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8 Aug 2017

Festivities may fizzle out as Hills stare at Rs 75 crore Puja loss

Jayanta Gupta & Deep Gazmer | TNN | Aug 8, 2017,, DARJEELING: With the peak tourist season ending prematurely this summer and hopes diminishing of visitors returning during the Puja holidays as the indefinite strike continues to paralyse the Hills, there is apprehension that people may not have the means or the spirit to celebrate Dasai and Tihar, the two key festivals in the region. Dasai in the Hills is Dussehra and Tihar is Diwali.

Tour operators expect losses to touch Rs 75 crore during the Puja season, when at least 75,000 tourists flock to the Queen of Hills.

As in the plains, the countdown to the two main Hindu festivals began on Monday with Rakhi Purnima. But with Gorkha Janmukti Morcha calling for an intensified movement in the days to come, locals fear this year could be a repeat of 1986, when celebrations were called off after the violent agitation that year claimed several lives.

There is, however, a difference between the movement then and now. In 1986, the Gorkhas had fought each other under GNLF and CPM banners. This time, they have remained united. While deaths have been fewer this time, if the agitation intensifies, the casualty count could rise. "Independence Day celebrations that used to be big in the Hills have already been curtailed. Dasai and Tihar may go the same way," said a local.

A major reason for the celebrations turning sour could be lack of funds. In end-May, Darjeeling was raising a toast to a bumper year for tourism. Even on June 8, when violence first raised its head, there were around 10,000 tourists in Darjeeling town. The peak summer tourist season in the Hills normally continues till June 30, but by June 10 this year, Darjeeling was empty.
To make matters worse, message was sent out that Darjeeling was to be avoided even during the Pujas. "This being a bumper year, we were expecting nearly 3 lakh tourists as against the 2.2-lakh footfall in 2016-17. Of this, nearly 40% were expected during the summer, but the season was cut short midway. Around 75,000 tourists were expected during the Pujas, but if this doesn't happen, the loss would amount to around Rs 75 crore. Where is the money for festivals?" a tour operator said.

Unlike in the rest of Bengal, Durga Puja isn't a community affair in the Hills. The main celebrations here start from Dashami, which is again a very family-centric affair. The tourists normally start leaving by Dashami and the locals take the next 15 days off for the festivals. "On Saptami, we have something known as Phoolpati. Deities are brought out from temples on palanquins and people place a flower (phool) and leaf (pati) from the alter in their homes on the palanquin. Ashtami is dedicated to khukri puja and Navami is the day of sacrifice. People either sacrifice buffaloes or vegetables. On Dashami, families travel to homes of ancestors with gifts to seek blessings from the eldest member alive. This is the most important day," said Rajiv Chhetri, a local.

Even Diwali (Tihar) celebrations are different from that in the the plains. Instead of fireworks, homes and surroundings are decorated with lights while young girls and women go from door to door celebrating 'Bhailini' — narrating tales from mythology and asking people to keep their households clean. In return, they receive gifts and money.

"People are certainly suffering and festivities will take a hit this year. But we still haven't asked people to abstain from celebrations. However, the people in the Hills are now part of the agitation and if things get worse in the days to come, they may curtail festivities by themselves," a senior GJM leader said.

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