The first thing we decided after finalising our recent trip to Darjeeling, was this time we will walk a lot. We wanted to avoid the typical tourist spots, not because we have already visited most when we were here earlier with our families, but because we were not ready to be in the middle of the peak season crowd. Exploring the quiet hilly bends was also high on our wishlist.
One of the trails we planned before reaching the hill station was a walk from Ghum to Darjeeling. On way we thought of visiting the Ghum Railway Museum, Ghum Monasteries and the Dali Monastery. The first toy train of the day leaves Darjeeling at 10:15 AM. But as we wanted to start early, we took a shared taxi from Chowk Bazaar. Traffic jam is common in this road during the early hours due to the rush of tourist vehicles returning from Tiger Hill. They would stop at the new Ghum Monastery and Batasia Loop on way too. So the stretch of road took more than 40 minutes rather than the usual 20-25 minutes. The time was enough for us to change our plan as work was going on at various locations and that, along with the traffic jam, didn’t make the trail look inviting to us. We decided we would be walking to the Aloobari Monastery instead and asked our driver to drop us at Jorbanglow, couple of minutes ahead of the Ghum Railway Station. Glad we changed our plan.
Alubari Monastery is located on Tenzing Norgay Road which starts near the Darjeeling Mall horse stable and meets Hill Cart Road at Jorbunglow. Not on the set route of local sight seeing trips, the road is almost devoid of cars and not at all crowded. You will only see locals and at most a few like minded tourists. Jorbunglow is a busy section of the Hill Cart Road with lots of shops. The way to the Alubari Monastery will be on your left if you are coming from Darjeeling. Ask at any shop and they would direct you if you could not locate the narrow road.
For the initial few minutes, there were lots of roadside shops and houses. After that the road started becoming more and more beautiful. Occasionally we came across small bastis (settlements) with few beautiful houses. The houses were mostly small, but beautifully decorated with flower plants kept in the porch or hanging from the windows. Coloured brightly, the houses looked so tempting that we wished we could own one of those.
In between the bastis the road meandered through the thick and tall greenery on one side and the distant hilly slopes on the other. The famous Tiger Hill was behind us on the right. It was a foggy day and through it we could see small groups of houses below or on the opposite slopes. Everything else looked like dense forest or tea plantations.
At one point the road forked into two and we took the one going downhill (were guided by locals few meters ahead of the fork). We were confirming from locals at regular intervals that we were on track. After few minutes as the road took a left turn we looked up and saw the other road above us. A middle aged gentleman who was walking just in front of us few minutes ago, could now be seen up above and he looked so small. The beauty of mountain roads.
Apart from being beautiful, the road was very clean too. At regular intervals there were green “Use Me” cans tied at one side of the road. Whoever have put them up, the municipality or the locals themselves, I was happy as well as surprised to see them. Then I saw an elderly woman come out of her house, cross the road, dispose something in one of those cans and return home. I felt good and bad at the same time. Good for them and bad because very few in my city would do something like that. A day ago we were walking from Mall towards Rajbhavan. Just after the Mahakaal market we were looking at the road below and saw the slope between the two roads full of garbage. But the slopes here were clean and green. Its sad the tourists, who fill all the places they visit with garbage, never learn from these locals who maintain their small bastis and the surrounding nature so well.
We started walking around 8:30 and around 9:10 reached the Aloobari Monastery. We took breaks to enjoy the nature and click some photos. If you walk continuously and enjoy walking it would take lesser time. It looked like the monastery has been painted recently. There were several cars waiting on the road in front of the monastery. We initially thought they have brought tourists over. When asked one of the drivers told us not many people visit this place and they are from local bastis waiting for passengers. But what we couldn’t understand was, if almost no one visits this place, then for whom are they waiting for? Hope they were not relying on occasional visitors like us! When we were returning one of them asked if we will be taking a cab or not. So, whatever might be the reason of them waiting outside the monastery, if you plan to walk till here and then hire a car, you will get it here.
