Lessons from the Corona Virus

The Corona Virus pandemic has been ravaging the world like no other in living memory. The disease, really something as innocuous as a viral flu has disrupted life like never before. Millions of people the world over are locked into their homes, not daring to step out lest they catch the virus and end up in a hospital or even in an early grave. The developed world with showcase medical facilities is the worst hit. Italy, Spain, France and the UK are struggling to get their act together against the marauding virus. Prince Charles and even the British Prime Minister are reported to be nursing mild Corona Virus infections. The US is likely to overtake everyone in this ghastly tragedy. The US President, an unstable and tempestuous man at the best of times, believes that if they end up with deaths in the range of 150000 to 200000 people, he would consider that as success in his efforts at controlling the virus.

The economists are already talking about a global recession. Most businesses are shuttered, the Olympics have been postponed to the next year and no one knows when will all this end. The international and even domestic travel is at a standstill, airlines are expected to go bust in a matter of months, the hospitality industry is in the doldrums and there isn’t a single economic activity anywhere in the world, which is not impacted.

The medical systems, the very best that mankind has been able to put together are teetering at the edge. Hospitals in the most developed parts of the world have run out of ideas. They just do not know how to cope anymore, as thousands of people are dying everyday. The doctors and the nurses and all the gadgetry, which is an inevitable part of hospitals today have no answers to the unending blood-lust of the virus.

Imagine, all this mayhem is caused by just a virus, which isn’t even considered a living organism. Mankind, in-spite of all its knowledge, skills and computing prowess remains so fragile as to be threatened by nothing more than a few cells of DNA or RNA. The virus is a timely reminder of our inherent fragility, it should make humankind a lot more humble and respectful for other forms of life on the planet.

The virus has also exposed all our differences and fault lines as completely false. The virus does not respect nobility, royalty or cares for Prime Ministers or Presidents or their spouses. It does not care for geographic or national boundaries. It needs no passports or visas to cross these. It has scant respect for the religions of the world, or their mighty leaders preaching lofty sermons to their fawning followers. It cares little about people’s stations in life, their affluence can’t save them from its ravages, their knowledge and education is no consideration in the inexorable march of the virus. It attacks all humans and spares all life, which isn’t human. As we cower behind the four walls of our homes, all the life on earth must be laughing at us silly.

The virus has also laid bare our limitations as mankind, as a species that considers itself above all others in the world. It has punctured our pride as the ”masters of the Universe”. While we are capable of destroying the planet and all the life on it many times over, we still do not know how to save ourselves from something as low a life as a virus. While we have traveled to the edge of the known Universe, we have no idea how to deal with what a virus does to our own bodies. As we scramble to save ourselves from the virus, we realize that we have nowhere to go except our own homes.

One day, the virus will surely fade away, some brilliant scientist laboring in a far-off lab will soon enough master it and render mankind immune to its depredations. Or it will just mutate into something friendlier. Mankind will perhaps regain its swagger and disdain for all the other life on the planet. Yet, deep in its heart, it would remember what it was to be a prisoner of a virus for a few months.

Hopefully, it will also serve as a lesson in humility too for we are after-all not as indestructible as we have always thought us to be.

The views expressed are personal

Bharat Inder Singh

Dr Bharat Inder Singh, who passed away yesterday night was one of the most warm and jovial person I ever met. He was always laughing, mostly at himself or while cracking hilarious sardarji jokes. I had met Bharat for the first time a little over 17 years ago at our office (Max Healthcare, Okhla). He had recently joined the Max Medcentre Panchsheel Park as the centre head and he was going through his induction. I was the young and somewhat brash brand manager of the company.

In our very first meeting Bharat told me that he never understood why the organisation needed a brand manager. He explained that he had been practicing medicine for the last two decades and in his experience the only marketing he had ever needed was a board bearing his name outside his clinic. Lest, I become uncomfortable, he quickly added that things are changing now and maybe he needs to learn a few things from me.

