Unseasonal rain fell on Norbugang, the ancient coronation throne of Sikkim. Four weather worn rectangular slabs of stone, one slightly higher than the other. A massive pine tree towered over them, blocking out the rain from pouring sky. They say that three wise men once came here. They say that one of the three wise men carried a staff which he transfixed to the ground and that staff grew into the pine tree. They also say that the wise man left his footprint on a piece of rock.
I stood before that piece of rock, trying to make out how large his foot must have been. At its edge, I could see the distinct impression of a large toe, next to it the gentle undulations of the smaller ones. Or was I imagining it all? Was it just another bit of stone surrounded by layers of legend, lore and the iron railings of the Archaeological Survey of India?
I moved around the coronation area like a questing beetle, huddled under an umbrella, occasionally stamping my feet to discourage leeches. Two children watched me from a distance, disappointed that I was not providing more entertainment. I wondered whether similar spectators had spied on the coronation of the first king of Sikkim, in 1641. I tried to imagine the scene: three lamas standing gravely around the throne, on which sat a man in his late 30s, who till the other day had been a milkman in a remote mountain village.
Then – the story goes – Lhatsun Chenpo, the first among the three lamas, said, “In the prophecy of the Guru Rimpoche it is written that four noble brothers shall meet in Sikkim and arrange for its government. We are the three of these, come from the north, west and south. Towards the east, written it is, there is a man named Phuntsok, a descendant of brave ancestors of Kham. According, therefore, to the prophecy of the Guru, we should invite him.”
And with these words, the milkman Phuntsok passed forever into history.
Things to See & Do
All this happened at a place called Yuksom, where the history of the kingdom began, but this is not where your journey will begin – or end. You could begin at Pelling, as I did, a 5-hr drive from New Jalpaiguri railway station. Or you could drive to Gangtok, the state capital, the most convenient option as transport and travel arrangements are most easily made from there.
A part of the way to Pelling, I rode NH 31A, a picturesque and comfortable ride. The road climbs gradually and, not far below, the sea-green foam-flecked Teesta grumbles at its rocky banks. At almost every curve, the Border Roads Organisation reiterates its commitment to keeping the highway safe and serviceable. Not to be outdone, the ASI offers the following homily: “If man is to survive, he has to understand himself and the centuries behind him.”
Taking ASI’s injunction to heart, I reach Pelling (112 km from Gangtok). It was completely unknown to tourists till two government officials discovered the eye-boggling potential of the mountains a few years back. Now, not surprisingly, every second building in the town proclaims itself a hotel. I was billeted in the imposing Hotel Phamrong, one of a chain owned by local boy-made-good Danny Denzongpa, the famous Bollywood star. The hotel is run by the affable Utpal Yungdak, a champion archer in his spare time. But it is his father, I am told, who could tell me everything that I always wanted to know about Sikkim and was afraid to ask.
Captain S Yungdak began his career as an apprentice monk at the Pemayangtse Monastery and became a yapo, or senior monk, incredibly, at the age of 11. The popularity of monastic education has obviously dwindled since the 1920s, but one can still see novices of all shapes and sizes scurrying about the monastery. Pemayangtse, the third oldest monastery in Sikkim, was established a little over 300 years ago, in1705. The name is derived from ‘padmayang tse’, which literally means ‘the sublime perfect lotus’.
These early monasteries of Sikkim, mostly set up in the 18th century, were all dedicated to the founder of Lamaism, Padmasambhava. Lamaism arose in the 8th century CE, during the reign of the Tibetan King Thi-Srong De-Tsen. To a large extent, it was derived from the Tibetan version of Mahayana Buddhism, which was heavily inflected with tantric and mystical doctrines to arrive at this. For instance, when Thi-Srong De-Tsen’s repeated attempts to build a monastery were frustrated by earthquakes, they were attributed to demonic activities. Eventually, the king sent for Padmasambhava, then a renowned wizard-priest at Nalanda University. He arrived at SamyÃ¨ (in Tibet) in 747 CE, duly vanquished the demons, built the monastery and established the first community of lamas. Padmasambhava’s stock has never declined since.
