It has been three days since we lit the cho-kongs and turned the mani at the Rumtek Gompa, under the gaze of a thousand glowing Buddhas, a translucent teenage lama and a distinctly darker-sided Jat soldier of the Indo-Tibetan Border Force, an AK47-ed millennium version of the protective demon.
Nevertheless, guardian-deity of Sikkim, the revered Kanchendzonga, appears impervious to our prayers. Our hope of viewing the mountain-god on a glorious helicopter safari has been thwarted every day, for three days, by the clouds of Gangtok. The chopper-service boss, a firm believer, points us towards Enchey’s Gompa if we want our wishes fulfilled within twenty-four hours. This is the Buddha’s own country.
Gangtok’s own aerodrome is on the cards. On the short Kolkata-Siliguri flight, we had the Bengal chief minister, celebrity artistes and a Confederation of Indian Industry delegation on board. But even on the average day one can safely depend on members of a certain snooty Kolkata club and more populist Tollywood units for company. Bagdogra airport demands a double take. Unrecognisably svelte, sprawling and in full international readiness, it offers a half-hour chopper service to Gangtok and a great dekko. An Ambuja Project signboard nearby declares, “Siliguri is changing.” Ditto ditto.
Sikkim’s helipad is in Gangtok’s Burtuk area, right next to the fluttering white cho-pen of the charming Burtuk Mani Lakang .On the surrounding slopes, passersby squat to take in the sun and watch the fun as unsuspecting passengers in saris parachute on the tail wind. In the vast, plump-sofaed waiting room is a counter offering the best of Sikkim Distilleries, Sikkim rum to crème de menthe, protective wooden dragons and the light, flavoured Temi tea. Around the Mani Lakang, little lamas from the nearby Tibetan School, some as young as five, are at play while Sruti Mishra, six years old, d/o ITBF soldier, prefers to watch the copter.
The air crew wheel out the dainty Long Ranger IV, the maroon-striped Bell 206 L4 helicopter and the pilots get in. There is palpable excitement, a few nervous faces and three digicams on the ready as a20-person-strong extended family from Kurnool, Andhra Pradesh, led by Drs Muralitharan, Naidu, Venkatesulu and Brahmareddy, get ready for their first helicopter ride. The rotors whir to life, and she’s off like a grasshopper, striped tail rotor hazily whizzing like the proverbial chakra. Twenty minutes later, the ecstatic grins on the faces of young Surya, Harika and company say it all.
The service is run by Pawan Hans, one of Asia’s largest helicopter services and unexpected champion of our rashtrabhasha. Behind the chief engineer Pyarelalji’s desk, a sign proclaims, “Aap Hindi main baat kijiyega toh hame khushi hogi,” and in front is a forbidding file full of instructions from the headquarters of the 17th Mountain Division telling tourists to “Mind the gap!”
In the Gazetteer of Sikkim, 1928, Sikkim’s geo-position between the Himalaya and its two great southern spurs is described thus in H.H. Risley’s mean angrezi, “These almost impossible barriers enclose three sides of a gigantic amphitheatre, hewn as it were, out of the Himalaya, and sloping down on its southern or open side towards the plains of India…the steps of this amphitheatre make up the territory known as Independent Sikhim (Sukhim or New House).” Today, with high-voltage political theatre playing in the neighbourhood, Sikkim is a veritable chequerboard of Restricted, Protected and Permitted Areas which both foreign and domestic tourists must negotiate.
Finally, juggling visibility, permits and budget, we draw our lot. Seat belts are on, earphones and their button-pressed speaker have been tested, even poo-bags are at hand. Captains M.L. Gupta and Shriram Ayagiri welcome us on board. On both sides of the five-seating passenger area are windows, one of which opens up for some mountain air or that perfect picture. The ground falls away beneath our feet and in a moment Gangtok’s pasta roads and matchbox houses pop out from the green as thousands of colourful da-cho flutter like butterflies on the hillside, letting the lungta or airy-horse carry the luck of the individual who foisted it in every direction.
