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History of Darjeeling

Posted by Ramesh Khati on April 26, 2009



History of Darjeeling

The origin of the name “Darjeeling” is most likely from the Tibetan words ‘Dorje’ which means ‘thunderbolt’ and ‘Ling’ which means place or land. Quite literally, it is the ‘Land of the Thunderbolt’. Originally, this was the name given to a Buddhist monastery atop the Observatory Hill which over time became the name of the whole surrounding area.

Early History of Darjeeling

Darjeeling Bazaar-1916

Darjeeling Bazaar-1916

An old bamboo bridge over Rangeet River

An old bamboo bridge over Rangeet River

Historically, Darjeeling was part of Sikkim and the Kingdom of Sikkim extended as far as eastern Nepal. However, the late 1700s saw a barrage of attacks from Nepal resulting in Darjeeling becoming a part of Nepal. This changed in 1814 when the British East India Company declared war with Nepal due to border disputes. The victorious British forced the Nepalese to cede 4,000 square miles (10,000 km²) of territory through a treaty signed at Segouli at the end of 1816. The Rajah (King) of Sikkim was reinstated making Sikkim (including Darjeeling) a buffer state between Nepal and Bhutan.

Ten years after the treaty, fresh dispute broke out and the Governor General William Bentick sent two officers – Captain Lloyd and Mr. J.W. Grant, Commercial Resident of Malda to restore normalcy. The two officers found Darjeeling to be a suitable to establish a “sanitarium” (a type of health resort) and the strategic location of Darjeeling as a gateway to Nepal and Bhutan was an added bonus.

Lease of Darjeeling from Sikkim

Mr. J.W. Grant along with the Deputy Surveyor General, Captain Herbert were sent to survey the area. The British East India Company approved the project and General Lloyd was given the responsibility to negotiate a lease of the area from the Chogyal of Sikkim. The lease was granted on 1 February, 1835.

The deed that was executed on 1 February, 1835 read:

The Governor-General having expressed his desire for the possession of the hill of Darjeeling on account of its cool climate… I, the said, Sikkimputtee Rajah, out of friendship for the said Governor-General, hereby present Darjeeling to the East India Company, that is, all the land south of the great Ranjeet river, east of the Balsum, Kahail and little Ranjeet rivers and west of the Rungpo and Mahanadi rivers.

In 1841 the government granted the Rajah an allowance of Rs. 3,000 as compensation and raised the grant to Rs. 6,000 in 1846.

Darjeeling before the Annexation by British Indian Empire

In 1835, Dr. Arthur Campbell was put in-charge to establish the sanitarium and develop the area. Darjeeling started out around the Observatory Hill area with a population of about 100. Dr Campbell became the first Superintendent of the sanitarium in 1839 and was responsible for the civil administration of the town plus managing political relations with Sikkim. Construction of the road linking Darjeeling with the plains also started in 1839.
In 1841, the cultivation of tea was introduced by Dr Campbell near his residence at Beechwood, Darjeeling. The experiment was a success leading to the establishment of several commercial tea estates.

By 1849, Darjeeling was prospering and the population of Darjeeling had reached 10,000.

Annexation of Darjeeling into the British Indian Empire



The progress and prosperity of Darjeeling including the diaspora of migrant workers from Sikkim to Darjeeling incurred the wrath and jealousy of the Rajah of Sikkim. The relations worsened in 1849 when Sikkim imprisoned Dr. Campbell and the famous explorer Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker during a tour of Sikkim prompting the British East India Company to send in their troops. However, the imprisoned officers of the British East India Company were freed without any bloodshed.

In February 1850, the annual grant of Rs. 6000 to the Maharaja of Sikkim was withdrawn resulting in the annexation of Darjeeling and a great portion of Sikkim to British India. Sikkim retaliated with a series of attacks on the British territories culminating in the capture of Tumlong (the capital of Sikkim at that time) in 1861. A new treaty was signed which forced the ruler of Sikkim to open up trade and remove all restrictions on merchants and travelers.

Further victories for the British saw the annexation of Dooars and Kalimpong in 1864 and Kurseong in 1891.

Brief History of the Tea Industry in Darjeeling

An old picture of tea plucking in Darjeeling

An old picture of tea plucking in Darjeeling

What began as an experiment in 1841, the cultivation of tea became a full-fledged industry. By 1865, there were already 40 tea gardens covering 10,000 acres. This boom brought in immigrants, mainly from Nepal, to work in construction and tea gardens. Today there are around 86 tea gardens or estates fueling a multi-million dollar industry.

Development of Darjeeling under the British Empire



Dell Corner-1900

Dell Corner-1900

Goods train at Jorebungalow 1900s

Goods train at Jorebungalow 1900s

After the Darjeeling Municipality was set up in 1850, the tea industry boomed and there was an influx of immigrants. This also brought in the Scottish missionaries who undertook the construction of schools and welfare centers like Loreto Convent in 1847, St. Paul’s School in 1864, Planters’ Club in 1868, Lloyd’s Botanical Garden in 1878, St. Joseph’s School in 1888, Railway Station in 1891, Town Hall (present Municipality Building) in 1921.

Another major development was the inauguration of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway in 1881 facilitating the link between Darjeeling and the plains.

History of Darjeeling as a Tourist Destination

A world Heritage The Toy Train

A world Heritage The Toy Train

The British visited Darjeeling every summer prompting well-to-do Indian residents of Kolkata (then Calcutta), affluent Maharajas of princely states, land-owning zamindars and barristers of Calcutta High Court to follow suit. The town continued to grow as a tourist destination and is now known all over the world as the “Queen of the Hills.”

History of Darjeeling post Independence of India

Present Day Darjeeling

Present Day Darjeeling

The independence of India in 1947 saw Darjeeling being merged with the state of West Bengal. A separate district of Darjeeling was established consisting of the hilly towns of Darjeeling, Kurseong, Kalimpong and some parts of the plains including Siliguri.

The demographic changed substantially when the People’s Republic of China annexed Tibet in 1950 and thousands of Tibetan refugees settled across Darjeeling district.

The population rose dramatically especially from the 1970s peaking to about 45% growth in the 1990s far above the national, state, and district average of India. The colonial town of Darjeeling was not designed to accommodate such an exponential growth in population. This coupled with the rise in the number of tourists has effected the ecological balance negatively.

The 1980s saw a bloody agitation demanding a separate state of Gorkhaland by the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF). Peace was restored with the establishment of Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council or DGHC (changed to Darjeeling Gorkha Autonomous Hill Council or DGAHC). The year 2008 brought in fresh demand for Gorkhaland under Gorkha Janmukti Morcha headed by Bimal Gurung.


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