Another millennium was to pass after the arrival of Padmasambhava before the Pemayangtse Monastery was set up. By then, Lamaism had been introduced into Sikkim by the legendary Lhatsun Chenpo in the 17th century. He is famed to have flown over the 24,000-foot-high Mount Kabru when he could find no overland route from Tibet to Sikkim. Reaching Yuksom, Lhatsun helped coronate the first king of Sikkim and founded the first-ever monastery in Sikkim at Dub-di. Pemayangtse Monastery is said to have been designed, if not actually built, by Lhatsun for the use of the ta-sang, or‘pure monks’, of Tibetan origin. But what really links the monastery to the lama is that extraordinary masterpiece, the Sangtok-Palri, a three-dimensional wooden painted model of the vision of a celestial city seen by Lhatsun himself.
Sitting on a verandah in the monastery complex, Captain Yungdak unfolded the fascinating story of the resident masterpiece. While pursuing a course of intense meditation in the Himalaya, Lhatsun had a vision, which he later wrote up as part of his autobiography. As a result of his penance, he was able to command angels and demons who also brought him tribute in the form of gems and jewels. Along with his autobiography, he hid these in caves and grottoes, with blessings so that his future incarnations would retrieve them.
In due course, Lhatsun’s autobiography was discovered and opened. The great artist Lingpyo Rimpoche (to whom the traditional dancing masks of Sikkim are attributed) read the description of the vision, spent three years visualising it and built the model city, Sangtok-Palri. The size of a large doll house, containing no nails and put together only with wooden joints, the model represents a beautifully burnished and lacquered celestial city, teeming with divine and mortal beings, palaces and pleasure domes, gardens and pavilions.
A brisk 25-minute walk from the Pemayangtse Monastery is Rabdentse, the brooding ruins of the second capital of Sikkim, established by Phuntshok Namgyal’s son Tensung Namgyal.
Rabdentse is a bit of a puzzle. The ruins of the palace exist, but not a stick remains of any other building, if you discount the nearby Pemayangtse Monastery. Surely a seat of government would have more signs of its past glory? The ruins are perched on top of a hill and are divided into two distinct sections. The larger one is almost certainly the palace complex and the other probably a more public place, a paved courtyard meant for the subjects. Standing on the courtyard, I had a wide angle view of the mountains. Not a bad lookout for invading armies.
The way back from Rabdentse to Pelling is uphill and laborious, but it should be easy to cadge a lift from the vehicles headed in that direction. No vehicle, however, will take you to the Sanga-Choling (lit. ‘the place of secret spells’), probably the second oldest monastery in Sikkim. It is situated on the other side of Pelling and takes a good 45 minutes of uphill climbing. But once you reach the sturdy little monastery in its windswept eyrie, the footsore trek seems worth every ragged breath.
You step into the narrow vestibule in the front and take in the colossal figures painted all over the walls. There are usually four ‘Kings of the Quarters’, who guard the universe against the outer demons. Clad in full battle armour and wearing ferocious expressions, these guardians come in four colours – white, yellow, red and green.
Upstairs, the first floor houses the manuscripts in their individual cubby holes, storerooms and perhaps a tiny retiring room for the priest in charge. On the day I went, he was making tea. He looked at me as if it was the most normal thing in the world to have a visitor at seven on a rainy winter morning. The abiding image I carried with me from Pelling was his impish and ageless face, almost indistinguishable from the gods who kept him company.
Yuksom is little more than a one-street village, 42 km north from Pemayangtse. It takes about an hour-and-a half’s drive from Pelling to get there, and, on the way, one can take in the vertiginous Rimbi Waterfall, practically leaping on to the road in front of you in ecstasy.
