The arrival of Tibetan Guru Rinpoche or Padmasambhava in Sikkim during the 8th century paved the way for the spread of Buddhism while the Chogyal rulers established it as the major religion of the state.
Monasteries, lhakhangs and chortens, big and small, dot this Himalayan state. Each monastery has its own calendar of festivals, including masked dances. Visitors to Sikkim are often smitten by the serenity and calm that these monasteries offer. The exteriors of these age-old monasteries are embellished with beautiful woodwork, which speaks a great deal about the rich crafting traditions of the state.
North Sikim has its own share of stunning monasteries, where you can be one with yourself. Windy paths lined with ferns and pines take you to some of the most impressive landmarks of Buddhism in India as you listen to the chants of Om Mani Padme Hum on your car’s audio system.
Here are the best monasteries of North Sikkim.
The magnificent monastery of Lachung is known for its exquisite murals and ancient statues. Every year, monks perform religious dance on the 28th and 29th day of the Tibetan Calendar (usually December) drawing visitors from all corners of the country. Surrounded by tall trees to its left and a prayer hall right opposite to it, the monastery usually remains closed during the entire day and only Buddhists are allowed to enter inside the main shrine during the early morning hours when the monastery is open. That, however should not keep you from visiting this absolutely peaceful monastery. The silence and tranquiliy won’t let you leave easily!
Located on the gentle slope extending from Kabi Longchok to Phodong, the Phensang Monastery is unarguably one of the most beautiful monasteries of Sikkim. Dating back to 1721, the monastery was built during the reign of Jigme Pawo. It was destroyed by a catastrophic fire in 1947 and was later rebuilt by the lamas. The monastery is home to around 300 monks of the Nyingmapa Buddhist Order. An annual festival is held on the 28th and 29th day of the tenth month of the Tibetan calendar (usually December). As part of the grand festivities, sacred dances are performed to celebrate the Sikkimese new year.
The Phodong Monastery belongs to the Kagyupa Sect of Buddhism and dates back to 1740 AD. It was built by King Gyurmed Namgyal who, unfortunately, died before its completion in 1734. The lamas however took support from the people in Phodong and the monastery was completed in 1740 AD. It was damaged after an earthquake hit the region and was rebuilt in 1977.
The monastery became famous after French explorer Alexander David Neel wrote about it after spending quite a few years learning Buddhism here in the beginning of 1912. Chham dance performances are the highlight of the Losoong festival or the Tibetan new year, which is held between the 25th and 29th day of the tenth month of the Tibetan calendar.
Two kilometres ahead of Phodong is the Labrang Monastery, renowned for its unique octagonal structure called Rinchen Surgay. Tastefully done murals of Tibetan deities wash the walls of the interiors of the beautiful monastery. The monastery was raised in honour of Latsum Chembo of Kongpu, who started the Nyingmapa School of Tibetan Buddhism. It houses six institutes of learning, a gilded stupa, 18 halls and about 60,000 sutras in the sutra debate area. You can also visit the museum which exhibits a collection of Buddha statues and murals along with Tibetan books. On the way from Phodong to Labrang, do stop at the ruins of Tumlong Palace, the third capital of Sikkim.
This monastery, also known as Nyudrup Choeling Gompa, is located at the highest point in Lachen village so it’s a stiff 20-minute walk. The monastery is best visited either early morning or late afternoon since the doors to the main temple might be closed in the afternoons. The monastery enjoys a gorgeous location at the top of the town, with panoramic views of the surrounding hills and countryside.
The typical Tibetan monastery architecture featuring imposing wooden windows with intricately carved Tibetan mythological characters and colourful thangkas will surely leave you impressed. This is no place to act touristy, so please keep the decibel levels low and let the tranquil environs grow on you.