seduced by Mirik

Ah, Mirik, no wonder the Indian middle-class flock to you in the winter!  You have seduced me (although I may be a bit easy 😉 )!

Path around Lake Sumendu, Mirik
Path around Lake Sumendu, Mirik

Mirik is a small hill-town of about 15,000 people, about 2,000 metres above sea level.  The older part of town is a gently bustling trading and farming village, but the town now also centres around Lake Sumendu, a man-made lake, surrounded by bamboo, cedar, ferns.  I wandered around the stone and dirt paths that circle the lake and criss-cross the surrounding forest for hours.  The Indian tourists ride horses around its perimeter, glide across the lake on paddle-boats, or (as I found out soon enough) set up picnics on the shore and play filmi (bollywood tunes) loudly and distorted through huge speakers.  Ok, that part doesn’t sound so wonderful, but even that was kind of beautiful.

Mirik, West Bengal
Mirik, West Bengal

The outskirts of Mirik, the steep and the gentle hillsides, are populated by orange orchards, cardamom groves, and plenty of tea plantations.  So, in spite of its tourist appeal, it has none of the tourist vibe of Darjeeling.  Let me give you a few snapshots…

I visited the island shrine to Parvati, and one on a hilltop to Durga.  The island is perhaps ten metres by fifteen, the shrine tiny, reached by a footbridge.  When I went there first, I was entirely alone, so sat on the steps and just absorbed, and wrote, and sat…

The hilltop shrine is actually a complex of shrines, around 6, connected by a circular path, which wound around a banyan tree.  I know next to nothing of the stories of Hinduism, and the images are still hard to access, but at some temples, there is a real sense of the spiritual, perhaps the patina of the years of accumulated devotion.  Both places were deeply moving and beautiful, sublime perhaps.

I have to say, of course, that when I left Mirik and arrived in Siliguri, I soon enough saw a small temple near the river, surrounded by dust and grime and bamboo shacks, immense poverty… and somehow I was reminded of Marx’s infamous quote about opium…  Easy to be “inspired” in a sublime environment…

There is also a huge monastery in Mirik.  On my last day there, I got up at dawn, walked the 15 minute hill road to get there, and on the way, it was the first clear day since I’ve been there, and there the Himalayas were, looming white and majestic on the horizon!  Breathtaking.  I’d been having a touch of the Western guilts, wondering what I was doing here, having my own little experiences, leaving behind empty plastic mineral water bottles, going home… It reminded me that in the midst of a transporting experience, there is no self to agonise over.

I hover outside the prayer hall for a while, a bit aghast at the building itself, an immense five-story crimson and saffron palace almost, intricately yet subtly decorated… but decided I should go in.  Hundreds of monks are at morning prayer.  I slip as quietly and anonymously as a non-robe-wearing, white man can, and sit in a corner.  Waves and currents of chanted prayer, gongs, the sound is like an orchestra, each voice a distinct voice yet disappearing into the whole.  Again, I can only enter the outer perimeter of the significance of what’s happening, so I sit and absorb, and attempt my own version of prayer, chant, meditation, presence.  I leave after maybe 15 minutes, and of course they’re still going…, walk down the hill feeling different yet the same…

I stay at Hotel Ashirvad, a tiny place off the main street.  I couldn’t get through on the phone to book, so was a little nervous.  I was greeted at the door by a 10-year old girl, who when I ask if there’s a room, she leaves, I assume to get the manager.  An 8 year-old boy comes out, shows me upstairs to a tiny single room, says it’s normally 200 rupees, but I can have it for 150, motions me to sit down, relax, then rushes downstairs to carry my huge backpack upstairs!  I meet Dad the manager later, but it’s so uncanny and unnerving to meet a child who is so confident and accustomed to the world of work.  At other times, I’ve been slapped back to reality, when after admiring the humble architecture of a village home, I’ve turned the corner to see a six-year old collecting wood or sweeping the path.  It’s not Australia’s reality, but it’s reality for so much of the world.

The only time in Mirik that I was approached by strangers who wanted something from me was when a group of young Indian men wanted their photo taken with me!  Oh, and I while I was sitting in my room one cool morning, with the window open, a monkey stuck his head in, his fingers gripping the window-sill, his face curious.  I shoo him away, as you do…

I spent Christmas dinner at Jagjeet restaurant, a family of one.  A portly bearded Sikh gent played with a small girl (better than Santa any day!).  She later wandered around the restaurant, running her toy truck across any improvised road she could find, including my leg.  I could weep, with a blur of contentment, yearning, melancholy and joy.

Thankyou Mirik.  A wonderful way to end my time in the West Bengal Hills.  But, Siliguri was about to remind me of another side of India, and bring up tears of a different kind…

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