Sikkim’s ancient capital: The gateway to India’s newest World Heritage Site

The Khangchendzonga National Park was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List at the 40th session of the World Heritage Committee in July. With its diverse landscapes and rituals unique to ethnic groups, the high altitude park in Sikkim meets the criteria for both natural and cultural heritage, making it India’s first mixed heritage site.

Spread across 1,784 sq km, Khangchendzonga covers a fourth of Sikkim’s geographical area, mostly in the western part of the state. The park derives its name from Mount Kanchenjunga – the revered peak that straddles the Indo-Nepal border in west Sikkim and is considered the guardian deity of the state. At 8586 metres, it is the third highest peak in the world and a driving force for tourism in the region.

Across heavily touristed towns such as Pelling and Gangtok, hotels lure guests with pricier rooms that promise unparalleled views of the peak. The elusive massif frequently remains cloaked in cloud cover and, on the rare clear day, locals rush to show off the masterpiece to visitors. The closest views, however, are to be had from the high altitude trails that wind through the Khangchendzonga National Park.

Scenic but arduous routes such as the Dzongri trail and the longer variant to Goeche La are the region’s major draw. During season – which lasts from April to May and then October to December – trekkers from around the world make their way to Sikkim’s tiny hamlets to proceed into the eastern Himalaya. According to data from the Sikkim Forest Department, the park had 552 foreign visitors and 1,608 domestic visitors in 2015-’16.

The routes hold the promise of glacial lakes, views of over 6,000-metre high peaks, including Mount Pandim and Kabru, and changing vegetation. Vast forests of maple, cherry, oak, chestnut and rhododendron gradually give way to alpine scrub, providing a diverse habitat for wildlife and avifauna.

To embark on these routes, trekkers have to pass through Yuksom. Situated 40 km north of Pelling, the tiny hamlet in west Sikkim is at the head of the Khangchendzonga National Park in the transition zone, and is the jumping off point for the Dzongri and Goeche La routes.

At first glance, Yuksom is nothing more than a single road, bordered by a clutch of hotels and trek operators. Yaks and pack animals shuffle about, and tourists busy themselves at outdoor cafes, charting out their route into the mountains. For non-trekkers, the town has no major allure – it is just a base to arrange guides, organise permits and stock up for the journey ahead.

But Yuksom occupies a far more important, if long forgotten, place in Sikkim’s history.

Long before it was a gateway to the Khangchendzonga National Park, Yuksom was Sikkim’s first capital. Until 1975, when Sikkim became the 22nd Indian state, it was a kingdom ruled by a long line of chogyals or religious kings. It was in Yuksom that this monarchy was born.

The rise of a kingdom

Legend goes that Buddhist saint Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche, prophesised the reign of kings in Sikkim. Around 800 years later, in the mid-17th century, three Tibetan Buddhist lamas came together from the north, the south, and the west. Lhatsun Namkha Jigme Chempo, Kathok Rigzin Chenpo, and Ngadak Sempa Chenpo congregated in Yuksom, which in the local Lepcha language means “meeting point of three great lamas”.

Following the prophecy, they sent to Gangtok in the east for a man named Phuntsog. In 1642, Phuntsog Namgyal was consecrated as chogyal by the three lamas at a coronation ceremony in Norbugang in the upper reaches of Yuksom. Together, the lamas and Phuntsog Namgyal are known as the four patron saints of Sikkim.

Phuntsog Namgyal became the first “fountain head of secular and religious power”, giving rise to a monarchy that would last over 300 years. His dominion was much larger than the Sikkim known today, and included Darjeeling, parts of Nepal and Bhutan. He set up his capital at Yuksom and established Tibetan Buddhism as the state region.

Today, though Yuksom may not feature prominently on the average traveller’s map, the patron saints’ legacies live on in some of the region’s most recognised and revered monasteries. The Pemayangtse monastery, among Sikkim’s oldest and most important Tibetan Buddhist sites belonging to the Nyingmapa sect, was established by patron saint Lhatsun Namkha Jigme Chempo.

Ngadak Sempa Chenpo established Tashiding as a Nyingmapa monastery 20 km southeast of Yuksom. It was later extended by the third chogyalChador Namgyal, and today, it draws devotees not just from Sikkim, but even Nepal and Bhutan for the annual Bumchu festival.

Geographically, Sikkim sticks out like a tiny thumb wedged between Tibet to the north, Nepal to the west, and Bhutan to the east. Prone to attacks from many directions, the capital moved several times as a result of invasions or to avoid them. Phuntsog Namgyal’s son Tensung Namgyal first shifted the capital from Yuksom to Rabdentse in 1670. In the late 18th century, it shifted to Tumlong, and finally to present-day capital, Gangtok, in 1894.

The Namgyal dynasty ruled as hereditary kings until 1975. The 12th and last chogyal, Palden Thondup Namgyal, was crowned in 1965. Ten years later, when Sikkim voted to merge with India in a referendum, the monarchy was abolished. Nevertheless, the Namgyal reign is still fresh in the minds of the Sikkimese people. Hotels around Gangtok have framed portraits of the last chogyal with his second wife, American Hope Cooke. A comprehensive account of the chogyal lineage, Sikkim’s history predating the monarchy, and a chronicle of how Buddhism first arrived in the state, can be found at the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology in Gangtok.

Modern-day Yuksom

High above the flurry of the Yuksom bazaar, the Norbugang coronation site still exists today. A rather forgotten air hangs above the area. Set amidst trees strung with prayer flags, the complex houses a prayer hall, a large prayer wheel, a white stupa, and, across it, the coronation throne. Made of stacked stones, the rough-hewn throne sits under a large pine tree, with four seats, one for each of the patron saints.

Beliefs swirl around the complex: the chorten (stupa) contains soil and water from across Sikkim, water from the nearby Katok pond was sprinkled upon Phuntsog Namgyal during the consecration, and so on. With not a soul in sight, it’s easy to get lost in the sea of vertical red and yellow prayer flags.

In town, the newest addition is a glass-walled enclosure fitted with ceiling-high bronze prayer wheels inscribed with gold lettering. Across the road, a snow-capped peak shows itself, framed in the foreground by a cherry tree in all its pink-blossom-laden glory. Since there isn’t much else going on, I wander into the office of a trekking outfit, named Red Panda, to enquire about a possible route. Dhanraj Gurung, the owner, says it’s not possible given my lack of time, but does not turn me away. Instead, he treats me to steaming momos and tea, and drapes a traditional pale silk khada around my neck.

Sikkim’s diverse ethnic fabric has imbibed the diverse rituals and customs of its many communities – the Lepchas, Bhutias, Limboos and Nepalis. It’s only fitting, this age-old, traditional welcome in an ancient capital.

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