurseong is picturesque as the road trudges along the old tracks of the DHR. I was lucky enough to go past a steam engine of the heritage toy train.The whistles,the smoke, the colors of the engine added to the sculptured beauty of the road.

The original inhabitants, named their home “Kurseong”, because every spring it was alive and bright with Kurson-Rip orchids. Kurseong is a Lepcha word (the original inhabitants of this area) and it means the white orchid of the eastern Himalayas. The name was apparently given by a European researcher who was researching on an exotic variety of white orchid that could only be found at the height of Kurseong i.e. 4500 feet from sea level. Kurseong was a part of the Sikkim kingdom, before the British came to India. However around 1780 the Nepalese conquered and annexed Kurseong and its surrounding areas. After loosing the Gurkha War, the Nepalese ceded Kurseong to do of the British. Although a road was built from Kurseong to Darjeeling from Titalia in the 1770s and 1780s, its irregular maintenance soon made the new route, the Military Road, almost useless. The new route Hill Cart Road opened in 1861 and fared better . Kurseong is one of the oldest municipalities in the state of West Bengal. Established as an independent Municipality in 1879, it did not become a Sub-Division until 1890, when the District of Darjeeling was formed. Kurseong was added to the Rajshahi Division by the British Raj . In 1908, it was transferred to the Bhagalpur Division in the same Presidency. In 1939, when Bengal became a province of British India, Kurseong was allowed to elect its own member as the chairman, but the British Raj continued to send ward commissioners until India gained independence.

It was a morning flight that I took from Kolkata and reached the idyllic sleepy town of Kurseong in time for a brunch at the tourist lodge.The tourist lodge at Kurseong has an old world charm,a wooden bungalow with screeching stairs,huge skylights,large windows which open into the undulating valley.My favourite window seat at the dining hall was empty and as I opened the panes and a flash of cold air swept by my cheeks . I opened my eyes and heart to the world,the mist,the green and the blue mountains far far away.The mountains across the valley from Kurseong looks like a distant dream,dreams which can be fulfilled but can also flow away.As I sat with the golden brew-a cup of first flush I wanted to dream wild and as I looked out of the skylight the red spiral of the church and the pines and firs whispered happiness to my ears.

The smiling elderly employee took me to Room 201,and as I entered the room I was happy-wooden walls,a cosy bed ,an ornate mirror, glass windows and a huge balcony.One of the best rooms of the property, it was a room with a view. Wide glass windows, overlooking the peak and the undulating slopes and a balcony which was hanging delicately on the slopes.It was cloudy with a haze, a haze which often overcrowds my vision ,my life goals I thought. Took a quick shower and curled up to the bed with another cup of second flush from Makaibari and waited for my car to arrive.Since it was a day of hectic election campaigning, the young smiling manager of the tourist Lodge took pains to get me a car for some places I wanted to go to.Mountains have always a calming influence on me and as I had dozed off for a nap my phone rang and It was time to get dressed.

A stop at the beautiful Margaret’s Deck tea lounge, a cup of Castleton second flush and a slice of a carrot cake,beautiful views of the valley and I was on an uphill ride towards Downhill.Seeing the wild flowers in myriad colors I wished to be one such nameless flower on a hill slope next life. The mauves,pinks and yellows perching, peeping across walls and across the slopes were at peace with their lives…privileged to watch life and grow as they wished…no deadlines,no expectations, no roles to be emulated to perfection.The road to Dowhill was one of the most splendid roads that I have travelled. It reminded me of poems about wooded forests and the long unwinding roads of life that poets often wrote about.The dark misty road appeared to me just out of the Scottish highlands as dark clouds came down embracing me in its soft cuddles.I could almost feel the moistness of their embrace.As my car stopped at one of the dark woods I looked up the sky and could remember all the geography lessons where I was taught about the types of clouds-the cumulonimbus etc.

