Kalimpong and Its Cosmopolitan Enclave: ‘Lost Town’ in the Eastern Himalayas

Anisa Bhutia

This article questions what forms the cosmopolitan past of the town of Kalimpong? Additionally, while engaging with the past this paper also enquires how Kalimpong in due course of time possibly became a lost town.

Kalimpong is a town in the ridge overlooking the Teesta and Relli rivers, located presently within the Indian state of West Bengal, in the Eastern Himalayas. Historically, it has never been under one regime – constantly shifting between Tibet, Bhutan, Sikkim, British Raj and now India. There has been no consensus even among scholarly works on this region, which referred Kalimpong variously as ‘an important junction’, ‘cosmopolitan trade hub’, ‘border town’ and most recently ‘contact zone’ (Viehbeck 2017; Toffin & Pfaff-Czarnecka 2014; Harris 2013; Mazumdar 1994,1993). Yet, amidst all these different categories, Kalimpong continued to evolve, as if on its own, like a chameleon. This research tries to reconcile the apparent tension and contradiction of these categories and explores Kalimpong, as one of those spaces negotiating, over the ages, ‘the art of not being governed’ (Scott 2009). Further, elaborating on Nandy’s (2018) concept of Lost Cities, as places, which are usually in the public memories, arts and myths, this article examines Kalimpong as a ‘lost town’, still living in its past trade oriented days. Furthermore, I argue through this paper that if we consider cosmopolitanism to be an epitome of modernity, such frontier towns were already modern in their own ways due to their connections. But it was the modern processes of 20th century like nation-state, border patrolling, boundaries that couldn’t accommodate the progress for such towns. Eventually, as the world was moving forward, towns like Kalimpong started moving backwards and getting lost.

Based on an ethnographic study of 6 months, this article engages with the literatures surrounding Kalimpong and its cosmopolitan past during 1940 – 1960. Moreover, I also tried to capture the image of Kalimpong, through interviews with local historians, people and different trading communities (Marwari, Tibetan, Newar). As the 10th Mile Road finds a frequent occurrence in the scholarly works of Kalimpong with relation to its Lhasa trade route, walking this road and having conversations with people located in this road formed an important ethnographic method for my research. Additionally, with the aid of snowball sampling my respondents grew in number and provided me with a holistic understanding of the town’s history.

The article will be divided broadly in three sections. Firstly, it will describe Kalimpong as represented in the literature. Secondly, the global connections of the town will be studied through the geopolitics of its neighbors (Nepal, Tibet, Sikkim and Bhutan). Thirdly, it will deal with the gradual process of becoming a ‘lost town’ living in the subconscious, keeping the old Kalimpong alive through the shared stories and narratives almost creating like an enclave of memories.

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