Listening to the Captain’s riveting commentary I wake up to the pleasures of armchair travel plus plus! Moving at speeds of up to 80 knots or 120kmph the Long Ranger pans very fast over the countryside, its impressive manoeuvrability creating perspective rock ‘n roll. I now believe the mountain flight veteran who told us that from the helicopter it’s hard to recognise even the Kanchendzonga, and that he had once seen not one but three peaks! Matchstick conifers are transformed into giant green algae in a moment and Temi’s sprightly tea bushes go by as uneven squares on unending yards of embossed green velvet. At 8,000ft even the treacherous, straight-as a-snake Teesta is rendered in pretty, harmless cottonwool waves which go into reverse animation from 3,000ft lower, as her husband by Lepcha lore, the hoppity, bird-like Rangit flows by.
The pilots have told us about the up-river mountain flight through the belly of the hills. Salivating, we look down as far as we can towards the Teesta as it moves up to its glacial home where, “One is thrust into an immense infinite expense of snow, an awesome nothingness; where one sees only miles and miles of whiteness…a breathtaking tabloid of brutal beauty”, in the writer Somnath Guha’s words.
Sikkim’s landscape is designed to create poets. Captain Gupta, an armed forces veteran, speaks in a hushed voice of “an incredibly uplifting experience” that comes from a close-up view of the moving glaciers, the lakes, and the first appearance of the Kanchendzonga through the clouds. Hard-nosed Haryanvi printer, Manoj Agarwal, has been hit hard by the shutterbug. If only we had come a week earlier…
The Buddha had other revelations in mind for us. The Khecheopari lake shimmers like a magical emerald ringed around by the bright jewels of fluttering da-cho that the faithful have planted. I can see the wind painting on the waters of this most sacred of lakes, said to fulfil wishes and from my vantage point truly kept leaflessly clear by birds.
Very close to us is the Kanchendzonga, yet far removed from our sight by mist. Over cups of tea, which southern Sikkimese often have with salt, Mr Dong, the genial multi-tasking Buddha who doubles as Tourism Director, had told us that Mt Kanchendzonga, the world’s third highest peak, “dominates not only the landscape but also the thoughtscape of Sikkim”. So much so, that no climbs are allowed to its peak from the Sikkimese side. Overflights are also strictly a no-no. Unless one happens to be Lama Lhatsun Chhembo of the divine powers, who established the Dhamma in Sikkim. Below is Yuksom, ‘Meeting place of the Three Superior Ones’, where after his magical flight, he with two other Lamas crowned the fourth, Phuntsong Namgyal, Chogyal, or ruler of Sikkim.
Magically, fingers of golden light suddenly reach out towards us from the clouds. We are amidst the spiritual topography of Sikkim. On every hilltop is a gleaming gompa or a chorten, Pelling, the sacred Tashiding, and Thong Wa Rang Dol, Sanga Choling…as if the very hills are reaching up to venerate the mystic ‘Five Treasures of the Great Snows’ that is the Kanchendzonga.
Even the old capital, Rabdantse, is here, its ruins lying desolate on a lonely hilltop. Nearby is the sloping golden roof of the majestic Pemayangtse, chief monastery of the Nyingma sect. It is famously here atPemayangtse that in autumn the historic brotherhood between the Bhutia chief Khye Bhumse and the Lepcha king Thekong Tek, is celebrated before the Kanchendzonga in Pang Labsol, Witness of the Celebrations.
The best has been saved for the end. A turn round the hills and between the greens we catch a glimpse of gleaming copper. At this point, with an astonishing lack of serenity for a chap who’s photographed the ‘Guru of Joy’, Saibal manages to rock the chopper. But not the serene, lotus-born one, the Indian Guru Padmasambhava who established Buddhism and the Lamaic order in Tibet. Resplendent in exquisite craftsmanship, seated on a lotus below which huge white lions bare their fangs, he towers in gigantic solitude at Sandruptse, calmly looking on the land which his followers made the Buddha’s.
Roll over Thailand. Audacious in concept, breathtaking in its magnificence and a fitting tribute to this giant among sages, the soon-to-be inaugurated Sandruptse Pigrimage Centre is bound to catapult Sikkim into the mega-league of Buddhist tourism.
In a daze we whiz past the bird park and a hillside full of ferns frantically waving giant fingers at us and Gangtok’s most brightly festooned spot, tiny Ganesh Tok and eventually towards home. Padmasambhava is too much with us.