I spent two weeks in the enchanting Buddhist Himalayan kingdom of Sikkim covering Gangtok, Lachung, Ravangla and Pelling.
The tiny state of Sikkim is nestled in the eastern Himalayas bordered by four different countries on all sides : China, Bhutan, Nepal and India. It used to be on the ancient Silk Road and was a Buddhist kingdom for over three centuries before finally acceding to India in 1975. Although predominantly Hindu now, the most vivid imagery that comes back to me when I think of this place is of Buddhist prayer flags fluttering in the wind. These flags are omnipresent in Sikkim and are covered with Tibetan symbols and mantras. It is hoped the prayers will be flung far and wide by the winds, purifying the air and spreading goodwill all around. Sometimes they are white banners (Darchog) tied on tall vertical flagstaffs lining the winding roads that weave in and out of lush green, heavily forested mountains. Sometimes they are small squares (Lung ta) in alternate colours of blue, white, red, green and yellow which are hung horizontally. These can be seen festooned across streets, decorating rusty bridges, strung across the many waterfalls lacing the countryside, and around the perimeters of glacial lakes. And when you see an avenue lined by an especially profuse thicket of these prayer flags you are likely in the vicinity of one of the many brightly coloured Gompas (Buddhist monasteries) that dot the Himalayan ridges here.
The Kingdom of Sikkim was established by the Buddhist prince Phuntsog Namgyal, whose ancestors had wandered over from eastern Tibet sometime in the 14th century. Namgyal became the first Chogyal (priest-king) of Sikkim in 1642 when he was consecrated by three Wise Men at Yuksom. In the subsequent centuries the kingdom was attacked frequently by the Nepalese armies but managed to ward them off first with the help of the Chinese Qing dynasty and later the British. At the time of Indian Independence in 1947 the princely state of Sikkim refused to join the Indian union choosing to instead enjoy a protectorate status. They remained autonomous for the most part, with their own currency and national flag. But perhaps watching the spectacle of the Great Indian Democracy unfold next door instigated anti-royalist sentiment among the people. Following protests and finally a referendum in 1975 Sikkim formally became the 22nd state of India and the last Chogyal fled to America. Most of the population today is actually of Nepali ethnic origin and Nepali is the language most spoken with the native Sikkimese (of Tibetan origin) now a small minority.
Sikkim is the least populous of all the Indian states and also one of the cleanest. It was the first state to go fully organic in its farming practices. Perhaps in a ploy to protect its pristine landscape from excessive population growth the state imposes strict restrictions on non-Sikkimese purchasing property here and on cars registered outside Sikkim from driving here. There are no airports and railways and the only way to get in and get around is via long, dizzying, often bone-rattling drives. Its also one of the safest places in India for women, in fact its very common to see female policewomen guiding traffic and all-women construction crews working on the highways!
Sikkim Travel Diary Part 1: Gangtok and Around
The capital, Gangtok, is a gravity-defying cluster of buildings somehow perched precariously on the steep slopes of the eastern Himalayas. This is the base town from which most tours begin.
One very popular trip from Gangtok is to Nathula pass, Tsomgo lake and Baba Mandir. The first is a bit overhyped. Its really nothing but some administrative buildings, a war memorial and some wire fencing which marks the border with China. Its interesting that while the Indian side of the pass always has crowds of tourists taking selfies, the Chinese side looks absolutely deserted! Tsomgo lake is particularly popular with tourists for the colourfully decorated yaks and mules found here around which children are invariably clamouring to get a ride.
The last stop Baba Mandir is a curious secular shrine to a soldier called Harbhajan Singh who died here. The legend goes his body was washed away in a river and that night his ghost appeared in a dream to his friend directing him to the place where the body had washed up and requesting him to build a memorial in his name. The memorial really is like a temple with lamps and incense burning and flower garlands decorating blown-up photographs of the young soldier. There’s even the bed he slept in and the uniform he wore enshrined in a glass case. A steady stream of soldiers stationed in the nearby army bases make their way here to pay respects and pray for protection.
Sikkim Travel Diary Part 2: Lachung
To the north is Lachung, a pretty village located at an elevation of 9,600 feet, very close to the border with Tibet. The village lies in a gash amidst towering snow capped peaks, and has a heavy military presence understandably. From here expeditions go out to Yumthang valley, famous for the clusters of rhododendron bushes that flower here lending a rare sprinkling of colour in an otherwise stark landscape.
Sikkim Travel Diary Part 3: Ravangla
Ravangla, a tiny town in South Sikkim, is a real hidden treasure. The Ralang monastery, a bright confection painted in vermillion, green and gold, is one of the prettiest examples of Tibetan architecture and has some exquisite murals and thangka (paintings). Not to mention imposing gold statues of Buddha (with eye-popping electric blue hair and eyes) and the female Bodhisattva Tara.