The High Street in Yuksom is about a couple of hundred yards long and bounded by the usual clutch of shops, restaurants and boarding lodges. At any given point of time, it is hard to tell whether there are more locals or tourists. Most tourists who stay here use it as a base camp for the arduous trek to Dzongri and, if they are feeling particularly adventurous, all the way to Goecha La. Not many spend the night here for local sightseeing.
At the end of High Street, the road bifurcates. The fork on the right takes you to Dub-di (lit. ‘the hermit’s cell’), arguably the oldest monastery in Sikkim, while the other slopes upwards towards the coronation throne, the Norbugang. Carry some salt with you to flick off leeches, which are everywhere on this path.
A 45-minute steep climb later, you will reach Dub-di. Founded by none other than Lhatsun Chenpo in 1697, this monastery had a complement of 25 monks towards the beginning of the20th century, but now there’s just one monk in charge. A beautiful garden surrounds the monastery which does not really look very old because of extensive renovations after an earthquake in 1933.
Returning to the fork, take the dirt track towards Norbugang. On the way, you will pass the tiny Katok Lake, though it’s the bigger Khecheopalri, an hour’s drive from Yuksom, which gets more visitors. Khecheopalri literally means ‘wishing lake’. It has a diameter of about half-a-kilometre and is situated in a bowl-like declivity. The water is crystal clear and it is believed that the birds around do not allow even a leaf to fall on the wishing lake. The pier is a long low wooden structure with prayer wheels on both sides and gives on to a sort of viewing gallery on the edge of the water.
On the way back from Khecheopalri, one can also stop at Tashiding Monastery. Built in 1716, its name means ‘elevated glorious white rock’. The name refers to the miraculous raising or elevation of the monastery site by Padmasambhava, who is said to have blessed the sacred land of Sikkim from this very spot. However, the monastery itself was built by Ngadakpa Rigds in Chenpo, one of the three wise men who had consecrated the milkman Phuntshok at Yuksom. The chief attraction of Tashiding is its holy chorten (a monolith shaped like a sarcophagus), the most common religious symbol in Sikkim, called Thong-Wa-Rang-Dol, the very sight of which is supposed to wash away all sins.
The British started getting involved in the affairs of Sikkim and Darjeeling from the mid-19th century. They appointed Claude White as the first political officer in Sikkim in 1889 and the erstwhile king, Chogyal Thutob Namgyal, was virtually placed under his supervision. Thutob shifted the capital from Tumlong to Gangtok in 1894. So Gangtok is a comparatively new city. Today, it is much better regulated than other popular hill stations. I note all this as I drive to Rumtek Monastery (24km south-west of Gangtok), situated about an hour’s drive from Gangtok.
There are actually two Rumtek monasteries, separated by about a kilometre-and-a-half. The first one was built way back in 1740 and can still be seen, but is hardly visited by any tourists. The new, and far more imposing, monastery complex was built in the 1960s, largely from the personal resources of the Gyalwa Karmapa, and is the seat of the Kargyu-pa (Black Hat) order of Tibetan Buddhism. The Sikkimese king pitched in, as did Jawaharlal Nehru. Not surprisingly, this monastery complex is by far the most ostentatious in Sikkim.
The portals of the Rumtek Monastery are entrusted to the care of mortal as well as divine guardians. There is a passport checkpoint at the main entry for foreign nationals. The huge courtyard is flanked by the monks’ quarters as well as the intriguing VIP Gallery and the butter lamp shed on the first floor. There is also the Karmapa’s sitting room on the first floor, which is out of bounds for visitors.
