Somewhere near Rorathang, we parted ways with the Rangpo River which was keeping us company ever since we crossed over to Sikkim from West Bengal. The road got steeper and the bend in the roads sharper, sometimes rounding consecutive hair-pin bends. The nip in the air, the change in the plant life – from sal and bamboo to silver firs, oak, etc. – and low hung clouds indicated we were climbing higher and higher.
Small towns and hamlets popped up at infrequent intervals. Although concrete buildings seem to be replacing the old wooden structures, nearly all of them had a balcony or a window ledge devoted to colourful potted plants; many had kitchen gardens or a small orchard on the side. These villages have also discovered ecotourism as a way of sustenance. We were headed to one such village Dalapchand, tucked deep inside east Sikkim.
A little before reaching Rhenock, on the insistence of our driver, we made a small detour to a place called Rungdung. Cut into the forested hillside was a huge temple complex, called Sri Vishwa Vinayaka Mandir. Opened to the public in October 2016, it contained two temples dedicated to Ganesha and Shiva. On one side, there was a diorama of a scene from the ‘samundra manthan’ or the churning of the ocean as mentioned in the Bhagavat Purana. In a state known for its monasteries, this temple seems to have become quite popular in a short time.
By the time we finished our tea at a local tea shop, the sky had darkened considerably. The owner of our homestay called and advised us to finish our sightseeing before reaching Dalapchand. It was a timely advice we realised later.
The first stop was at Mankhim Temple, a pilgrim centre of the local Rai community. A long flight of stairs led to the hill-top temple. We were lucky to catch the community’s Sakewa festival in progress. Observed in honour of Nature, it includes worship of Mother Earth followed by community singing and dancing. From a view point behind the temple, we could see the popular Lampokhari Lake nestling far below, amidst verdant hills and valleys. Later, we drove down to the lake proper.
Known as the Lampokhari Lake or the Aritar Lake (after the village of Aritar where it is located), it is considered a holy lake by the local people. People pray to the spirit of the lake for wish fulfilment; if their wish is fulfilled, they release fish into the lake, we were told. Feeding the fish is a popular activity. Pathways run around the lake. You may also go boating in the lake. At the far end of the waterbody is a monastery encircled with prayer flags. However, the approaching rain and promises of a much-delayed lunch found us wending our way to the homestay.
Spread over two ledges (upper and lower) Dalapchand is a fairly large village with a few administrative offices and schools. It is located on way to Sikkim’s famous old Silk Route which was frequented by Tibetan traders who travelled as far down as Kalimpong (in West Bengal) for business, traversing the great mountain passes and the rough terrain. A local person can point out a section of the old mule track that exists even today.
According to local people, Dalapchand means ‘The Great Flat Stone’. In his book ‘Among the Himalayas’ (published in 1900), L A Wadell refers to the hamlet as a trader’s halting place. During his travels in the region, he found deserted barracks which were apparently inhabited by the British artillery but had been abandoned a few weeks prior to his arrival owing to the outbreak of a fatal fever. According to his Tibetan porters, Wadell writes, the death was caused by angry sylvan spirits.
When we arrived, Dalapchand was already covered in a misty veil below an ominous layer of dark clouds. Still we managed to snatch half an hour of a village walk after a simple but tasty lunch. The organic farming pursued in this region impart a great taste to the vegetable and fruit grown here, we merrily found out during our stay. Our place of stay had their own patch of kitchen garden, a small orchard and a greenhouse for plants. In fair weather, the place offers a pleasant view of the surrounding mountains, including the snow peaks of Mt Kanchenjunga. The forest surrounding the village is also good for short nature walks (but do not forget to take the services of a local guide). In March-April, you may also go birding here. Green fingers must visit during the flowering season, usually spread from March to early June, depending on the weather.
As evening approached, the heavens opened up. Flashes of lightening streaked across the inky blue sky, drawing a myriad patterns. Rainwater gushed down the mountain side with gusto and we could hear them trilling over the rocks. We spent the evening watching the rains from the safety of the homestay’s living room, swapping stories with our fellow travellers, and munching umpteen plates of steaming momo.
To our delight, the sun was up the next morning. But the misty veil refused to budge. In fair weather, you may catch the sun rise over the mountains from the Mankhim Temple. We made a quick foray to the Chandaney Falls and a Buddhist monastery. We took a brief stroll in the surrounding forests until the rains forced us indoors again. You may continue with an onward journey to the Silk Route or take a break here on the way back.
Getting there: Siliguri in West Bengal is the gateway to the hills of Sikkim. The nearest airport to Siliguri is Bagdogra (about 14km away by road) and the nearest junction railway is New Jalpaiguri (about 7km away by road). Dalapchand is about 130km from Siliguri via Rangpo and Rhenock. Road conditions are good for most part of the journey.
Travelling in Sikkim: For travelling in Sikkim, it is necessary to book cars with the state’s registration. For convenience, you may book through any registered travel agency (we booked ours through Roopkatha Tours and Travels). There are several homestays in Aritar and Dalapchand. But not all are of the same standard. We stayed at Green Lawn Homestay in Dalapchand (tel: +91-7548032049).
Best time to visit: March to May, late September to November. December-February can be very cold. Landslides in the region make travel during monsoon difficult. During the Ramnavami festival in April, the local people usually hold a Lampokhari festival.