The Eastern Himalayas, dominated by the world’s third highest summit, Kanchenjunga, hold a particular fascination for me. Having travelled extensively in this region over many years, I continue to be amazed at the diversity of ethnic groups, languages, dress and customs, landscapes and of vegetation in the area and how this change is evident from valley to valley. In predominantly Buddhist Bhutan that I had featured earlier in the series, the diversity of ethnic groups is less evident than in Sikkim where history has created a melting pot of diverse peoples. Not long ago, Sikkim was a semi independent Himalayan monarchy, sharing its border with Nepal in the west, Bhutan in the east and with the Tibetan plateau rising from its northern border. Once part of an important trading route from India to China and Tibet, Sikkim’s history is closely linked with the market town of Kalimpong that lies immediately to its south.
Kalimpong, located at 4100 ft on a ridge overlooking Teesta River, is a tourist destination in its own right owing to its temperate climate. In 1706, the king of Bhutan won this territory from the Sikkimese ruler and renamed it Kalimpong. Until the mid 19th century, the area around Kalimpong was ruled in succession by the Sikkimese and Bhutanese rulers. After the Anglo-Bhutan War in 1864, Bhutanese territory east of the Teesta River including Kalimpong was ceded to the British East India Company. To escape the scorching summer heat in the plains, the British developed the town as an alternative hill resort to Darjeeling. Kalimpong’s soon became an important trading outpost in the trade of furs, wool and food grains between India and Tibet. The increase in commerce attracted large numbers of migrants from Nepal leading to both an increase in population and in economic prosperity. Following Indian independence in 1947, Kalimpong became part of the state of West Bengal. With China’s invasion of Tibet in 1959, many Buddhist monks fled Tibet established monasteries in Kalimpong and brought with them rare Buddhist scriptures and painted scrolls. The Buddhist Zandogpalri monastery has a number of rare Tibetan Buddhist texts. Kalimpong now has an active flower growing industry known for its wide array of orchid nurseries which export Himalayan grown orchids, flower bulbs and tubers globally. Now home to ethnic Nepalis, indigenous Himalayan ethnic groups and non-native migrants from other parts of India, the town is a religious centre of Buddhism.
With just slightly over 500,000 residents, nearby Sikkim is the least populous state in India but a popular travel destination, owing to its culture, scenery and biodiversity. Despite its small area, Sikkim is geographically diverse due to its location in the Himalayas. The climate ranges from warm subtropical in the south to the cold high alpine areas of northern and western Sikkim. Kanchenjunga, the world’s third-highest peak is located on Sikkim’s border with Nepal.
At the time of Indian independence in 1947, a popular vote rejected Sikkim’s joining the Indian Union and Prime Minister Nehru agreed to a special protectorate status for Sikkim under which India controlled its external affairs, defence and communications while Sikkim retained complete autonomy in other matters. In 1973 with the ruling monarch, the Chogyal, proving to be unpopular with the Sikkimese people, riots in front of the palace led the Kazi (the Sikkimese Prime Minister) to make a formal request for protection from India. In April 1975) the Indian Army took over the city of Gangtok and disarmed the Chogyal’s Palace Guards. A referendum was held in which 97.5% of the Sikkimese people voted to join India and a few weeks later Sikkim officially became the 22nd state of the Indian Union and the monarchy was abolished.
Located at an altitude of 4,715 feet, Gangtok is the capital and largest town of Sikkim. Nestled in middle Himalayas, Gangtok enjoys a year-round mild temperate climate and is the centre of Sikkim’s tourism industry. A day sightseeing is enough to cover the highlights of the city. I suggest a visit to the Enchey Monastery, located on the ridge top above the town with the present building dating from 1909 though the monastery itself is over 200 years old. The Institute of Tibetology, established in 1958 as a major centre for research on Tibet and Tibetan Lamaistic Buddhism is definitely worth a few hours of browsing; it houses many rare books, thangkas, statues and manuscripts smuggled out of Tibet after the Chinese occupation. Plan to visit the permanent and attractive ‘Flower Show’ that exhibits a number of native Sikkimese orchid and flower species.