I was shown around the monks’ quarters and the general complex by an extremely helpful student at the monastery. From him I learnt that the thousands of lamps lit inside the monastery were fuelled not by butter made in the butter lamp shed – as I had fondly imagined – but the rather more plebeian Ruchi No. 1 Dalda. Similarly, the thousands of prayer wheels were lubricated by regular infusions of diesel! But, though nowadays the ubiquitous prayer flags are also done by commercial printers, at Rumtek they still use the printing blocks. You can get yours done at the print house here, which is stacked with old blocks from floor to ceiling. For the record, prayer flags come in four colours– blue, red, yellow and green, symbolising the elements water, fire, earth and wood respectively.
Back in Gangtok, I found myself unmoved by the attractions of the Dodrul Chorten. It mainly consists of a gigantic chorten with 108 prayer wheels all around. The whole complex seemed about as attractive as a petrol pump.
The Enchey Monastery, literally ‘high strong place’, does live up to its name as it is situated on the upper slopes of the city. Though not as serene as it once used to be, its courtyard is still a lovely place to sit in, especially during the mornings. Inside, the monastery is currently undergoing renovation, but a general air of contentment still prevails.
The famed Sikkim Research Institute of Tibetology, next to Dodrul Chorten, is one of the premier institutes in India for Tibetan studies, with huge collections of Lepcha,Tibetan and Sanskrit manuscripts, as well as rare thangkas (scroll paintings) and statues. ‘Thangka’ means ‘rolled up’, which indicates that the painting is done on cloth that can easily be rolled up for convenient transport.
About 40 km out of Gangtok is Tsomgo Lake (pronounced ‘Shongo’) at a height of 12,000 ft. It can be either a boring or a great drive, depending on the weather. But even the rain cannot hide the lake’s startling beauty. Surrounded by mountains, it is about a kilometre long and is one of Buddhism’s holy lakes. The waters are unimaginably serene. And on sunnier days, the lake catches and keeps the blue of the sky. A little further up is Nathu La, the Indo-China border, and you will need a special permit (obtained from the tourist office on MG Road or government-recognised travel agents in Gangtok) to go there. A trip to Tsomgo Lake will cost â‚¹ 3,500-4,000 (full jeep) and to Nathu La via Tsomgo and Baba Mandir, it’s about â‚¹ 6,500 for a full jeep. The price includes fare, taxes and entry fees.
Walks and Views
Like in any other hill station, Gangtok’s most accessible peaks have been converted into viewing points. Ganesh Tok, Tashi Viewpoint and Hanuman Tok are the most popular and the most crowded.
Gangtok has the usual huddle of souvenir shops, though the greatest bargains would be outside Gangtok. In the city, most people make a beeline for the Handicraft Cottage Emporium situated below Raj Bhawan. They stock the famous hand-carved wood choktse tables, carpets, blankets, shawls and prayer rugs. Thangkas are another good buy but they don’t come cheap – prices range from â‚¹ 5,000 to 20,000. You can enjoy the local flavours at the crowded Lal Bazaar market which sells everything. Check out the tiny jewellery shops that line New Market. If you’re lucky, you may chance upon some old silver jewellery, typical of the region. And one of the best places to buy Sikkim’s famous beautiful orchids is the Wayside Gardens and Nurseries (Tel: 03592-251250, Mob: 09832060555).
Where to Stay
The best hotels in Gangtok include Hotel Nor-Khill (Tel: 03592-225637; Tariff: â‚¹ 8,200-9,200), which is in the ‘super-deluxe’ category. Another pocket scorcher is Hotel Tashi-Delek (Tel: 222362; Tariff: â‚¹ 3,375-5,750). One has to labour up a steep flight of steps to Hotel Chumbi Residency (Tel: 22661819-20; Tariff: â‚¹ 3,400-4,200), but it is slightly more pocket-friendly. The Royal Plaza (Tel: 280232; Tariff: â‚¹ 6,500-20,000) is a luxury property with a casino. Odisha’s Mayfair Hotel chain has opened the swanky Mayfair Spa Resort (Tel: 250555/ 666/ 777/ 888; Tariff: â‚¹ 12,000-50,000) with 88 rooms in the Lower Samundai Block at Ranipul. The casino here is a great draw.
