Buddhist monasteries are a way of life in Sikkim. You will find these colourful, artistically designed houses of worship, often with attached lodgings for monks as well as schools for novice monks, almost everywhere, from a tiny hamlet with a handful of households to large villages and towns. While the older monasteries in west Sikkim were established in the 17th or 18th centuries, some of them have been rebuilt or renovated over the ages.
Even if you are not religiously inclined, do not miss these monasteries as they are located in some of the most picturesque settings, atop hillocks, with magnificent views of the surrounding snow peaks, lower hills and valleys, and villages. If possible, pack a monastery festival in your itinerary, which will give you a chance to interact with the friendly people of Sikkim.
Here are the seven of the best monasteries of west Sikkim:
Pemayangste: The ‘Sublime Lotus’, it is one of the most popular and picturesque monasteries of Sikkim, and easily accessible from the tourist town of Pelling. Cars are allowed to go up to the base of the monastery located on top of a hillock. Built in 1705, the monastery has been renovated a few times since. As you enter, do not miss the centuries-old murals. The large central hall on the ground floor contains a statue of Padmasambhava or Guru Rinpoche along with an interesting array of votive objects, offerings and wall paintings. There are also low benches for those who want to meditate. A side door leads to the upper stories – with a gallery of sorts on the first floor which displays reincarnations of Padmasambhava and the famous ‘Sangdogpalri’, a wooden replica of Guru Rinpoche’s heavenly abode on the second floor. If you are lucky, you can catch a panoramic view of the snow-bound Mt Kanchenjunga and other peaks from the monastery complex.
Sanga-Ngang Choling: The 17th century monastery was rebuilt in 1950 after fire destroyed the older building. Although most travellers flock to its jazzy neighbour – Chenrezig Shinghkham Riwo Potala, consisting of a 98 feet high statue of Avalokitesvara and a reinforced glass skywalk (inaugurated in November 2018) – do visit the monastery complex for a panoramic view of the surrounding mountains and valleys. You may either walk up to the monastery from the car park or take the bridle path that connects the monastery complex with the skywalk complex.
Dubde: Yuksom is better known as a trekkers’ town. It is the starting point for treks to Dzongri and Goecha La. If you are not a trekker but want to enjoy a short uphill walk, then go up to the Dubdi monastery. Like most monasteries in Sikkim, it is situated on a hillock with an impressive view of the snow peaks and valleys that stretch between rolling hills. Looked after by the Archaeological Survey of India now, the monastery was built in 1701. Apart from the monastery, there is also a shrine dedicated to Vajra Varahi.
Tashiding: Nearly 16km from Yuksom, the way to the hill-top monastery is a gradual to slightly steep climb from the car park below. Although you may visit the monastery complex at any time of the year, the best time is during the Bumchu Festival. A pot holding holy water kept in the monastery is brought out for public viewing during this festival. According to local belief, the quality and quantity of the water in the pot (which can be seen by a select group of monks) is an indication about the future of Sikkim. The present monastery was rebuilt in 1995 in place of the old one said to be founded in 1641.
If you are hardy enough for a short climb through some steep slopes, you may continue to Silnon Monastery, about 12km from Tashiding. According to those who have been that way, the monastery complex offers a grand view of the Siniolchu peak. However, it is advisable to take a local guide along as there are several trails through the forest.
Resum: If you are fond of hiking through lonely mountain paths, stop at little known Rinchenpung village for a couple of days. An uphill forested trail past historic Lepcha homes will take you to this over 200-year-old monastery. Do take a local guide along as there are no marked paths. Pray for good weather as you reach the monastery complex. Because it is like a gallery offering 180 degree view of the snow peaks of the eastern Himalaya, a view that has been immortalised by Russian artist Nicholas Rorerich who came visiting in 1924.
On your way down, you may stop at the 18th century Rinchenpung Monastery, known for its unique Buddha statue where he is seen meditating with a woman holding him in embrace.