"Crash, clang, ding-ding, BANG!"
The incessant din, hurtling up from the road below our mountainside homestay, bounced off the eaves into the bedroom, waking me from a deep sleep. Jamie and I dragged our sluggish bodies downstairs for breakfast.
Darjeeling, like most places in the Himalaya, is a Buddhist community. And like the rest of India there is a parade, festival or celebration nearly every week. Today a colourful banner declared, “2600 years of the enlightenment of Lord Buddha".
We gobbled up our toast and drained cups of sweet masala tea before heading out to join the procession.
Orchestral manoeuvres in the alleys
Maroon and orange-clad monks banged drums and cymbals with devoted concentration, or blew as hard as possible on a variety of horns, without varying the note. One instrument was around ten feet long: the business end held by the 'blower' (to call him a musician would be a stretch too far), while at the other end a second man supported two of these gigantic musical pipes under his arms.
As one band receded with its crowd of followers, the next little group arrived. The percussion sections beat out an impressive rhythm, but I tried in vain to identify a melody among the single-layered notes blasting out from the wind sections. To add to the cacophony a few high-spirited young men set off deafening fire crackers down dark, side alleys.
Not all blessings are disguised
Some of the monks carried ornate and colourful statues of Buddha in palanquins. Arranged across two parallel bars they held Him on their shoulders. Devotees, with serious expressions or a surreptitious smile, lowered their heads and threaded their way underneath the icons between the monks.
Towards the end we broke through the throng and joined the worshippers. It was a happy occasion, and away from the bands people walked in silence or chatted quietly as they slowly followed behind the monks. We walked side by side with tiny, ancient crones in tribal dress; young mothers in tight western clothes, holding babies; groups of schoolgirls; bent grandfathers; brightly coloured, swaddled toddlers; and wiry mountain men.
Some devotees carried rectangular prayer boxes brought from the temples. with which they blessed the crowd by touching the boxes to bowed heads. I was blessed, but to the amusement of my neighbours the sharp wooden corners crashing onto my crown made me yelp. Someone was listening because my prayers to not end up bleeding and bruised were answered.
Sweet smelling smoke
The procession lasted until lunchtime and took us on a thorough tour of the eastern 'Queen of Hills'. At small stations along the route we were offered water and orange juice to keep up our strength.
We passed quietly along steep, narrow passages in the town centre where women in open windows, or standing on balconies, gently fanned plumes of incense through clothes lines strung with washing. Snatches of music drifted towards us.
The fragrant smoke filtered downwards in the chilly mountain air, mingling with the damp, earthy smell of this magical autumnal day.
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Darjeeling. Take a jeep from New Jalpaiguri station in West Bengal. Expect to pay around 150 to 200 INR per seat, but the space allocated for a 'seat' is tiny. Buy two seats per person, better still rent the whole bench seat behind the driver (the equivalent of four seats).
You could take Unesco World Heritage 'Toy' Train all the way, but it's a long, slow boot. Better to take an excursion on the train from Darjeeling to Ghoom for a morning.
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