Bharat had a unique way with his patients. He would connect with them in an instant, make them comfortable with humorous asides or simply laugh away their concerns about their illnesses, reassuring them that all will be well soon. He had a particular charm, which worked so well with the ladies, particularly elderly ladies, who were mostly his patients. He would always listen to them with great attention (or at least pretend to be listening), talk about their grand-children or dogs or husbands and be ready with his prescriptions. Bharat, always had time for his patients and he was never in a hurry for anything.

While, Bharat was a very good physician, he made no bones about the fact that he knew nothing of managing a facility. Thus, while Max Medcentre in Panchsheel Park was his responsibility, he had happily delegated the running of the centre to Dr Dilpreet Brar. He would often laugh at himself at his lack of ability as well as interest in anything, which required meetings, excel sheets or power-point presentations. He would show up at the last minute for reviews, quickly understand the drift of what was being presented and wink his way through it all. He made hilarious gaffes and we would all be hard pressed to keep straight faces, it really didn’t matter much to him.

Bharat was passionate about Squash. He was supremely fit and even coached youngsters in the game. I recall that once we had participated in a corporate Squash tournament. Our team comprised of Bharat and Dr Nitiraj Oberoi, an Orthopaedic surgeon who also worked at Max Medcentre in Panchsheel Park. Bharat and Nitiraj made their way to the finals without difficulty and invited Pallavi Das (who headed Corporate Sales at Max Healthcare) and me to watch them win the tournament. Pallavi and I drove across Delhi to Gurgaon to watch the match. The other finalists were two youngsters representing Amex. They were on the court, warming up, shadow practicing their shots and had quite a lot of supporters who had come to watch the match. They looked young, confident and were a bit cocky, prancing around the court. Bharat and Nitiraj were no where to be seen and I told Pallavi that these youngsters will probably whip Bharat and Nitiraj.

Our team showed up at the last minute, Bharat in his graying beard and Nitiraj too looking much older than the competition. I went and wished our team luck and also mentioned that these youngsters appear to be quite a handful. Bharat, looked at me scornfully and said ”watch the fun begin”.

Bharat and Nitiraj made the Amex team run around the court with such great ease that by the end of the first set itself the youngsters were sprawled flat on the court and Bharat had hardly broken into a sweat!!! That day, I learnt never ever to look at men with gray beards as old.

I last met Bharat two months ago. My mother had an appointment with her cardiologist at Max Medcentre, and while I waited with her for him to arrive, I noticed Bharat’s familiar name-plate outside his clinic at the centre. I learnt that he was in and relatively free. We chatted about old times for close to half an hour. He did appear a little frail and I did know about his illness, yet he looked in good spirits and was doing what he loved most, seeing patients. He joked with me about my paunch and advised me a diet and walking regimen that should help me reduce weight. We never spoke about his own health.

Rest in peace, Dr Bharat.

A Day in Khiva

272Pahalvan Mahmood is perhaps the only wrestler in history who has a beautiful mausoleum built for him, which he shares with his king. The Pahalvan apparently was a man of extraordinary talents. Apart from his herculean strength and skills as a wrestler he was a polyglot, philosopher and a poet. He was also known to be a Sufi and the patron saint of the city of Khiva in Khorezm (Khorasan) region of present-day Uzbekistan. As I stand agape at the beautiful monument, our guide Umeeda tells me that the most famous wrestling match that Pahalvan Mahmood had won was with a renowned Indian pahalvan in the city of Multan. Pahalvan Mahmood beat the Indian wrestler and was cleverly able to free over 500 Uzbek prisoners as a reward for his efforts.

The Pahalvan’s mausoleum is carefully kept in Khiva, has a magnificent tiled courtyard and a turquoise dome, which gleamed in the sun. The aquamarine dome is striking and the tiling on the walls and the sarcophagus are marvellous. The tomb was built-in 1326 and has been very well-preserved. Pahalvan Mahmud has the honour of sharing the mausoleum with the 13th-century ruler of Khiva.

224Khiva has a history going back to over 1000 years. The city is located on the banks of Amu Darya in the Khorezm region of Uzbekistan, west of the modern Uzbek capital Tashkent. The region is also famous as the birthplace of Al Biruni, arguably the finest scholar of the medieval Islamic era. Al Biruni knew physics, mathematics, astronomy and natural sciences. He was also a historian and linguist familiar with Khawarzemin, Persian, Arabic, Sanskrit, Greek, Hebrew and Syriac. Al Biruni travelled to India and published a famous study of Indian culture after studying Hinduism. In Khorezm, he is a national hero.