Aloobari Monastery was built by Sangay Lama, a religious head of the Yolmowa community from Yolmo, Nepal, and the actual name of it is Mak Dhog Monastery. It was 1914 and first World War has started. Mak Dhog means warding of the war and this name was given to dedicate the religious building to the cause of World peace. Popularly it is known as Aloobari Monastery as it is located in the Aloobari region.
We found the people here very helpful. One of the drivers led us inside the monastery compound and went to call someone who will open it for us. He came back with a monk who welcomed us inside. Topden Lama, the monk, gave us a guided tour of the monastery. The ground floor has brightly painted walls and ceilings and houses the idols of Avalokitesvara, Buddha, A Nun and Tara. It was interesting how Hindu (Tara) and Buddhist (Avalokitesvara and Buddha) gods were worshiped at the same place. Topden Lama told us when they worship Tara devi they consume only vegetarian food without onion or garlic, like the Hindus. At one side of the hall were kept few manuscripts, which were brought from Tibet over hundred years ago when this monastery was build. They are still in use.
We liked the ground floor hall, but didn’t expect what more was in store for us. As soon as Lama opened the first floor hall door we went spellbound. In front of us was a huge idol of Padmasambhava or Guru Rinpoche, also known as ‘second Buddha‘, and the walls around richly painted in vegetable dye. There were almirahs with rich wood carvings full of manuscripts. But sadly everything was desperately asking for some restoration. It was sad to see such rich heritage left in such bad condition.
Lama Topden told us everything was nearly destroyed in the last earthquake and they struggled to raise money for renovation. Although they have somehow managed to reconstruct and paint afresh most of the monastery, restoring this hall has not been possible as heritage restoration needs experts and is very expensive. In absence of proper government aid Aloobari Monastery sadly is loosing the wonderful vegetable dye murals slowly.
Here, on both sides of Padmasambhava, you will find two statues, facing each other, of Sangay Lama and his son Lama Nima Choogyal, who rebuilt the monastery in 1937 after it was damaged by the 1934 earthquake.
There’s no ceiling between the 1st floor hall and the attic above. The attic houses the Buddha idol which earlier used to be in the old Ghum Monastery, the oldest monastery structure of Darjeeling. When later a bigger idol was made for Ghum, the old one was shifted here. We were led to the roof via few very steep stairs and from there few more steps brought us to the attic. Along with the old Buddha statue there were numerous small buddha idols kept in shelves on all the walls. Lama told us there used to be 1000 Buddhas, but were mostly destroyed in the earthquake. Now they are again adding the small statues.
The view from the roof of the monastery was spectacular. Hills covered with jungles in the distance while the picturesque busty below. If you are here I would suggest spend some time on the roof. Leave everything else and just enjoy the nature.
It was almost 10:30 when we came out of the monastery. Lama Topden was talking about the Aloobari region and he told us earlier farming used to be very productive here. But then vandalism by bears and leopards have made farming difficult. We asked him if they cross the road we walked and were going to take on our way back.
– “Ata hai to.” (Yes they do). “Lekin din me nehi ata. Raat me ata kabhi kabhi.” (But not during daylight. Sometimes they come during night).
He assured it is almost safe during daytime and we started our walk tracing the same path back to Jorbunglow.
We planned earlier to have breakfast at one of the small roadside family run eateries with momo, thukpa, or alu-mimi. But found out that it is hard to find any place to eat between Aloobari Monastery and Jorbunglow. There were couple of houses with “Tea, Coffee” written on the walls. We inquired and found out they do not operate a professional or regular eatery, but make tea, coffee or some food if anyone asks and hence need time as they would prepare everything after we order. We were so hungry by then that we decided to have our breakfast in Jorbunglow as a walk till there would take lesser time. There were few stationary shops though and we bought a pack of biscuits from one of them as a temporary solution. So if you are planning this trip plan in advance about the food.
Just before this road joins the Hill Cart Road, on your left you will find several small cabins selling momo, thukpa and alu-mimi. We entered one and ended our trip with a plate of vegetable momo followed by a bowl of alu-mimi, while enjoying the lovely view through the window.
Our next plan was to visit the old Ghum Monastery (not the one the local sightseeing cars will take you to) and we will be writing about it next. Till then stay safe and happy journey 😀