Sunday, Dec 03, 2023

A Trip To Sikkim's First Capital

A Trip To Sikkim's First Capital

If you are looking for a quiet summer holiday in a picturesque setting, then head to Yuksom in west Sikkim

Dubdi Monastery in Yuksam, west Sikkim
Dubdi Monastery in Yuksam, west Sikkim Image credit: Uttara G

Way back in the mid-17th century, three holy men entrusted to find a leader, arrived in Denzong or 'the hidden country' in the Himalayas, guided by the 'Five Treasures of the Snow'. The great lama, arrived from Tibet in the north while the other two holy men arrived from south and the west. They waited at Norbugang – which was believed to have been blessed by Padmasambhava or Guru Rinpoche in the 9th century – to find the right man. Then when a learned young man named Phuntsok arrived from the east, the three lamas chose him as the leader. They performed many rites and crowned him as the king or Chogyal of the land. The place where this event took place came to be known as Yuksom or the 'meeting place of the three lamas'.

Coronation throne of the first Chogyal or King of Sikkim
Coronation throne of the first Chogyal or King of Sikkim Image credit: Uttara G

This is the coronation throne or the Norbugang where Phuntshok from the east was crowned the first ruler of Sikkim, said our guide as we reached the top of a hillock to stand before an east-facing stone platform with a triangular stone backrest. Four seats or thrones were arranged in a staggered manner on the platform. 

According to the inscriptions on the back of the thrones, the largest seat in the centre was for the great Nyingmapa Lama, Lhatsun Namkha Jigme, while the seat to his right was designated for Chogyal Phuntsok Namgyal. Seats to the left of the great Lama were for Kartok Kunto Zangpo and Ngadak Sempa Chempo. Painted images of all four with their names (written in English) adorned the thrones. Prayer flags fluttered on both sides while votive offerings were placed in front. The old pine tree over the throne was also considered holy. The chorten in front was said to contain soil and water from all over Sikkim and built to commemorate the coronation.

We paid our respect to the holy site (a National Monument maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India) and stopped by the monastery which we had seen on our way up, before returning to our car, which we had left at the bottom of the hillock. 

Earlier in the day, we had arrived from the tourist town of Pelling, about 40km away by road. As we had not confirmed our time of arrival at the homestay, we decided to have lunch on the way. The Yuksom Secondary School roughly marked the entry to the town. Hotels, restaurants, shops and offices of trekking agencies were strung out on both sides of the main road. 

Although there were several restaurants in the market place, their opening hours depended on the time of the day and the number of tourists. But one place you will always find open and running is the Gupta Restaurant. Located on the main road, this is a popular touch point for all kinds of tourists arriving in Yuksam, and we were no exception. Although they had an elaborate menu consisting of Indian, Chinese and Tibetan dishes, we opted for a simple ‘thali’ which also included a couple of dishes made from Sikkim’s local greens.

A homestay is the best option if you want to know about local culture and cuisine.
A homestay is the best option if you want to know about local culture and cuisine Image credit: Uttara G

The homestay was a little off the town centre, on a higher ledge, which allowed us to enjoy the tranquil surroundings. There was a small lawn in front with chairs and benches. From here, we would watch the dawn breaking over the distant mountains, the twinkling lights in the valley by night. On a clear night, we could even see the lights of the hill top containing the Chenrezig statue and the skywalk.

Although the trekking season was yet to take off during our time of visit (pre-pandemic), trekkers had started to trickle in. Yuksam is the gateway to some of the best trekking routes of Sikkim, including Dzongri and Goecha La, as well as the gateway to the Khangchendzonga National Park (a UNESCO World Heritage Site). The starting point of the trail leading to Dzongri was near our homestay and in the morning hours we would see mule herders and porters waiting by the roadside to be hired. The tinkling of bells round the necks of mules would tell us that a group of trekkers were on their way uphill. There are trekking agencies with offices in Yuksom Bazaar who can arrange for permits, porters and guides, pack animals, ration, etc. The best time to visit is March to May, and September/October to November.