Fortunately, travel to Khiva is a lot easier in today’s time. Direct flights connect Tashkent to Amritsar and Delhi. The nearest airport to Khiva is Urgunch 70 minutes flying time from Tashkent. Khiva is a 40 minutes drive from Urgunch. A 4 lane modern highway took us from Urgunch to Khiva. The road on either side was lined with fields of cotton, sunflower and peach orchards. The land is fertile and well fed by a network of canals visible everywhere.

190Stepping into the walled city of Khiva is like entering a living and breathing medieval Islamic city. The inner part of the city called ”Ichan kala” is well laid out with beautiful madrasas, mosques and lovely minarets. The Kalta Minor, which is a huge blue and green tiled tower in the centre of the walled city is an incomplete minaret, which the Khan building it could not complete and his successors chose not to finish. Today, it is the most distinguished landmark of the walled city of Khiva.

We strolled across the thoroughfares of the lovely city on a mild afternoon. The streets were lined with shops selling curios, beautiful ceramic plates and fur huts made from authentic minx fur. We walked onto the roof of the king’s palace to have a great view of the city spread out beneath us. This is a city steeped in history and so well-preserved that it appeared as if we had actually travelled a few centuries and were looking at a real medieval city.  The silver throne of the king though was a disappointment. This is apparently a replica, the original one is now a part of the National Museum in Moscow.

242Opposite the King’s Palace stands a madrasa with a beautiful tree-lined courtyard and the rooms of the students around it. There is a museum there as well, where I came face to face in a painting with Pahalvan Mahmood standing victorious after his famous ”dangal” in Multan!!!

257A little later we walked into the Djama Masjid, the Friday prayer mosque. The mosque is now a monument with hundreds of carved wooden pillars supporting the roof arranged in rows. The mosque was built in the 10th century and rebuilt in 1788-89. Umeeda showed us some original columns taken from the earlier structure. From the place, where the imam stood, Umeeda pointed out to us that all the columns were clearly visible. With the sun filtering into the mosque, it almost looked divine.

277A small turn towards the right took us to the mausoleum of the famous pahalvan and the king Rakhmat Khan. Abutting the mausoleum is a tall minaret. Umeeda challenged us to climb to the top for the most magnificent views of the city. We accepted the challenge and entered the dark minaret through a flight of stairs leading to its entrance. Soon we were on a treacherous, winding, ancient staircase with polished wooden steps. We soon realised our folly but decided to continue up through the minar. A little light seeped through the openings cut into the wall of the minaret and we used the torch-light from our mobile phones. The journey up the minaret is arduous but the views from the top well worth it. I imagined seeing the Amu Darya glinting in the sun, far away to our east. We learnt that the minaret also served as the ancient gallows, with the condemned being flung to their deaths from the top.

The return to mother earth was even more treacherous. The stairs are uneven, slippery and there is just nothing to hold on to. We negotiated each step with a great deal of caution, holding on to the step above while taking the next step down. To make matters more difficult, we encountered people going up the same time. Stepping out of the minar, I took a deep breath and resolved never ever to try scaling a medieval minaret, whatever the reward!!!!

PS : The melons of Khurasm are something to die for. Pristine white slices dripping with the sweetest nectar, they are just out of the world. We saw these piled high up on the roadside, each melon the size of a football. Actually, they come in two shapes, oval like a rugby ball and round ones like a football. We had them for dessert that evening.

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The State of the Reunion

DSC_0342This weekend turned out to be a milestone. About 30 of us from the class of 1989 at the Choithram School in Indore met for our 25th year reunion at Punjapani near Indore. Many of us had traveled from far and wide to attend this magical weekend and relive a shared past.

The venue was unique, literally in the middle of no-where. The phone signals mercifully did not work, there were no TV sets and the world seemed to be all at peace.

Meeting friends whom all of us had known even longer than our respective spouses was an incredible experience. Much to my amazement, we bonded with each other so much better. We now had the maturity, which comes from age and the shared values imbibed in our childhood seems to have largely stood the test of time.

