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.

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Off to Ladakh

We are finally off to Ladakh.

I have been wanting to travel to this fabulous land for many years. Somehow or the other circumstances so conspired that we just couldn’t go. This time too this visit seems to be more of a happy accident then anything else. In late July my wife and I were planning to spend at least 10 days in the Kashmir valley. However, for the last fortnight or so the valley has been in turmoil with daily reports of strikes, protest marches and police firing. We subsequently decided to go to Ladakh. The other options that we considered were Andaman Islands, Goa, The Maldives, Malaysia and Egypt.

Leh would easily be the highest place that either of us have ever visited. Ladakh is famous for its breathtaking sights, buddhist monastries, pristine lakes that change colour, barren mountains and a flourishing centre of the fast disappearing Tibetan-Buddhist culture.

We will be flying into Leh in a couple of hours. We are excited about seeing the mighty Indus. It has been the cradle of civilization for more than 5000 years. A river from which even our great country derives its name. We will also be driving on the world’s highest motorable road and will be visiting Khardongla, which at over 18000 ft is the world’s highest motorable place.

Some of the remote areas that we will be visiting during this 7 day trip include the exotic Nubra Valley, Pangong Lake, which is the world’s highest salt water lake (suggesting that millions of years ago when there were no Himalayas, this arid land was perhaps an ocean), the Zanskar River and the ancient and the unchanging Lamayuru monastry.

I look forward to sharing our experiences on this blog.