The other highlight of Ravangla is the Buddha Park, the centrepiece of which is a colossal 130 foot gold statue of Sakyamuni Buddha. The statue is seated atop a hillock overlooking an immaculately landscaped garden, and made all the more ethereal by the shrouds of mist constantly drifting around it. Inside the statue is a museum with several large murals depicting the Twelve Deeds of Buddha – from birth to attaining nirvana. One of the most charming features of the park is a little pathway behind the statue lined on one side by spinning gold prayer wheels and the other side with little statues showing Buddha in his many poses or mudras. These are painted the most unusual colours .. teal, cerulean, magenta, tangerine.
Another stop well worth making on the Buddhist circuit is Tashiding monastery which is one of the oldest and most sacred of all the gompas in Sikkim. It was founded in 1641 by one of the Three Wise Men who consecrated the first Chogyal. Its most unique feature is the garden of Chortens which are Buddhist shrines or tombs (also familiar to Hindus as stupas). There are 41 of these in Tashiding classified variously as Chortens of Enlightenment, of Reconciliation, of Great Miracles. There is even one which is supposed to cleanse the soul of any person who looks upon it!
Sikkim Travel Diary Part 4: Pelling
My final stop was Pelling, in West Sikkim, most popular for views across the formidable icy peak of Mt. Kanchenjunga, the highest mountain in India and the third highest in the world. The best time to catch a glimpse is early in the morning around sunrise, when it is common to see bleary eyed tourists in pyjamas huddled on hotel balconies and terraces furiously clicking away on their cameras. There are a few other places near Pelling which are well worth a visit. One is Khecheopalri Lake, considered sacred by both Buddhists and Hindus who believe the lake is the footprint of the Goddess Tara and God Shiva respectively. The lake is thought to be “wish-fulfilling” which is perhaps why there is always a steady throng of hopefuls lining up to spin the prayer wheels or burn incense at the small makeshift shrine on the waterfront. What makes the lake truly atmospheric though is (you guessed it) the profusion of prayer flags fluttering in its peaceful, leafy environs.
The other highlight is the Rabdentse ruins, a short drive from Pelling. This is where the second Chogyal moved his capital to from Yuksom in the late 17th century. The ruins here, while mostly destroyed during a Nepali invasion, do offer a small glimpse into life at the time. The remnants of the royal palace and main temple complex show simple, symmetrical brick constructions with hardly any ornamentation. The setting itself however, atop a grassy plateau with views in all directions across endless mountains and valleys, is fairly spectacular.
Tibetan Buddhist Art
There are many similarities in the monasteries across Sikkim. When you enter you are greeted by a riotous burst of colour. Painted wooden pillars, murals and thangka (Tibetan paintings on cotton or silk scrolls) covering every inch of the walls, gold statues of Buddha and Bodhisattvas and elaborately carved butter lamps. The paintings give a glimpse into the fascinating legends and mythologies of Mahayana Buddhism. This sect encourages the worship of Bodhisattvas (deities who forgo attaining nirvana themselves for the sake of enlightening others).
Some deities are surprisingly wrathful and ferocious considering the most common image invoked by Buddhism is of a serene, smiling Buddha. For instance Dharmapala is painted near the main entrance of almost every gompa – a furious black or blue skinned god who is the Defender of the Law (Dharma). He is often shown as a many-headed and many-armed monster, decorated with skulls, baring his fangs and engulfed in flames.
Another common deity is Tara – a beautiful female Bodhisattva seated on a lotus, her bejewelled splendour and calm smile bringing to mind the Hindu goddess Saraswati. There are different coloured versions of Tara : a White one known for compassion and healing, a Green one known for youth and vitality, Yellow for prosperity and wealth and so on. She is quite the feminist icon. According to legend monks impressed with her enlightened state suggested she pray to be reborn as a man so she could spread the wisdom of the Buddha far and wide. To which she responded only unenlightened beings would think of gender as a handicap. She instead prayed to be reborn as a woman again and again until she had spread the teachings of Buddha amongst all sentient beings.
One surprisingly sensuous scene often painted near the main entrance of gompas is of Yab-Yum (literally meaning “father-mother” in Tibetan). It depicts a female deity straddling a male one – they are meant to represent the union of wisdom and compassion.
And almost every self respecting gompa has a mural showing the Wheel of Life. It consists of concentric circles. The innermost circle contains all the spiritual ills we face : a black pig which symbolises ignorance, a green snake which stands for envy and hatred and a red cock for lust and greed. The next circle is divided into two halves. One half is painted black and symbolises the “Dark Path” which has sinners being dragged by demons. The other half is painted white, this is the “Path of Bliss” which has the virtuous folk being led by saints and monks. The next circle shows the different Worlds. One with warring humans, one with animals fighting each other to survive, one with cold and hot hells peopled with tortured sinners, one showing men going through the cycle of birth, sickness and death, and one showing heavenly paradise at the very top.
One of the secret pleasures of choosing a guesthouse near a monastery is being woken up at sunrise by the guttural chanting of lamas at their morning prayers which reverberates around the mist-laden hillside and dissipates all the trivial worries you might have taken to bed before you step out for another day in this beguiling land.