Here are a few things that I learned from this extra-ordinary meeting.

1. It is important that we spend more time in the company of old friends. It is a great stress-buster and also allows one to see things in the right perspective. In the day to day rush of life, one often forgets that the real rewards are not in chasing big dreams but in enjoying every-day.

2. Good company and shared laughs are important. We need people with whom we can laugh at ourselves. I discovered this to be therapeutic. The reunion transported me back 25 years and I relived the things I did as a gawky somewhat awkward teenager!!!

3. It is never too late to say things that we never said and had regretted ever since. Appreciation for some past kindnesses, questions that have remained unanswered, doubts that were never clarified and issues that need to be finally aired and hopefully buried for good. A reunion is almost perfect for such discussions. It makes one feel lighter, a kind of rejuvenation of the soul.

4. A reunion is also a perfect place to renew old and lost associations. The passage of time often dims the lights and makes strangers out of friends. I must confess that leading up to this meeting, I was a bit ambivalent about the purpose of the whole exercise. Song and dance and a big booze party is not really my scene and this reunion threatened to become one, as the more boisterous amongst us planned the event. It seemed I was clearly in the minority. However, while we did manage to have a big blast, the shared past and the ubiquitous connect that all of us experienced was truly a much more uplifting experience. (The booze and the song and the dance not-withstanding)

5. Finally, I must say this. This reunion was in many ways a humbling experience. It was great to know that in these intervening years, life has by and large treated us very kindly. Many of us had college going children, thriving businesses, loving spouses and marriages that have mostly worked, successful careers and above all  good health. A reunion allows one to step back and count ones blessings. We know that in-spite of the balding pates and the bulging paunches, we really have much to be grateful about.

Here is to the next 25 years!!!

Sikkim-The Jewel Hidden in the Mountains-III

We reached Yuksom late  in the afternoon, quite famished and Jeewan quickly drove us to a hotel, where we ordered lunch. While the lunch was being prepared, we decided to go up to the Throne of Norbudong, the site of the coronation of the first ‘chogyal’ (king and spiritual leader) of Sikkim. The Throne of Norbugang, witnessed the crowning ceremony of Phuntshog as the first king of Sikkim in 1641 AD. The ancient throne today stands with in a rubble enclosure, facing East and comprises of four stepped seats. The largest of the four seats, right in the centre was for the great Nyingapa Lama Lahatsun Chembu, while the seat to his right was for the chogyal.The other two seats were for kartokpa lama Sempa Chembo and kartokpa lama Rigzig Chempo. The throne is sheltered by a huge pine, which stands like an enormous sentry guarding the throne.We wandered around the Throne of Norbudong, explored the chorten nearby and rotated a huge prayer wheel. The yellow and white prayer flags fluttered in the breeze and we felt a wonderful peace enveloping us.

Yuksom is also at the head of the Kaziranga National Park and the trek to the base of the mighty Kanchanjunga starts from Yuksom. Thus, Yuksom attracts trekkers and mountaineers from across the world. It is an enchanting village surrounded by lush forests and high mountains, with wild flowers growing everywhere. Had we researched this trip better, we would have certainly stayed a couple of nights in Yuksom. We returned, had lunch and with a nagging dread for the landslide we had encountered earlier, we left Yuksom.

As we once again approached the 1.5 kms stretch of road, which the landslide and the rains have converted into a veritable bog, we girded ourselves up. Jeewan said a small prayer and we plunged into the mud, with Jeewan flooring the pedal and the car zig-zagging its way across the slush. We would have hardly covered 500 m, when we got stuck, with the rear wheels of the car uselessly grinding in the mud. The harder Jeewan tried to extract us from the bog, the deeper we appeared to be sinking.