Boarding schools had always an illusive charm to me.Whenever I played truant when I was a kid my Ma would often reprimand me by threatening that I would be put in a boarding school.Not that it intimidated me much,infact I pined for it,the Enid Blyton stories of midnight feasts and life at boarding schools drew a very rosy picture of a life of a boarder.Perhaps I never disobeyed my parents to the extent that I was really sent off with my suitcase.The trip to Dowhill made me excited.It was my dream school of childhood.Nestled among the blue sky,overlooking dark woods with pines and firs, the facade of the school itself evokes a liking for the place.The altars,the classrooms,the church,the dining hall wore a deserted look as the school was closed for the summer recess. I left my car at the corner and walked up the winding road till Victoria Boys School.The road had a strange feeling of loneliness…stories about the ghosts crowded my mind. Dowhill and Victoria Boys School keeps on the legacy of a boarding school culture,excellence in sports ,debates.A look back into the history of the school which I wish could be my school in next life.

The general belief is that Dowhill was named after a lovely little bird called “Dow” (in a local tribal dialect) which used to frequent the place. In 1879, Sir Ashley Eden, the then Lieutenant Governor of Bengal, wanted to start a Government School for boys and girls of Government servants belonging to the middle and low income group. A house called ‘Constantia’ was bought and repaired for the purpose of a residential school. In August 1879 the first batch of 16 children arrived at the school. Soon ‘Constantia’ was found to be too small for the growing school. It was shifted to Dow Hill, where the Railway Offices were vacated and the Railway Quarters at Dow Hill were handed over to the Education Department. Dow Hill site was considered more suitable because the air was very pleasant and there was abundance of water. Mr. Edward Pegler was the first Headmaster of the school; he was assisted by his wife. The Peglers worked alone till 1885. The school then had 103 students. However, in 1887, the coeducation system was discontinued in the best interest of the school. The school was run entirely for the boys for a decade. The boys’ school was shifted to its new building in the Jubilee year of Queen Victoria and it was renamed as Victoria Boys’ School. Sir Charles Elliot, who had provided funds for the new building wished to reopen the girls’ school in Dow Hill where it had been before. In 1898 the girls’ school was started again in the old building of the school.. Mr. Edward Pegler, the Headmaster, was transferred to Alipur in 1901. Mrs. E. Pegler became the first Headmistress of Dow Hill Girls’ School in 1898.Till the 1950’s the Headmistresses of Dow Hill School were Europeans or Anglo-Indians. Miss Latika Ray was the first Indian Headmistress of Dow Hill School. The last Anglo-Indian Headmistress was Miss R. E. Ballantine, who retired in 1970.

I moved uphill to visit the Kurseong Deer Park.Quite high in altitude ,the place was damp,there were no deers around,but dense forests around made the cold unbearable.The silence of the place was eerie,the lone Nepali lady selling vegetarian momos,Nepali Alu Dum and Titora was the only person in sight.Sat in the wooded area for a while but as I saw dark clouds descending I decided to warm myself up with the freshly made alur dum. The alur dum was deliciously spicy,as the frail lady garnished it with some alu bhujia. I finished two bowls of it with a slurping sound quite audible to my ears.The frail lady slipped a packet of titora in my hands as she talked about her house,her spouse,her village,the cinchona plantations and her very difficult life.Yet her warm reassuring smile attempted to tell me that there is always a silver lining to all dark clouds.Little did I realise that I would be able to see the silver lining soon enough.

The next stop was the Forest School of the state government, a training institute for freshly recruited forest officials.The museum at the premises is worth your time.The keeper of the museum was hesitant about letting me in as there was a power failure.I reassured that I would be fine with the natural lights.The old wooden building with near dilapidated stairs,the greyish darkness with little streams of sunlight streaming in,the caracas of wild animals,remnants of flora and fauna well preserved.At one time I felt a little eerie too.But the visit to the museum will remain an experience to savor.The Central Academy of Forest Education college was established in 1927, the only Rangers’ College in the country under the direct control of the Government of India.The College Building was said to be constructed during late 19th Century. It along with its landed property was once a property of St Mary’s Seminary . 

As my car took a sharp turn downhill I saw the new campus of Presidency College being built. Kurseong would soon get another institute of higher learning.As we descended downhill across one of the most artistic roads had ever seen,I thought that the best artist had played with his brush at leisure.

