Darjeeling, like most places in the Himalaya, is a Buddhist community. And like most places in India will find an excuse to hold a parade, festival or celebration most weeks of the year.
We were lucky enough to be there as they marked the enlightenment of Lord Buddha. (Before anyone disputes this information, a little Googling has taught me that “there are regional and sectarian differences as to how these great rites of passage are celebrated” and it seems the dates vary from country to country and from tradition to tradition.) We watched the procession as it grew in size and decibels from under the eaves of our room. Unperturbed by the accuracy of dates, we downed a quick breakfast of tea, toast and eggs and went out to join the fun.
Maroon and orange-clad monks played musical instruments, banging drums and cymbals with huge concentration, accompanied by a variety of loud horns. The instruments were different to anything I had seen before and as far as I could tell it was a case of picking a note and blowing as hard as possible.
One particular type of horn was about twelve feet long: the business end held by the ‘blower’ (to call him a musician would be unfair to musicians) while another man balanced the wider, heavier end on his shoulder or under his arms, often supporting two of these gigantic horns at the same time.
We watched the procession snake past the Dekeling for about half an hour. No sooner had one group of musicians receded with its attendant crowd of worshippers, than the next little band arrived. The percussion section had great rhythm, but it was difficult to pick out a melody among the layer of single note horns. To add to the carnival atmosphere – and to detract from the horns – ear-splitting fire crackers were set off down dark side lanes by high-spirited young men.
Some of the monks carried statues of Buddha in palanquin-style boxes. Arranged across two parallel bars they held Him on their shoulders. Followers bent their heads and ran underneath these icons with great seriousness and occasional glee.
We broke through the throng lining the streets and joined in the parade. It was a happy occasion, and out of earshot of the cacophony people smiled in silence, or chatted quietly as they slowly followed the procession.
I was blessed twice, but the sharp corners crashing onto my crown caused me to yelp, much to the hilarity of those around me.
Some of the schoolgirls and mums walking along with us carried rectangular prayer boxes brought from the temples. They blessed people as they passed by, touching the boxes to their heads. I was blessed twice, but the sharp corners crashing onto my crown caused me to yelp, much to the hilarity of those around me. Someone was listening, though, because my prayers not to end up bruised were answered.
The procession took in all of Darjeeling and lasted for several hours. At various stages water and orange juice were handed out to the grateful walkers. In the built up areas people hung over balconies either side of the road, wafting incense towards the parade from their windows. The fragrant smoke permeated the lanes, and as the damp, earthy smell of autumn mingled with the incense and slight chill in the air it became a magical experience.
This was a special way to get to know the beautiful ‘Queen of Hills’ and we were lucky to have been in the right place at the right time. We were indeed blessed.