While its spectacular beauty attracts, Sikkim’s history and culture are worth knowing, writes Uday k Chakraborty
Whether one arrives in Sikkim by air or land, it is the mountains that first strike one’s eyes and heart. Just before the Bagdogra airport, from air you would be delighted by the mesmerising view of peaks of several mountains including the mighty Kanchendzonga peeping out of floating clouds and dazzling in the sunshine. From here a five hour Landrover ride to Gangtok passes through green hills and alongside fast flowing gurgling Teesta River, which, other than Kanchendzonga, is part of the states identity and social fabric.
History defines the culture
Bordered by Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan, Sikkim has long been a crossroads to brave merchants, pilgrims and holy men who have risked their lives wandering the steep and winding paths from the Central Asia and Tibet down to the valley of the Ganges and back again in search of wealth or enlightenment. Today Sikkim is one of the more successful states of India, but as recently as 1975 it was an independent kingdom that had been ruled by the same Namgyal dynasty since the seventeenth century.
The Lepchas, the original people of Sikkim, have their fair share of secrets. A fun loving people, the majority are farmers, as are the Bhutias, who settled here after sixteen century from Tibet. Lepchas were converted to Buddhism through the influences of ever expanding Tibetan Buddhist monasteries. Although Buddhist, they have maintained a separate culture that contains many elements of their ancient animist religion. They also have one of those mysterious languages that share no clear relationship with any other.
Today this spectacular state, with variety of tourist attractions, scores equally well in various social and economic development parameters. Naturally, first introduction of Sikkim is through Gangtok, which at 5,047 feet is cool, clean and well developed. The walking paths and squares at Nehru road is the nerve centre of the town. For curio and other shopping there are New Market, Old Market and the Lal Market. For the tourists Gangtok offers several view points at even higher elevations like Ganesh Tok, Hanuman Tok and Tashi. From such view point people get a bird’s eye view of Gangtok as well as spectacular views of the distant mountains.
For the culturally inclined, there is the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology which is home to rare Tanghka paintings, antiques and scriptures. Adjacent to the institute are Do Drul Chorten the Jhang Chub Chorten two important Buddhist edifices. Also near are housed the two giant statues of Lord Buddha and Guru Padmasambhava (also known as Guru Rimpoche), the patron saint of Sikkim.
At Tsuklahan, the Royal chapel is located within the ridge. It was here that the Chogyals (kings) of the erstwhile kingdom of Sikkim were coroneted. Perched high up in Gangtok is the Enchey Monastery built in 1910, with a spectacular view of Gangtok and surrounding areas.
Devout men and their monasteries
Traditionally, at least one son in every Buddhist family becomes a monk. The gompas are fabulous places perched on mountainsides. Large, stately structures, their smoky interiors house numerous golden images of the Buddha, Bodhisattavas and saints of both Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism. With drone of shaven monks of all ages, these Buddhist monasteries are hive of austere but active life. Naturally visiting such monasteries opens up vestiges of a living culture that is more than a thousand years old.
It’s a 24 km picturesque drive from Gangtok that took us to Rumtek monastery. It is the most important seat for the Kagyupa sect of Buddhism. It is the place of His Holiness the Gyalwa Karmapa, the head of Kagyupa order of Tibetan Buddhism. Behind the main monastery is the Karmae Nalanda Institute of Buddhist Studies which attracts students from all over the world. The hat of the karma has an interesting story attached to it. Legend has it that a thousand fairies had gifted the first Karma a strand of hair each in recognition of his years of devotion and meditation. The strands were then woven together to form a hat, which should either be worn only by the Karmapa or kept in a box, or else it would simply fly away.
Pelling and Pemayangtse
From Gangtok another 4 hours drive took us to picturesque Pelling (2085 Mtr). It’s a small town, now chock-o-block with hotels and restaurants, which remains busy with the towns twine attractions the Pemayangtse monasteries and a great view of Kanchendzonga.
Perched on a wooded hilltop, Pemayangtse Gompa is one of the oldest and most important monasteries of the Nyingmpapa order of Buddhism. It was established in eighth century by Guru Padmasambhava himself. Snow-capped mountains on both its sides offer a magnificent backdrop to the Pemyangtse monastery, The three-story monastery has colourful doors and windows, antique idols, sculptures, and decorated paintings, intricate Thankas and a collection of ancient scriptures
This hill also commands one of the clearest views of the Khagchendzonga and other mountain peaks. Kanchendzonga, at 8603 meters dominates the scenery and is the axis on which all Sikkim turns. This is true not only physically but also religiously, for the mountain is sacred and is worshipped as a protective deity. Of these things I know very little, but there can be no doubt that, when the clouds part to reveal its snowy peaks, you need be no believer to feel your spirit soar.