The next destination was the museum at Giddapahar housing precious memorablia about Netaji Subhas Chandra Basu. It was a beautiful house with a rush of colors around and as I entered the museum it was like a flight back to history.Handwritten presidential address of the Haripura Session of the Congress,numerous correspondence between Netaji and his wife presented Netaji in his various facets.The family photographs are well treasured.Sarat Chandra Bose purchased the house in 1922 from Rowley Lascelles Ward. Between 1933 and 1935, Sarat Chandra was interned for 2 years in this house. Netaji, who was placed in this house for 7 months under house arrest by the British Government in India. Netaji again visited this house in October 1937. It is said that Netaji wrote his address for the Haripura Congress from this house.The museum also has in its collection several letters written by Netaji to his wife , Emily.A couple of weeks before his death in Darjeeling on 16 June 1925, Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das  too visited this house.

As I entered the sleepy town which was not so sleepy on the eve of the Lok Sabha Election thought of making a stop at the iconic Kurseong Railway Station.It is not a broad gauge railway station with level crossings, overhead bridges, it is an idyllic station of the heritage Darjeeling Himalayan Railway- the toy train in common parlance.It looks straight out of British countryside, people relaxing with newspapers, senior citizens in groups, the red letter box with a lock that probably has not been opened hor long, a small but tasteful station masters room and a forlorn ticket counter.The station houses a museum of the DHR and as I was keen to see the artifacts and documents of the DHR, I met the stationmaster.An young man from Bihar quite unhappy with his posting at this little station he was quite warm.He asked me to come back the next day, though it was the day of the election.Since it was late afternoon and dusk descends on hill slopes suddenly, it would be ideal if I could visit tomorrow, he said. As I was walking away from the station, I saw a sudden stream of activity and the thrilling whistle of the toy train. It was one of the few steam engines still functioning and with a chain of smoke making circles in the air it entered Kurseong Station.Remembered a toy train ride with a friend a decade back where we had purchased tickets from an agent, at a premium price.Actually we had got the tickets from black market and since we were two women frantically looking around for the queue, a women in her late 40’s approached us with the ticket. It was peak season time and we had no other option but to accept the offer.

Driving past the TV Centre and after a climb of a few steep stairs I reached Eagles Craig.Once you make your way up the spiral staircase to this steel-caged observatory – the viewpoint, you are in for an unparalleled visual treat. Revel in stunning panoramic views of the mighty mountains as well as lush green slopes around the small town of Kurseong with the river Teesta snaking its way through the valley.I witnessed the sky change colours from yellow to orange and then to a bright red, as the sun sets behind the mountains. Breathing in the fresh mountain air, the views took my breath away nearly. The orange dusk with the grey clouds will be remembered for ever.With a memorial for the Gorkha warriors, the place abounds with the white orchids after which Kurseong is named.As the sun was sliding across the horizon ,the little town became ablaze as on fire, not a untamed one but one resembling the dying flames of a barbecue.

Back to the tourist lodge under the comforting blanket and a fragrant cup of the golden liquor,I sat through seeing the photos.As the night got darker and little lights fluttered like a diamond from the mountains across I could not resist sitting in the balcony..The balcony does not have walls in between and form a continuous line with the other balconies. There was an openness about it.Began chatting with this elderly couple who seemed to enjoy their vintage togetherness.With a peg of single Malt down the couple whom I called uncle and aunt now began humming Tagore songs.They chose the most sensitive ones which overflow with emotions of love and longing. I could feel the wetness on my cheeks which I enjoyed to the brim.A dinner of khichuri and fried chicken served in the balcony itself , the night seemed soulful.I popped on two rum filled chocolates and shared some with the elderly couple…a perfect desert with the tum oozing out as if life was oozing out with everything good and beautiful. The night was one of my most memorable ones till date,every little sound of the hills were audible, the distant car passing by occassionally, the snoring sound of the elderly couple from the next room, I lay awake most of the night tucked into the mellow warmth of the soft blanket as I thought that charting new emotions and crossing self laid boundaries is not always bad.It might be laden with possibilities of happiness.Maybe my world changes after that night.With such thoughts and fleeting dreams , woke up late and over several cups of tea made my days plan.

