Priority Boarding… with Sir Mark Tully
Sir Mark Tully is a veteran British broadcaster and writer. He is the author of numerous books on spirituality and on India, including India: The Road Ahead. Sir Mark has received many awards throughout his distinguished career, both in Britain and in India, where he worked as the BBC’s bureau chief for 20 years.
Mark Tully: I recommend that people visit east India, the most neglected part of the country. Travellers are familiar with Delhi, Jaipur, Agra; south India has become a very popular area, as has Goa in the west; but eastern India remains undiscovered, and to me is the country’s most magical part.
For instance, down the coast on an overnight train from Kolkata (Calcutta) is the pilgrim town of Puri, with the great temple of Lord Jagannath. You can only see it from a nearby library, as of course non-Hindus are not allowed in. But here they will tell you the story of how, every year, the god comes out of the temple on a great wooden chariot. Thousands and thousands of people watch as the chariot slowly makes its way through the streets. And just up the road from Puri is the magnificent sun temple at Konark, another of these striking chariot temples (pictured below).
Returning to Kolkata, you’ll find some of the outstanding buildings of the British Raj. There is still an atmosphere of the Raj, especially in its clubs like the Tollygunge, the Bengal and the Calcutta Club. At the heart of the city is St Paul’s, the great white Anglican cathedral, its tower modelled on Canterbury Cathedral’s Bell Harry Tower. People tend to shun Kolkata because of its perceived poverty – an image that Mother Teresa contributed to – but it’s a city of wonderful buildings and culture.
I have great affection for Kolkata. I was born and spent nine years of my childhood there. There used to be this rather barbaric habit of sending British children, like me born in India, back to school in England at a young age. The war was fortunate for me though, as it meant there was no transport to get me back to England, so I was sent to school in Darjeeling instead. It’s still one of my most favourite destinations, a hill station with an atmosphere all its own. There’s that wonderful view of Kanchenjunga, and historic buildings like the Planters’ Club, and the unique tea gardens – producers of the champagne of tea.
If there’s one smell in the world that is absolutely the smell of all smells, it is the smell of tea being manufactured in a factory on a Darjeeling tea estate. It’s a fascinating process to witness. The sight of pickers with their baskets on their backs, the excitement of the factory – the noise and clatter of the machinery – and the skill of it all, especially in Darjeeling where the quality is so high.
And as a railway lover, I am a dedicated fan of the Unesco-listed Darjeeling-Himalayan Railway: the small two-foot gauge mountain railway, which runs from the plains of Siliguri up to Darjeeling. When it was first built, it was a pioneering mountain railway, and on sections today you will still find steam engines operating that are over a hundred years old. Because of its very narrow gauge, it’s often described as a toy railway. I would object to that, because – although it has now been overtaken by road transport – the railway served a very important function in its day: as a vital passenger service, but also ferrying tea down from the plantations to the plains to be auctioned. I have a personal link to the railway too: not only did I travel to school on it, but my father was one of its directors.
I have recommended just three places to visit – Puri, Kolkata and Darjeeling – but there is much, much more to see in eastern India, especially if you go further east into Assam and the small states lying along the borders with Burma and Bangladesh. It is a journey well worth making.
If you are interested in travelling to Eastern India, Cox & Kings offers the private Eastern Himalayan Trails tour, visiting Darjeeling and Kolkata. You are also able to tailor-make holidays to the region – please contact us on 020 7873 5000 for more details.