A drive along the scenic route to north Sikkim will bring you to the Phodong Monastery set amidst fields of cardamom. Built sometime in the first quarter of the 18th century, Phodong is one of the major monasteries of Sikkim with beautiful mural paintings adorning its walls.
On the slope across the valley from Gangtok is located the famous Rumtek Monastery complex also known as the Dharma Chakra Centre . Rumtek Monastery is one of the most important seats of the Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism outside Tibet. In the early 1960’s the 16th Karmapa (head of the Kagyu sect) founded this centre following his escape from the communist Chinese invasion of Tibet. The present Rumtek Monastery, built as a replica of the Chhofuk Monastery in Tibet, is about 2 kms away from the older Kagyu monastery built in the 16th century by the 4th King of Sikkim. The senior monks of the Kagyu sect are trained in a tradition of study and meditation practice which began over 800 years ago.
Rumtek Monastery is an enormous complex made up of a beautifully structured main temple and monastery with monks’ quarters, the Karmapa’s residence, a Shedra, or monastic college, a place where the most important relics brought from Tibet are enshrined, a place for nuns and several other establishments. The line of the Karmapas is self-announced; each Karmapa leaves a letter predicting his next rebirth. Currently, there is an ongoing tussle going back many years between two rival groups of claimants to the Karmapa’s seat. The comfortable Martam Village Resort located in a tranquil rice growing village near Rumtek is a wonderful place to experience the peace and beauty of rural Sikkim.
Travelling to western Sikkim I arrived at the Pemayangtse Monastery near the village of Pelling located 140 kms west of Gangtok. Founded in 1705, Pemayangtse is one of the oldest and premier monasteries of Sikkim and follows the Nyingma sect of Tibet Buddhism. It controls all other monasteries that belong to this sect across Sikkim and the monks of this monastery are normally chosen from the Bhutia community, the original residents of Sikkim.
Pemayangtse located at an elevation of almost 7000 feet has a spectacular backdrop of the high summits of the Kanchenjunga range. The main prayer hall, the Dukhang, and the main temple, the Lakhang, have colourfully painted doors and windows of traditional Tibetan design. The main statue of Guru Padmasambhav (also known as Guru Rimpoche who revived Buddhism in Tibet) is seen here in his wrathful form with multiple heads and arms. Of particular note is an impressive seven-tiered painted wooden model, built over five years, portraying Guru Rimpoche’s Heavenly Palace known as Zandogpalri, on the top floor of the monastery.
About 40 kms further is the village of Yuksum closely linked with the rulers of Sikkim who were crowned king here. It was the first capital of Sikkim established in 1642 and has special religious and cultural significance for the Bhutia community of Sikkim. The main office of the Kanchenjunga National Park is located here and Yuksum is the starting point for spectacularly scenic treks towards the base of Kanchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world. The Yuksum villagers, who arrange the load carrying yaks and the staff for supporting treks and climbing expeditions, have played a significant role in promoting eco-tourism in the area.
WHY GO THERE: A small state with stunning mountain landscapes, a rich Buddhist cultural tradition and relatively short distances that makes travelling easy, Sikkim is a destination suitable for both adventure and cultural travellers. For trekkers, there are a large number of trails waiting to be explored and photographers have picture opportunities round every corner.
GETTING THERE: The nearest airport to Sikkim is Bagdogra airport close to the city of Siliguri in northern West Bengal located124 Kms away from Gangtok.. Other than the wet monsoon months of June to September, Sikkim’s moderate climate makes it suitable to visit anytime.
WHERE TO STAY: Hotel accommodation and local travel arrangements are best arranged directly with Sikkimese tour operators and hotels listed with Sikkim Tourism at the official website- www.sikkimtourism.travel.