Fortunately for us there was a gang of workers who were around. While on our way up to Yuksom, we had seen them at work trying to fix the road. Now with the sun going down, they were done with a hard days work and were squatting by the roadside smoking and chatting. Seeing our predicament they offered help. About half a dozen young men tried pushing us out of the rut. Jeewan would floor the pedal, while these young men would try to push the car out. We tried this for over half an hour, but with little luck. Finally in a bid to increase the weight at the back of the car we all piled in from the back-door, and some of the lads on the road jumped on to the car’s rear, while others pushed hard with Jeewan pouring all the car’s power, we zig-zagged our way out of the mud. We all breathed a big sigh of relief, profusely thanked the boys, without whose help we did not stand a chance.

On our way back to Pelling, I could not help but wonder at the generosity and spirit of these native people, who after a day’s toil did not think twice of helping people like us in distress. None of them ever flinched from joining in knowing fully well that this was an arduous task and that they would soon be covered with mud and will have to wash again. Not only did they come for help, they did so with grace and a great deal of laughter and fun. As they waved us on, they were all smiling at a job well done. Wonderful people.

The next day, our last in Sikkim, again dawned overcast with the clouds swirling on the streets. Any hopes of catching a glimpse of the Kanchanjunga receded. We headed off towards the Pemayangtse Monastery, located 3 kms above Pelling. The monastery was established by Lama Lahatsun Chembo and is considered to be one of the oldest monasteries in Sikkim. We climbed up to the monastery amidst yellow prayer flags dancing in the mist. Pemayangtse Monastery contains rare Buddhist artifacts, the walls are covered with fine murals, old sculptures and ancient scriptures adorn the first and the second floor of the monastery. On the top floor we saw a magnificent wooden structure, a seven tiered depiction of the heavenly palace of Guru Rinpoche. The monastery also afforded a beautiful view of distant hills, flowing streams and the ruins of Rabdentse, the second capital of Sikkim.

Tensung Namgyal, the second chogyal of Sikkim and the son of Phuntshog Namgyal, shifted the capital of Sikkim from Yuksom to Rebdantse, which is located on a significant spur, within a thickly forested valley, South West of the Pemayangtse Monastery. Wewalked about 1.5 kms through an enchanting forest to reach the ruins. The walkway gradually slopes upwards and the ruins are close to the top and are immaculately maintained. A dividing wall clearly highlights the areas used by the royals and the ones meant for lay religious ceremonies. As we explored these ruins, we could not help but notice their beautiful environs, surrounded by a dense jungle, a beautiful valley below us, distant hills beyond the valley and clouds flitting around us. Suddenly the sun broke through and it drenched everything in such bright light that we found ourselves squinting. The three Chortens, inside the royal quarters right on the edge of the hill stand proud and erect and one could clearly see the monastery higher up on the opposite hill. Rebandtse remained the Sikkimease capital till 1780, when it was attacked by the Nepalease. The chogyal Tenzing fled to Tibet and it was only in 1793 after the Sino- Nepalese treaty  was signed that his son Tsudphud Namgyal returned to rule Sikkim once again. He decided to shift the capital to Tumlong, further away from Nepal and thus gradually Rebandtse turned into these ruins.

Since we still had half a day left, Jeewan decided to drive us to the Singshore suspension bridge, which is located near Dentam some 25 kms from Pelling. The bridge is an engineering marvel and connects two densely forested hills. It is over 100 m high and spans, without support over 20o metres. The bridge affords a breath-taking view of the hills with waterfalls everywhere. As we stood on the bridge we could feel the wind in our hair, the thrill of being suspended high up in the air between two magnificent mountains and it was magical. We had delicious momos at the food stall adjacent to the bridge and decided to climb up further to the village of Uttarey, beyond which lies Nepal. The ride to Uttarey was wonderful and the village itself is a tranquil hamlet. We were running out of time and had to return to Pelling by the evening.  Thus, we descended quickly to the Singshore bridge and drove over it on our way back to Pelling.

The next day we departed Pelling early to catch our flight at Bagdogra. Jeewan saw us off at the airport. All of us carried wonderful memories of Sikkim, a land of great grandeur, unspoilt and virgin, full of kind and gentle people. We did not get to see Kanchanjunga, but then it is a fickle mountain and one can not do anything, if it chooses not to reveal its secrets. We would in due course return to seek the mountain’s blessings at a more opportune time.