Keen on a light trek, we followed the worn trail from the Yuksom Public Health Centre (Yuksom PHC; off the main road coming from Yuksom Bazaar), crossed a bridge to come up to a motorable road where a signboard showed the way to the Dubde monastery. Local taxis can take you as far as this signboard. From here it is a short but steep climb to the monastery past forested slopes. Stopping a couple of times to enjoy the view below can also be an excuse to catch your breath. You will come across an old fashioned chorten on the way.

According to local sources, Dubdi Monastery was built in 1647 by the first ruler, Chogyal Phuntshok Namgyal, and reconstructed in 1723. However, according to the Gazetteer of Sikkim (1894), also reiterated by the information board of Archaeological Survey of India, which now looks after the monastery, it was founded in 1701. The monastery and the Lhakhang (dedicated to Vajra Varahi) stand in the middle of a landscaped garden surrounded by prayer flags. However, most of the time the doors remain locked. The monastery contains beautiful murals. [According to local villagers, as of October 2019, it opens once in a while but nobody knows when. So try your luck.]

Karthok Lake Eco Park
Karthok Lake Eco Park Image credit: Uttara G

Another popular attraction here is the Karthok Lake. The forest of prayer flags over the lake is an indication how sacred it is for the local people, who believe it has wish fulfilling powers (the other being Kecheopalri, also in west Sikkim). It is said that water from this lake was used during the coronation ceremony of the first king of Sikkim. Lying off the motorable road that travels upwards from Yuksom bazar, it appeared to be a lonely place though. The lake nestles in the middle of an alpine forest. A narrow track goes down to the water. There are lots of fish in the lake. Usually, a bag of puffed rice is kept at the ticket counter and you may take a handful to feed the fish.

A visit to the Yuksom-based interpretation centre of the Khangchendzonga National Park acquainted us with the flora and fauna of the region.

A monastery has come up on a ledge below the Coronation Throne complex. The upper level of the monastery contains a large statue of Thangtog Gyalpo (1385-1464), a Tibetan monk also known as Chakzampa (maker of iron chains). He wears many hats including that of blacksmith, physician, architect, magician, etc. He is also credited with popularising a form of Tibetan opera called Lhamo.

A half day excursion can be devoted to visit the Tashiding Monastery. This monastery complex is around 16km from Yuksom. The final stretch of the drive to the car park is past a thick row of prayer flags. From the car park, it is a gradual to slightly steep climb to this monastery said to be the hub of all the holy places in Sikkim. A narrow path half way to the monastery leads to the Drakar Tashiding or the ‘white rock situated on the plateau of good luck’. At the ‘cave of longevity’ situated here, water is said to emerge occasionally, which is considered holy as it was blessed by Guru Rinpoche.

Tashiding Monastery is known for the Bumchu Festival.
Tashiding Monastery is known for the Bumchu Festival Image credit: Uttara G

According to local pilgrims, the position was accorded to the Tashiding monastery by Guru Padmasambhava, who is said to have arrived here miraculously (in the 8th century) with his followers. Tashiding or ‘the Devoted Central Glory’ was founded in 1641 by Ngadak Senpa Chenpo Phun Tsok. However, the monastery was renovated several times before being rebuilt in 1995. Besides the main monastery, there are other smaller shrines on the premises, including one devoted to Goddess Tara or Kali. Another complex adjacent to the monastery has a number of chortens. Open: Daily at 7am and 5pm for worship. However, there is no restriction on exploring the premises. On select days of the month, it remains open throughout the day.

Bhumchu Festival held here, on the 14th and 15th day of the first month of the Tibetan calendar, is one of the biggest festivals of Sikkim. Bhum means a pot or vase and Chu means water. The divine vase (associated with the memory of Padmasambhava or Guru Rinpoche) is filled with water from the Rathong River and kept in the monastery. It is brought out for public viewing during the festival and its contents checked by the lamas. It is believed that the quality and the quantity of the stored water is an indication how Sikkim will fare in the following year. If you plan to visit during this time, be prepared for a long walk up as cars are halted way below.

Getting There : Yuksom is often combined with a trip to Pelling, which is about 40km away. From Gangtok, Yuksom is between 130km and 150km depending on the route taken. There are shared taxis/jeeps available from Jorethang too.