Freewheeling Darjeeling

A visually stunning and historically informative documentary about Indo-Tibetan culture will soon start making the rounds in select theaters across the country. It’s called Journey of a Dream, and it’s about a Tibetan man, Shenpenn Khyamsar, lead guitarist and songwriter for a heavy metal band called Avatara. Khyamsar was born among the exiled Tibetan community in Darjeeling, India, and his story touches upon the ways in which Tibetan history, exile in India, the Tibetan Freedom Movement, Buddhism, and heavy metal music have converged in his life.* The story sends up trenchant messages about the dangers of nationalism, the power of social cohesion, and the capacity of music and art to deliver political critique.  From the looks of the trailer, the film has some pretty interesting history of the rock-n-roll scene in Darjeeling. Check out the trailer here!

The film is set mostly in Darjeeling, the misty mountain hill station of northeastern India. Darjeeling is probably known by most folks nowadays as a type of tea that is grown in the hill terraces surrounding the town. The British established a sanatorium in Darjeeling in the 19th century, and built up the town with British-style schools, summertime political institutions, and many leisure clubs, and the town served as a cool weather retreat from the lowland plains of Calcutta and Delhi, which were too bloody hot in the summers for the British and their woolen attire. They also cultivated (on the backs of Indians and Nepalis in the region) tea plantations in and around Darjeeling, many of which continued to thrive after the Queen officially gave up British colonial rule in South Asia in 1947. Nathmull’s of Darjeeling is a fine example of the thriving tea industry today in Darjeeling.

Darjeeling is a truly beautiful place, one of my favorite in all of India. It’s very hilly, situated just across a small valley from Mount Kanchenjunga (28,225 ft!), with Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and roadside temples peppering the sides of hills, mountain plateaus, and winding footpaths. Today Darjeeling enjoys an interesting mix of British colonial and Tibetan Buddhist architecture, a smattering of Hindu temples and art, a large central square, Chowrastha mall, that hosts speakers and musicians and lots of people just hanging out, not to mention a bustling market that winds along the main pedestrian thoroughfare of the town.

*Khyamsar’s parents fled Tibet following the 1959 “Lhasa Uprising” against the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which had previously quashed the Tibetan army at Chamdo in 1950 and proceeded over the next several years to “peacefully liberate” Tibet by trying to annex the country into the PRC. During the 1959 uprising in Lhasa, over 300,000 Tibetans opposing the PRC’s occupation of Tibet surrounded the Dalai Lama’s Potala Palace to protest the PLA’s ongoing military presence in their country. The PLA retaliated with a violent attack on the protesters, reportedly killing 86,000 Tibetans. Many Tibetans, including the current (#14) Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, fled the PLA’s persecution and sought sanctuary in India, with large numbers of refugees settling in the Himalayan towns of Dharamsala in the northwest (where His Holiness presently lives) and Darjeeling in the northeast.

3 thoughts on “Freewheeling Darjeeling

  1. wildbillyscircusstory

    This looks like a really interesting film. I’ll check to see if it plays here – most likely the Music Box. The region sounds beautiful, but I admit I do not know why Khyamsar refers to it as troubled. Is it economic or political (or both) upheaval that plagues the region?

    1. peashoot Post author

      Definitely both, but the ongoing military presence of China in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), imposing curfews, arresting (even killing) protesters, and the like is what’s “troubling” the region. The Tibetan situation is important to So. Asia and the world for many reasons, and I’ll be curious to see how political the filmmakers get with the Chinese claims to the TAR. But I am especially eager to learn about the history of Rock-n-Roll in Darjeeling (and Calcutta, too, I reckon, since that is really the cultural capital of northern India and the closest big city to Darjeeling).


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