Sikkim-The Hidden Jewel in the Mountains – II

An overcast morning in Sikkim

We left Gangtok for Pelling on an overcast morning. Jeewan Alam, our driver turned out to be a loquacious and feisty young man, full of life. As we drove to Pelling in West Sikkim, Jeewan Alam talked about life in Sikkim. Jeewan has two elder brothers in the armed forces, one posted in the North Sikkim mountains and the other with the Assam Rifles in Assam. He too wanted to follow in his brother’s footsteps, but his mother intervened, asking him not to go fighting to distant borders and stay with her to care for her in her old age. Jeewan, thus became the owner and the driver of this Tata Sumo, which he had bought second hand. He loved the car, was very proud of it and lavished good care and attention on it through out our travels with him. In addition to the Tata Sumo, he also owned a Mahindra Bolero, which was also being used as a taxi and was driven by a friend of Jeewan.We again drove along the Teesta, and as we went down the mountain from Gangtok, the sun came out, the clouds vanished and our hopes of seeing the Kanchanjunga, in Pelling went up. We crossed the border at Rongpo and entered the hills of West Bengal, followed the Teesta to where it met Rangeet and than traveled along the Rangeet, in West Sikkim. Rangeet forms the border between the turbulent hills of West Bengal and the peaceful  surrounds of Sikkim. Jeewan has a deep rooted sense of disquiet about the hill folks of the neighbouring Darjeeling. He believes that most of them are aggressive good for nothing sorts, who come into Sikkim only to create trouble. We went past Melli, Jorethang and Legship, from where we started our ascent to Gaeyzing and finally Pelling.

Rimbi Waterfalls Pelling

Pelling is situated on a ridge atop a forested hill facing the Kanchanjunga. As we had driven up from Legship, clouds had again rolled in and completely enveloped Pelling. We reached Pelling late in the afternoon, had lunch and decided to rest in the hotel.The next day we set out early in the morning for Yuksom, the ancient capital of Sikkim. Jeewan promised to show us the countryside, en route. Our first stop was the Rimbi waterfalls, located 12 kms from Pelling. The water of the Rimbi river falls down a steep hillside completely covered in green into an inviting

Fisherman on the Rimbi

pool and then flows into a stream. A small hydel power plant is situated on the left bank of the Rimbi river and provides power to Pelling and other nearby villages and towns.The department of tourism in Sikkim has developed the Sewaro Rock Garden on the banks of the river Rimbi. The park is beautiful with wildflowers growing everywhere in abandon, the Rimbi river flowing by majestically and the hills completely covered with lovely forests on either side of the park. Somehow, the place reminded me of Pehalgam in Kashmir. We walked along the swiftly flowing river, watching an indigenous tribal fishing, by fording the river and throwing his small net in a wide arc. As he drew in the net, he would let go of the smaller fish and only take the bigger one as his catch.

Returning from the Sewaro Park, we headed for the famed Khecheopari Lake. The lake is situated at 6000 ft and is considered to be holy. Legend has it that many years ago, the lake was a grazing ground full of thorny nettles. The Lepchas used the barks of these trees for medicinal purposes  and once, while a Lepcha couple sat peeling off the bark , they witnessed two huge Conch shells hitting the ground with tremendous force. The ground than shook violently and a stream of clear water emerged, which engulfed the entire surrounding area, thus creating the

Khecheopari lake

lake. The lake has since been recognised as the abode of ‘Tshomen Gyalmo’, the chief protective nymph of the dharma and blessed by the goddess Tara. The walk to the lake is through a winding path in the jungle alive with beautiful wild flowers, ferns and huge trees standing erect and proud. The lake itself is hidden behind colourful prayer flags and a long jetty allows pilgrims to reach out to the lake. As we walked up to the lake, we had pilgrims carrying incense sticks and other puja paraphernalia, jostling with each other. Right at the end of the jetty, the devout prayed and offered ‘prasad’ to the lake, which was quickly gobbled up by a school of fish, thrashing about in the lake.

