A very visible destruction of heritage due to the massive April 25 earthquake was that of the Gaddhi Baithak, the white-plastered neo-colonial structure with Greek columns that is part of the Hanuman Dhoka palace complex, a world heritage monument zone. It was made in 1908 by Maharaja Chandra Shumhser (1863-1929) following in the footsteps of his famous uncle, Prime Minister Jung Bahadur Rana (1816-1877), who started the fad of building such palaces after his trip to England and France. Jung Bahadur was famous for such things. Colonel Gajraj Singh Thapa, his eldest son-in-law, is not famous, hardly anybody has heard of him, but he played an important role in imparting a distinct identity to eastern Nepal, especially Ilam.
In the late 1870s, as Governor General of the eastern region, he went on a visit to Darjeeling, where he was introduced to a refreshing beverage that he had never tasted before. It was tea. So invigorated was he that he immediately set about establishing two 103-acre plantations in eastern Nepal, a region that has similar climatic conditions as its neighbor, Darjeeling. The first saplings planted were gifts to Jung Bahadur from the emperor of China. Ilam Tea Estate (est. 1878) is the first tea estate of Nepal, and it is what has given Ilam its unique identity.
The very mention of tea estate brings to mind acres and acres of short stunted green bushes all over hillsides; a most pleasant sight. And, none of the tea estates is as beautiful as Kanyam Tea Estate that sprawls over some 240 hectares at a height of 1,676 meters above sea level. It is the largest producer of orthodox tea, with some 125 kg produced every year. As a matter of interest, near to it is where a lot of Nepali film dances shot, so the locals call it, “Shooting Hill”! Anyway, this aside, while tea reigns supreme in the eastern hills, Ilam is also famous as the region of the six “A’s”, that is: alu (potato), alan (milk), alainchi (cardamom), aduwa (ginger), amriso (broom grass), and akbare khursani (extremely hot small round chili). Alainchi, especially, is a great success story, with its rich cultivation in the eastern region making Nepal one of the world’s top producers of this aromatic spice.
Ilam municipality also gained a place in the country’s history in 2010 as the first in Nepal to ban the use of plastic, something that was implemented only in 2015 in Kathmandu. Aside from this interesting snippet, there’s a place called Antu Danda (2,328 m) about 35 km southeast of Ilam Bazaar, from where the sunrise and sunset views over Kangchenjunga (8,586 m), the third highest peak in the world, are just breathtaking. You may be even able to see the Darjeeling hills on a clear day. A Lepcha Museum here displays the culture and lifestyle of the Lepcha community, an ethnic group that, along with Magars, Gurungs, Rais, Limbus, and Sherpas, is predominant in the region.
A significant place of interest is Mai Pokhari (2,121 m), about 13 km north of Ilam Bazaar, that’s famous as a pilgrimage site. This lovely nine-cornered lake, with a one-kilometer circumference, is surrounded by forests of pine, juniper, fir, birch, and medicinal plants. If you are lucky, you could come across animals like musk deer, leopard, porcupine, etc. You’ll certainly see quite a few migratory birds. Mai Pokhari is the place to be during Kartik Ekadasi, an annual festival in October-November, when a lot of devotees make their way to pay homage to Goddess Bhagwati. Another big draw is Sandakphu (3,636 m) on the Nepal-India border, because of its awesome panoramic views of Kangchenjunga and Everest, as well as of the entire district and its adjoining regions such as Siliguri and Darjeeling in India.
Similarly, other places of interest are: Sidhi Thumka (1,800 m), a three-hour trek from Ilam Bazaar, that gives you excellent sunrise and sunset views, and Chhintapu (3,353 m) around which you get to see 11 varieties of rhododendrons and rare herbs, besides some endangered animals like musk deer and red panda. Actually, mentioning all this, it must be noted that Ilam district is a favored region for research and study for botanists and anthropologists because of its rich ecology and interesting ethnicities. Some international universities even have an annual wildlife studies program whereby students visit Ilam for a fortnight in April-May to study the flora and fauna, as well as the culture and lifestyle of different ethnic groups.
Indeed, Ilam is the emerald of eastern Nepal in more ways than one.