Before the Battle of Imphal: A walk between Gangtok and Darjeeling

On the 30th March 1993 I walked around the hill at the high point of Darjeeling and stopped to look across at Kangchenjunga.

On my return to England my father showed me a photograph he had taken from the same spot and sent to his parents on the 23rd February 1943. He had been on leave from his post in Calcutta (deploying radar), staying in a bungalow at Sing Tom, about half way down the hill from Darjeeling.


"This is the first of my Darjeeling photographic efforts for you. The cigarette the boy is smoking was his "baksheesh." The highest snow-clad mountain is Kangchenjunga, the next highest after Everest. Propose following this up with one of my efforts per week."



The big picture showing Calcutta, Darjeeling and surrounds, and Imphal.


View to the North over Darjeeling with Kangchenjunga the highest mountain and Gangtok in the far right distance. Places on the walk from Gangtok back to Sing Tom near Darjeeling are shown.



Suspension bridge over the Great Rangit River, Sikkim, 1943. "Jeeping was OK if you took the handles off the sides of the jeep and if you drove carefully, slowly and smoothly. The donkey, load, donkey driver and policeman give a fair idea of scale. Note the prayer flags tied to the bridge." "There were about half a dozen such bridges on the jeep track between Silchar (Assam) and the Imphal Valley."


He remembered a journey in which several vehicles in turn took him from Darjeeling to Gangtok, capital of the state of Sikkim. "We spent a few days with the Political Officer for Sikkim, entertained and were entertained by the Maharaja and his three grown up children." This Maharaja was Tashi Namgyal, ruling Chogyal of Sikkim from 1914 to 1963. He was born in Tibet and crowned by the 13th Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso.

Following the days with the Chogyal, my father then spent a week walking back to Sing Tom via Namchi.


Sketch by W.D.A. Smith of the bungalow at Sing Tom, made 18th January 1944, shortly before leaving for Imphal.


The leave based at Sing Tom was cut short when he was reassigned to Imphal "where the action was." "The action" was the Battle of Imphal which took place from March to July of 1944. Gurkhas were prominently involved and he brought back a black-handled kukri knife as a souvenir. Other souvenirs from this time were a Tibetan prayer bell (later used to summon the family to meals), a dorje and a greeting card showing a very young 14th Dalai Lama.


A 1943 image of the 14th Dalai Lama


I also acquired a souvenir or two and still have with me this thangka of Tsongkhapa, brought back from my 1993 visit to the area. The rhododendron trees were particularly resonant after hiking through rhododendron forests decorated with silvery gray langur monkeys in Nepal.


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