Kanchanjunga Falls, West Sikkim

We left Khecheopari Lake by early afternoon and it had started drizzling. Sikkim’s roads are prone to sudden closure because of landslides and Jeewan was worried about us being able to reach Yuksom and return to Pelling by the evening. On our way to Yuksom we had one more scheduled stop at the Kanchanjunga Falls. After witnessing our excitement at the Rimbi Falls, Jeewan had been hinting about the Kanchanjunga Falls being far more exciting. The name itself conjures up images of the water coming down from the snowcapped peaks of the great mountain and I must say on seeing the waterfalls, we were left speechless. The main falls are hidden from view from the road and we had to walk about 500 m to view the spectacular waterfalls, a huge wall of roaring water crashing almost vertically from 150 m or more, surrounded by dense foliage and moss covered stones. We also noticed that for some reason we were alone at the falls and even the tea shops around the picturesque spot were shut. We soon discovered the reason-the word had been passed along that the road to Yuksom had been closed because of landslides and thus other tourists had already returned to Pelling.

As we thought about this unexpected turn of events, Jeewan sensed our disappointment and chipped in by saying that “let us carry on towards Yuksom and we will return only if we found the passage completely blocked”. We quickly clambered aboard and once again set off. About 10 kms ahead we ran into the landslide. The stretch of the road about 1.5 kms long looked like a sea of mud with a huge gorge on one side. A gang of workers were busy trying to make the road passable but they were clearly no where near finishing their task. Jeewan decided to wade into this.  With his foot firmly on the accelerator, the car lurched ahead with a vengeance and skidded dangerously. Jeewan kept pressing ahead, struggling with the car, trying to keep it on the straight and the narrow. I do not know how, but we did manage to shoot through the slush and found the macadam once again. We all lustily cheered for Jeewan and his boyish zeal to show us around his Sikkim and continued to Yuksom, the first capital of Sikkim.

To be contd.

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Sikkim-The Hidden Jewel in the Mountains-I

The Prayer Flags

Sikkim is perhaps India’s best kept secret.  It is a tiny state quietly nestled into the Himalayas and is arguably the most verdant with the widest diversity of flora and fauna in such a small landlocked area. We traveled to Sikkim earlier this month. Sikkim has no airports nor is it connected by a the railways. We flew to Bagdogra, which is the nearest airport to Gangtok, the capital of the state and then drove from there to Gangtok.

The drive to Gangtok is along the Teesta, a tributary of the mighty Brahmputra.  As we wound our way to Gangtok, hugging the hillside on serpentine roads, Teesta flowed in the beautiful valleys below us. Teesta ia a large river, flows swiftly down from the Cholamo Lake (over 17000 ft in the Himalayas), is joined by numerous rivulets and the Rangeet on the Sikkim – West Bengal border to eventually reach the W. Bengal plains at Sevoke near Siliguri.  We entered Sikkim at Rangpo, the south Sikkim town adjoining West Bengal and carried on for another 40 kms to reach Gangtok by the early evening.

Gangtok I must confess is unlike any other hill town that I have seen. Unlike the bustling hill cities of North India (Shimla, Nainital, Mussorie even Manali), Gangtok is infinitely more orderly. At close to 5000 ft, in the Eastern Shivaliks, Gangtok is spread over several hills. A nice sidewalk with a railing snakes across the city for pedestrians to use, the traffic is orderly and we never encountered a traffic jam during our stay. The taxi from Bagdogra deposited us at a taxi stand meant for tourists coming from outside Gangtok, we transferred there to a local taxi, which took us to our hotel. There were no taxi drivers chasing us for a fare, there were no touts usually hired by local hotels shoving and jostling and falling over themselves to escort us to a hotel. If you have been to any of the North Indian hill stations, you would understand what I mean.

The Prayer Wheels

Gangtok is well-known for its Buddhist Monasteries. The Enchay Monastery, which was set up in 1840 established Gangtok as a prominent Buddhist place of pilgrimage. In 1894, the local ruler under the British moved the capital from Tumlong to Gangtok. After India’s independence Sikkim became an Indian protectorate . In 1975, following a popular uprising and a request from the Sikkimese Prime Minister, Sikkim became a state of the Indian Union with Gangtok as its capital.

