We woke early to see the world’s third highest peak and there she was, Kanchenjunga, at dawn, ready to witness a perfect wedding day in the Himalayas.
Kalimpong | West Bengal | India
This post is part of the blog series ‘90 Days in South East Asia’.
When we were planning our 90 days backpacking , what you could call a gap-quarter-year, it was a toss-up between South America and South East Asia. Both exciting, both on the backpacking trail, both areas where a little money can go a long way
What swung it for us though was that my niece, Pooja, was getting married to her childhood sweetheart, Durlav, in Kalimpong, a small town above the Teesta River in the Himalayan foothills.
The winding road up the Teesta Valley
We’d flown in from Guwahati, which was in full swing of Bihu celebrations, to Bagdogra where wedding taxis awaited with packed lunch boxes of cucumber and cheese sandwiches, bananas and Avomine. The Avomine, like much of the wedding, was a well thought-out detail for the comfort of the guests and much needed as I went up a 3 hour winding road trying to keep my breakfast down.
We ascended the valley with views of hill spurs of deciduous and pine forests, bamboo groves and colourful, tiny houses with green, red and yellow iron sheet roofs.
The valley has been an ancient access point since ancient times for connecting India and Tibet via the nathu–la and jalep–la passes.
Suddenly we were up with wisps of low clouds, with pine trees, hair-pin bends and cheeky monkeys who played chicken with our taxi and eventually arrived at an altitude of 1247 metres in Kalimpong.
The monastery at Kalimpong
We had a spare day before the wedding and explored the little town whose multi -coloured roofs spilled like a patched cloak down the hillside to the river.
This little corner of India, nestled between Bhutan, Nepal and China, has a horizon flecked by the eastern Himalayas and the world’s third highest peak, Kanchenjunga.
We visited the local gompa, a Buddhist monastery, many of which were established in this area after China annexed Tibet in 1959; we passed creaking, turning prayer wheels outside the temple and prayer flags outside the monk’s quarters which are said to whisper prayers every time they flutter.
Inside, where photos weren’t allowed, was a statue of the 2nd Buddha, Padmasambhava who, in the 8th century, was responsible for spreading Buddhism to Tibet.
Inside there were beautiful murals and pillars in eye-catching turquoise, red and gold, multi-eyed demons, scenes of heaven and hell, and above it all sat the Second Buddha, bulging eyes, brows in diagonals and holding a trident of skulls.
A slightly useful insight in how to consume solidified yak-milk cubes:
Outside the temple was a small tea shop where we sat and drank sweet chai. I bought a small packet of solidified yak milk (chirpi), which look like little cubes of Edam, but had the hardness of stones.
I tried to chew them, but it was like having pieces of Rubik’s cube in my mouth. I was scared of breaking a tooth. It felt like I couldn’t finish it. Infact I couldn’t even start it.
I later learned it takes fifteen minutes to soften chirpi. I suppose it’s like a Fox’s glacier mint but with a lot more patience.
We just had time to visit the crowded bazaar in the town which is in a saddle between two hills; election campaigning was in full swing and the speaker blared loud voices. My Hindi is not very good, but the voice sounded very angry. It was like R. Kelly being interviewed.
The bazaar sold every thing from vegetables to fake Adidas (called Acliclas) and Nike, here called Nikee with two swooshes so you get more bang for your buck.
Getting our Indian wedding clothes on
Part of the joy of dressing up for an Indian wedding is the glittering array of dresses, the gorgeous fabrics, the embroidered gold stitching available to you to wear. People love to wear Indian dress. Just ask Justin Trudeau.
We got ready for the wedding; my wife, SWH, had brought four outfits: a lehenga an embroidered skirt and scarf, a blue mekhela sador (Assamese two piece sari), a sequinned red sari and, for cocktails, a trouser and top.
In contrast I had just one (a blue kurta and pyjama) and my outfit change would be
1) turban on and
2) turban off.
I did have ‘maharajah shoes’ which felt a little tight on my heel, so I used my Swiss Army knife to file them down a bit. I knew it would come in useful.
Despite this, during the course of the day, my shoes would pinch. I felt like going barefoot at times.
As my shoes started to hurt, I started to understand why women take off their shoes at weddings and go with flip flops. I told my niece I empathised with women.” She berated me, ‘shoe pains are nothing you know; we have childbirth and period pains too’.
A beautiful location, a stunning wedding
Pooja is Assamese and Durlav is originally from Rajasthan and the wedding had accents of both cultures. (It’s always lovely when a wedding has two cultures, you can have the best of two worlds.)
The venue was stunning and historic; the Himalayan Hotel (aka Mayfair Hotel) dates from 1900, the first of its kind in the Darjeeling area.
A glittering array of famous people have stayed here: Hillary and Tensing, Nehru and Indira Gandhi, Richard Gere and Cindy Crawford and Dev Anand and Nargis. It is an A lister’s place of choice.
The wedding took place over three days and the hotel was booked out. The rooms of the hotel, named after mountains like the Everest and Kanchenjunga, became the venues for the different elements of the wedding such as the entertainment of songs (the sangeet, with songs and dancers honouring Lord Ganesha), the ring ceremony, the juroon and the bhaat.
Durlav arrived on a white stallion to a team of drummers and lots of dancing; the bride arrived wearing a beautiful pink sequinned number. The actual religious ceremony took place around a fire, with a Brahmin presiding, on the immaculate lawn with views towards to the mountains.
In the evening, we partied till late to a live band from Kolkata and ate delicious culinary delights. It was the best wedding I have ever attended.
And through all this time, the mountains sat as witnesses, sentinels to a wonderful day.