A Space That Has Been Laboured on: Mobile Lives and Transcultural Circulation around Darjeeling and the Eastern Himalayas
The Himalayas had long been a dynamic, yet geographically remote and ecologically challenging space of spiritual significance and cultural flux for Asian borderland peoples and mountain cultures. From the mid-nineteenth century onwards, imperial policies, colonial explorations, labouring migrations, plantation capital, commodity trades, and a unique pattern of urban morphology transformed the Eastern Himalayas into a more accessible space that became a transcultural contact zone for circulation, contact, and mobility. At the Darjeeling hill station of British India, the high altitudes and temperate climes promised to alleviate bodily ills and nurture modernity through the plantation, missionary, military, and mountaineering enterprises that had taken root. Given the diversity of indigenous, migrant, and colonial subjects who inhabited this space, asymmetrical and unequal experiences based on class, race, and gender difference became intrinsic to this promise. This article examines Darjeeling as a high-altitude contact zone constituted around the spatial and temporal co-presence of a wide range of subjects previously separated by geographic and temporal disjuncture whose trajectories of circulation and mobility intersected in and because of this mountain space. Such subjects included Lepcha cultivators, foragers, and guides, Bhutia load carriers and clan notables, Nepali labourers, cooks, nursemaids, soldiers, and translators, Sherpa porters and climbers, English explorers and army officers, Scottish administrators, planters and missionaries—subjects who constituted Darjeeling as an interactive arena for circulation, a transcultural space that offered, in greater or lesser degree, possibilities for historical agency.
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