(Lack) of Architecture in the hills

Darjeeling nestles in the Lower Himalayas in a group of smaller hills called the Shiwalik Hills. The average altitude of Darjeeling is 2,134 metres above sea level. The landscape of Darjeeling is mainly mountainous terrain
Darjeeling was fairly unknown to the outside world until 1828, when a couple of delegates from the British East India Company stayed there on their way to Sikkim. They decided there that the area was suitable for occupation and summer retreat from the unforgiving heat of the Indian plains for the upper class of the company. In 1835 a lease was negotiated with the Chogyal (King) of Sikkim and construction started taking place in the hills.
The landscape of the area meant that architecture in Darjeeling would be forced into a bespoke style. The first instance of the uniqueness of the Shiwalik hills forcing the construction of the infrastructure of the town is the transport. The most noticeable form of transport that cuddles the spine of the hills is the railway that spans 50 miles, wrapping itself around the hills on it’s ascend to Darjeeling from the plains in West Bengal.
Just like the railway system, architecture is also massively influenced by the lack of large areas of flat ground to build upon. This has given rise to many closely packed houses on stilts and open sewers that has, over the years, had a very negative impact on the environment.
Shortly after the first settlement of the British delegates, Darjeeling, as a town, experienced an economic, architectural and population boom. Scottish missionaries were responsible for building centres of education and worship. One of the first schools to be established by the missionaries was the Mount Hermon School. It was build by Nepalese workers under the instruction of the Scottish Missionaries in 1896. It consists of a main building built in the mock Tudor style. Located at the end of the North-western ridge (Lebong), it was a very clever strategy as the area has the largest number of flat grounds in the whole of Darjeeling.
The town of Darjeeling started as a clean slate for British Engineers and Architects but over time the intricate buildings have been overcast by the modifications of the latter residents of the town. There are many reasons as to why there haven’t been any architectural progresses in the town. In this paper I would like to explore and analyse some of the main reasons as to why this is.
Ever since India gained its independence from the ‘British Raj’ in 1947, the economy of the autonomous district has gone into serious regression. The district now falls under the state of West Bengal and its corrupt ministers who constantly siphon out funds from the allocated budget for the district. The world development magazine reported, “However, evidence from the Indian state of West Bengal suggests that ‘rent-seeking’ – manipulation of the economic environment for private gain – may be equally driven by businessmen and so-called community leaders.” The corruption of these government officials were also exposed by the magazine group ‘Tehelka’ when they placed a hidden tape in a ministerial meeting back in 2001 .
It is said that Darjeeling suffers from poorly planned urbanisation as the town was designed by the colonials for a population of no more than 10,000 people, but I would like to think that growing up in an ever growing town there is no such thing as ‘planning’. People are building houses illegally on land that does not even belong to them and the municipality officials are easily paid off by the more well off citizens to turn a blind eye to their occupations. With a population exceeding 109,000 , Darjeeling has an immense shortage of housing. People are constantly moving into Darjeeling from the poorer regions in the mountain districts of Nepal, further increasing the need for sustainable housing. But since the DGHC (Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council- independent district governing body of Darjeeling) officials have yet to do anything about the problem, people take things into their own hands and start cutting down forests and building houses on land that is not necessarily owned by them. These people are not informed on how to manage a sustainable living. Every year forests are cut down for the timber and this loosens up the soil so much that the areas most-badly hit by deforestation suffers extremely severe landslides that destroy the very houses built on the land by the uprooting of these trees.
Another major problem for architecture in Darjeeling is its lack of maintenance of the buildings that already exist. One such example is Mount Hermon School, a school I attended as a child from 1997 to 2001 prior to moving to England. The ‘Main Building’ of the school was built in 1895 under the patronage of the Methodist Episcopalian Church of America by Miss Emma Knowles. I am sure that when first opened the building might have been very pristine and well presented but the years of mismanagement and the lack of an adequate maintenance body there are massive scars left on the buildings.
Mount Hermon School is one of many buildings in Darjeeling that has suffered the lack of maintenance over the years. Other examples include the Catholic Church, The Lloyds Botanical Garden and Everest Colonial resort (burnt down in 1997 and still not recovered). The only real maintenance occurs in Buddhist Monasteries (called Gompas) and the Hindu Temples where pious followers of the relevant religion have donated large sums of money directly to the head of the schooling sect of the Gompa. This attitude is reflected in the Ghoom Yiga Choling Gompa (built in 1850).
There has always been a lack of sustainability in Darjeeling even when it first started being developed as a colonial summer retreat. In the book ‘The Magic Mountains’ the author writes “The pleasant picture that the British painted of hill station landscapes and the collateral program they undertook to make the environment even more picturesque disguised a complicated and troubling reality. Although the British did indeed transform the environs of hill stations, this transformation did not accord entirely with their ideals. One of the foremost environmental repercussions of their entry into the highlands was deforestation…the forest has almost entirely disappeared in many parts, owing to the spread of cultivation. The demand for fuel and building material by the growing populations of the hill stations also contributed to the problem. Local stands of trees quickly fell to the axes of the founding residents, and encroachments on surrounding timber areas intensified as the stations expanded…” This shows that from the very beginning Darjeeling has been more of an experimental town than a purpose-built sustainable town. It started life as a summer playground for the colonial British upper class and since their departure the town has struggled to fill the void left by its past rulers and occupiers.
I think that Darjeeling has had more than its fair share of troubles and corruption (corruption being the bigger problem) and hence has found it hard to really establish itself as a sustainable town. In conclusion I would like to state that as long as everyone in the hills continue building unsound structures illegally that they have designed themselves there will never really be an architectural achievement. If the ethics of architecture was that the richer you are the taller your building is would you really call that architecture?

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