Sick of perspiring on the plains in summer (although the women of course only 'glowed') the British in India loved the cooler hilly regions. In places like
they built timbered mock-Tudor houses, sprawling Victorian and imposing stone mansions to house the British sahibs and their memsahibs. They planted European gardens of bluebells and hollyhocks while their cooks produced treacle puddings and mutton cutlets, creating a menu that was forever England.
I like the idea of drinking my tea out of bone china with my little finger out so I am off to Darjeeling, the Queen of Hills as it was known in the days of the Raj, for a taste of its tea-sipping British past. Founded originally as a recuperative station for troops during the skirmishes with Nepal in earlier days, the British embraced its beauty, stirring views and climate as one of their favourite hill stations.
On the drive up to Darjeeling from Bagdogra airport, our car crosses the Teesta River and begins the climb up The Hill, skirted by the famous tea plantations that summon images of pale-faced memsahibs with pinkie fingers crooked, sipping tea from porcelain cups.
Then I see the cryptomeria trees, so familiar to anyone who has seen pictures of Darjeeling. Looming everywhere about the hill station, they are dark and tall and do a very good job of blocking my mobile phone reception.
The World Heritage-listed Toy Train chugs up to Darjeeling from the plains but it's more fun these days to take a short joyride on it to Ghum, instead of the nine-hour journey.
Darjeeling is perched at 6965 feet (2123 metres) and in winter can be very chilly indeed, especially when you get up at dawn to see the mighty Himalayas glowing icy and pink as the sun steals the night. Up the top of the Mall and the main town square, one glimpses what Darjeeling once offered those far from home who longed for green, cooler climes. Once upon a time the top of The Hill was reserved exclusively for the British, away from the hoi polloi further down the road, where today crowds, dust, noise, rickshaws and pollution produce anything but calm.
However, the 3-star The Elgin Hotel still dresses its chambermaids in pinafores and caps, and Glenary's Master Baker on Nehru Road continues to turn out cream horns and praline cream and biscuit-based clay pies as it did during the Raj. The Darjeeling Club, popularly known as the Planters, still exhibits the members' defaulters list in a foyer full of potted palms and dead animals.
Bangladeshis, Bhutanese, Nepalese and Sikkimese are everywhere and seem to segue without fuss into Darjeeling's life. There are many monasteries, too. The huge Druk Sangak Choling welcomes visitors to its puja in the late afternoons, when you can quietly observe the most stirring of ceremonies, complete with Tibetan monks playing long leba horns and temple drums.
Darjeeling's charms are of the gentle kind and it's easy to imagine the card games, the strolls through lavish gardens and the grand dinners that once oiled the wheels of Raj society.
... the famous tea plantations that summon images of pale-faced MEMSAHIBS with pinkie fingers crooked, sipping tea from PORCELAIN cups.
Feeling rather genteel myself, I take a long day's drive to Kalimpong, where more than 80 per cent of India's gladioli are grown (Dame Edna Everage might die of excitement). There's a great market here, selling flowers and spices, and lots of woollen hats, sweaters and clothing.
Jaldapara, another long, winding and spectacular drive from Kalimpong, is a game park where some safari excursion drives can be done on the back of an elephant. There's also an elephant training camp where naughty babies wander about, nudging pockets and being absolutely delightful.
Accommodation in the park is basic; I give up on the dribble of hot water spitting from the shower and take to a bucket and dipper. But the food is exceptionally good and the staff terrific. The park management has involved the locals in growing mushrooms, betel palms, wheat and potatoes, which bring income and reduce human impact on the forest. In turn, the locals act as guardians for the reserve, and at the nearby Kunjanagar Eco-Park is a tiger sanctuary. Having been in servitude for so long, the tigers are unsuited for reintroduction to the wild, but it is hoped the offspring of the nine males and eight females will eventually re-stock Jaldapara. Meanwhile, they are the healthiest, largest, most playful tigers imaginable. And while grateful to be enjoying a privileged Raj-type visit, one is glad there's no British sahib waiting on his elephant to pop them off and have their striped skins laid out under the pukka billiards table.
Still full of nostalgia for that fabulous and foolish time, when the British still clung-on in India I next head off towards Jorhat and the famous tea plantations of Assam. In Jorhat, I stay at Thengal Manor House, a typical 1920s planter's house with wide verandas, chilly rooms, good hot water and dazzling surrounds of tea bushes, each of which is so well groomed, it could well have its personal valet. Bed tea appears each morning to wake me up, followed by breakfast of masala omelet Then I venture off for a little local sightseeing, including to Sibasagar, a popular Hindu temple much frequented by pretty girls asking for good husbands.
Then on to Kaziranga, a game park of about 800sqkm, where I try the dubious delights of Wildgrass, an 18-room lodge that, though in need of a facelift, has excellent showers and decent food. Kaziranga is home to more than 1500 one-horned Indian rhinos, six of which I see in the first five minutes of venturing out on elephant-back.
Safari-goers these days have cameras instead of rifles, of course, but, escorted by a guide and game warden (armed with an enormous double-barrelled shotgun, just in case), I could understand the glamour of the old Raj ways, though not the resulting trophy. The shotgun seems a case of overkill until I become the tourist in the sandwich between various members of a wild elephant family that has ours surrounded. But once they hear the click of the trigger being released, they head off and I whimper only a little.
Kaziranga has lots of migratory birds, as well as deer, wild boars that rush off with their tails raised like taxi flags, and more than 80 tigers, none of which I see, though there is tiger spoor and deer barking warnings that one of the beasts is about.
During the mid-year monsoon, when it is closed to tourists, Kaziranga goes under water. So in June and July rangers paddle about in wooden boats while leopards head for the hills, along with rhinos, tigers and deer. The park has many lakes and the mighty Brahmaputra runs through it, home to otters and many fish. In this part of India, the rivers are pristine, so clean and clear, that if India were a mother, she would urge you to wash your face in it.
Most of the tourists while I am here are Indians, but we do come across one herd of khaki-garbed foreigners who obviously have had a smash-and-grab raid on shops such as the Banana Republic Emporium. They are top-to-toe in safari jackets, khaki zip-off trousers that turn into shorts and fake leopard-skin hatbands. So laden are the chaps with camera gear, they court a hernia each time they raise a lens. At least my little point-and-shoot digital isn't a health hazard.
Jill Mullens 25/3/10