Getting a place to stay in Pelling is easy, since every second house is a lodge/hotel. A new addition here is the lovely Elgin Mount Pandim (Tel: 03595-250756; Tariff: â‚¹ 5,600-7,800), near the monastery, with 32 rooms. Hotel Phamrong, where I stayed (Tel: 258218, 250660; Tariff: â‚¹ 3,700-5,250), is clean and comfortable, with a very friendly staff. The tariff includes meals, but the food is forgettable. Hotel Sonamchen (Tel: 258346; Tariff: â‚¹ 2,000-3,500) is easier on the pocket.
Opposite the Shimbho Towers is Hotel Greenland (Tel: 258587, Mob: 0983008698; Tariff: â‚¹ 800-2,000). In the same price range, with its own restaurant is Hotel Simvo (Tel: 258347; Tariff: â‚¹ 1,000-3,500) near the helipad ground. Check out Hotel Takura (Tel: 258643, Mob: 09434128384; Tariff: â‚¹ 400-800) with its terrace bar and restaurant.
You won’t exactly be spoilt for choice here. Hotel Tashigang (Tel: 03595-241202-03; Tariff: â‚¹ 1,500-2,500) is the best bet. The staff is friendly and helpful and the cooking surprisingly good. Set in a valley, it also arranges trekking equipment. For those willing to rough it out. Hotel Yak (Tel: 241236, Mob: 09933020133; Tariff: â‚¹ 350) is a cosy hotel with clean rooms and running hot water. They serve Sikkimese Bhutia cuisine. Hotel Demazong (Tel: 241215, Mob: 09775473687; Tariff: â‚¹ 100-500) is a clean, well-maintained establishment. Hotel Yangri Gang (Tel: 241217; Tariff: â‚¹ 150-1,200) arranges treks.
Where to Eat
Most of the smart set in Gangtok can be found at the three-tier Glenary’s and also The Buzz, which has a deli, and a bar. Baker’s CafÃ©, by the Hotel Tashi-Delek management, has great cakes and bread. At the Blue Sheep Restaurant, mostly patronised by foreign tourists, the service is slow but worth waiting for. The Square is easy to miss – it is tucked away on the ground floor of a building, but the view is great and the predominantly Thai cuisine is definitely worth a try. Popular Little Italy serves Italian food. The Tibet Hotel serves great momos. Another popular hangout is Porky’s in New Castle Hotel and is a favourite for sizzlers.
For more middling prices, try the momos at either of the two branches of Potala Restaurant, on MG Road and Lal Bazaar Road. A typical Sikkimese meal can be had at the Hotel Nor-Khill. This includes dishes made from stinging nettles and Alpine fiddlehead fern.
Other local specialities include the famed cherry brandy as well as such ghastly concoctions as paan liqueur. The Sikkim Alpine Cheese Company does an excellent Gouda cheese, which is a must-buy for all cheese aficionados.
In Pelling, things are a bit dire. There is the Alpine Restaurant, but the food is appalling. The situation is similarly grim at Yuksom, except at Tashi Gang. Definitely try their Sikkimese chicken. You could also try the stinging nettle, or sisnu soup, a potion-like deep-green concoction that tastes just fine and does not sting. And if that gets monotonous, succour is at hand in the form of homebrewed chaang, the excellent local beer, and universally popular.
This home brew, made from wheat and millet grains, is fermented for two to three months. Chaang has to be drunk from an 8-inch wooden tumbler called tongba, filled to the brim with the grain, with hot water being added to it periodically. The resultant beer is then sipped through a long bamboo straw called thipshing. The beer can be drunk as long as one is willing – and able – to add hot water to the tumbler. One tongba of chaang can keep you going for the entire evening. The price of a tumbler can be anything between â‚¹ 10 and 50, depending on whether you have it at a roadside tea-stall or in your hotel.