The day should not have plans.The tourist lodge was abuzz with activities with central observers, police personnel and election officials.Most of the staff were away on leave , the dining room was open to the boarders alone.After a rather late breakfast of minced egg and mustard sandwich in soft white bread , a cup of strong Americano I thought of venturing out.The young manager of the tourist lodge was not happy with my intent to walk on empty roads. On my insistence he relented but tucked in a paper with his mobile number written on it in case I needed it.

Walking directionless on unknown streets on an Election Day is novel,never have I done it,or never will I ever get to do it in near future.Walked the winding streets to get to the railway museum of the DHR.The station master had kept the keys ready but could not find the ticket booklet given by UNESCO for heritage museum.After a wait for about half an hour signed in the register and realized the museum was having a visitor after nearly a year.From the earliest road map of the DHR, the naming of the stations,to the first signaling systems,to the couches,to the cutlery, to the medicine box it had all of it nicely preserved.Loved to see the instruction manuals,the appraisal reports of the train drivers, the old tickets,the clocks, the cloak room mirrors.The station was deserted than usual days.Crossed the track to the other side and peeped into the now defunct NF Railway Printing Press,the Priyo Gupta Cottage.A walking distance from there past some crowded hotel area I then visited the Loco Shed.On display was one of the oldest steam engines with chimneys which probably wants to get back to work again.The pains of being static to once mobile life can best be felt in days of the Lockdown now.

As it was nearing afternoon and had to back in time for lunch, I began walking way back past police patrols, an occasional voter going back after casting his vote , a dog lazing in the afternoon sun, wild flowers looking more beautiful in empty roads.I picked up some yak churpi and two packets of Titora from the only shop which had its shutters open. The car of the central observer went past and the officer from Telengana who you was staying at the Toutist Lodge waved back.Lunch with an old style chicken roast served with baby potatoes and carrots was sorted ,the dining room was empty and with the sky clearing up could see the pristine Kanchanjungha looking across.

An afternoon nap and some quick chat with friends followed by a walk uphill to the church opposite. The Good Friday service was in progress ,sat in the church for some time and tried understanding the service conducted in the local language.The church with white orchid offerings, beautiful glass panes, heritage oil paintings, and the last rays of the sinking sun gleaming through made it look holy and peaceful. Taking a sharp turn from the church walked up to see the Elysia Place which was the DHR headquarters location,a beautiful  wooden creaking bungalow, it was sadly closed for the day. On my way down saw a signage of the building Churchgate which was the halt for DHR officials .The Kurseong Station was located here till 1896 before it moved to the present location.

The best moment of the trip was when I stood their at the forlorn tracks strewn with dried leaves of some unnamed trees looking ahead.The track turned in the next bend and could not see much beyond,only imagined the track moving up to the next station at Sonada. This is also life, we try to look beyond the present, predict, plan but everything is destined for it’s own history. Can’t see life beyond the next turn.

Back to the hotel the setting sun from my balcony looked as if it was on fire.Yet it was not that kind of a fire which devastated or ruined,it was those pleasant orange hues which sent the word of hope,of renewal of life and love not lost.The sun even being tired after it’s long journey through the day made efforts to lookthrough the dark clouds over and over again .This again is akin to our daily struggle of life- joys and sorrows and efforts to overcome that sorrow.. a perennial duel with the self.

Author: ranjinipinky

Always happy when it comes to food and travel.Love looking beyond the cuisine and beyond the known landscape.Food describes a person,a culture ,a nation and a psyche.Both foodscape and landscape of a place joins together to weave the history of the place.My endeavor is to travel through that history,enrich myself and evolve continuously.Be my co- traveler through this enriching experience.

4 thoughts on “Kurseong – The Story of the Idyllic Hill Town”

  1. Beautifully portrayed. In April, 2018, me and your Totamashi were n a Darjeeling tour, which we started with two days at Mirik, two days at Kurseong, then 3 days at Darjeeling and ending the trip with two days at Kalimpong before returning to Kolkata. Your writing has made us relive those wonderful moments in Kurseong in particular and Darjeeling in general. Keep writing…


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