In Gangtok we visited the famous Duddul Chhoedten Stupa, built by Trulshig Rinpoche, a holy lama who came visiting from Tibet. It is said that this place was earlier haunted by cruel spirits, who regularly assaulted people visiting the site. Lama Trulshig Rinpoche subdued the wandering spirits and built this Stupa and a hermitage. Today the stupa is a bustling centre of Tibetology, with hundreds of resident monks and colourful Tibetan prayer flags fluttering in the wind and people from all over India and indeed the world visiting to pay their respects.

The Namgyal Inst.

Adjacent to the Stupa is the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology, which houses rare artifacts, manuscripts, paintings from the 17th – 19th century. It is the leading research institute in Tibetology and promotes scholarly research in the history, religion, art and culture of Tibet. We visited the museum and were awestruck by its exhibits and wondered at the labour of love that this institute really is.

On our way back we went on a rope-way ride, which connects the Gangtok market place with the secretariat. It afforded great views of the city as it quietly made its way to the state secretariat and returned after a brief stoppage.

On an overcast day with the clouds floating all around us we visited the Rumtek Monastery, located at 1500 mts and about 24 kms from Gangtok. As we reached Rumtek after a pleasant drive through the forested hills, the skies opened up. We took shelter at the chai shop near the taxi stand, rented umbrellas from the shop owner and walked up to the monastery. Rumtek is the largest monastery in Sikkim and was built-in the 16th century by the 9th Karmapa Wangchuk Dorji. It is the seat of the Karma Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism and was rebuilt by the 16th Karmapa, when he escaped from Tibet and took refuge at the ruined monastery in 1956. Rumtek Monastery is a quiet place, nestled amongst verdant mountains, distant snow peaks and flowing streams around it.The Dharma Chakra Centre and the Karma Shri Nalanda Institute at the monastery is a centre of learning with many resident monks studying Tibetan Buddhism.  Inside the monastery is a Golden Stupa, which houses the holy remains of the 16th Karmapa HH Rangjung Rigpe Dorje. While, we stood in the huge courtyard of the monastery, we could hear the rhythmic chants of the monks, and the blowing of the musical instruments, and the beating of the gongs inside the main hall of the monastery. By the time we decided to return, the rains had stopped, the clouds had cleared up and across the valley we could see the city of Gangtok spread out on the opposite hill.

The Ranka Monastery

Ranka Monastery is a relatively new monastery but in grandeur it surpasses all the monasteries I have seen so far. The monastery is on a spur facing the Gangtok hills and rises magnificently. Murals with Buddhist themes are painted on the walls and in the courtyard stands a wishing column with a small ledge near its top. It is said that if one was to throw a coin and asks for a wish, it gets fulfilled if the coin remains on the ledge.  The day we visited the monastery, we saw prayers underway with rows of monks sitting together, chanting the sacred Buddhist texts. The atmosphere at the monastery with clouds hanging low and flitting across the courtyard, the monks and the chants all making this an ethereal experience.

The Ban Jhakri falls on the outskirts of Gangtok are magnificent waterfalls, which the government has converted into an Energy Park.

The Banjhakri Falls Gangtok

The park is well laid out with pedestrian foot bridges, ‘çhatris’ and dragons. Jhakris in tribal lore are Shamans, with magical powers. Ban Jhakri is a pagan shaman, who kidnaps children believed to be pure of heart and initiates them in the Tamang rituals. The story of Banjhakri is told through sculpture and figurines laid out in the park.  A splash pool for children at the park is adorned by a dragon.

Gangtok is also known for its magnificent views of the Kanchanjunga, the third highest mountain peak in the world and the highest in India. Mr. Lama at the hotel, while escorting us to our rooms, had pointed in the direction of the peak and had said that one of these days we will see the mighty mountain right from our window in the hotel room. Alas, all during our stay in early June we could not see the Kanchanjunga because of the monsoon clouds hovering over the mountains. We went to various Kanchanjunga view points to catch a glimpse of the mountain but our luck did not turn.

Giving up on Kanchanjunga and hoping to catch it at Pelling, we left Gangtok, happy and delighted to have enjoyed our stay in the town. We met Jeewan Alam, who quickly loaded our gear on the roof of his trusted Tata Sumo and off we went on another adventure.