The mountain abode of Sikkim, with its misty hills, exquisite orchids, waterfalls, Buddhist monasteries, and not the least, the majestic Kanchenjunga peak ruling over the valleys, has retained its mystical beauty despite encroaching signs of development, writes
SIKKIM and its capital Gangtok became alive all over again in my memory as I watched Satyajit Ray’s documentary with the eponymous name Sikkim. The documentary had been banned by the Indian government for 40 years. The film was commissioned by Chogyal (king) of Sikkim and his America-born wife Hope Cooke in 1971. In 1975, Sikkim merged with India. The change of guard created certain political controversy. Hence, perhaps the ban.
Controversy or not, Sikkim’s natural beauty retains the same magical quality even today. The misty hills, exquisite orchids, waterfalls, Buddhist monasteries, and not the least, the majestic Kanchenjunga peak ruling over the valleys have remained the same. Some changes, of course, are inevitable with increased population. I remember when I first went to Sikkim — that was in 1968, just before the great floods in Bengal when the Teesta flowing down from Sikkim changed its course — Gangtok was a small little town, and the air of a mountain abode evident. The king was still in the palace. The sloping roofs of the cottages were painted turquoise blue, said to be a sacred colour for the Tibetans.
The next time I went, Gangtok had started looking like an Indian town, with unbecoming concrete buildings, crowded streets, and well, lots of other changes. One could hardly see Tibetan women wearing the pangden (apron), over their traditional dress, and the turquoise blue roofs were also gone. But Sikkim still holds a different kind of charm among the hill stations of the country. It has a certain character setting it apart.
Walking around the town with the backdrop of the Ranipool river is a good idea to get the feel of the place. A must visit is the Namgyal Research Institute of Tibetology. A majority of Sikkim’s Buddhists follow the Mahayana sect. This museum-cum-research centre is a treasure trove of artefacts, thangkas and manuscripts of the sect.
A day trip to Tsongo or Changu lake (height 12,470 ft) is another popular option. This road leads to Nathu La Pass at the international border with China. Due to its sensitive location, this sector had remained closed for a long time and was opened to tourists only in the recent past. The expert local drivers manoeuvre the jeeps very well round the hairpin bends and the scenery is astounding. In one of my trips there was an unexpected snowfall, even in summer — the Himalayas can surprise you at any time. There was a huge traffic jam, but the jawans from the nearby military outpost managed everything efficiently. It is advisable to carry some woollens even in the ‘season’. Last year, some tourists had a horrendous time because of the sudden turn of weather. Again the Army came to rescue and gave shelter and food tourists, who had to stay overnight.
For the soldiers as well as believers, Baba Harbhajan Singh Memorial Temple nearby is a must visit. The legend of the soldier-saint is growing by the year. Thirtyfive years ago, Sepoy Harbhajan Singh of the 23rd Punjab Regiment went missing while on duty. His body was found three days later but many soldiers reported that they dreamt of him often; apparently Singh instructed them to build a shrine there. Pilgrims believe he still makes a round every night and protects the people. Every year, he even goes on an annual leave to Kapurthala and a berth is reserved in his name, along with two escorts!
Rumtek Dharma Chakra
Centre, 24 km from Gangtok, is an extraordinary place to visit. It is
the seat of the Karmapa sect of Buddhism. During the Losar (new year)
festival falling in February, it hosts the famous mask dance. Monks,
students in maroon robes smile cheerfully as visitors explore the
beautiful Golden Stupa, which contains the relics of His Holiness, the
16th Karmapa, the Tibetan style decorations and soak in the atmosphere
as the chants of the monks reverberate in
The Nehru Botanical Garden on way to Rumtek can introduce you to many exotic plants, including orchids. With more than 500 indigenous varieties, Sikkim is known as the land of the orchids, and is also a bio-diversity hotspot. It is prohibited by law to take orchids from the Alpine region and other such rare plants. Cases of international bio-smugglers being arrested are not unheard of.
There are other nearby sites you visit from Gangtok. Yuksom, Pelling and Namchi are some of these places, which will never disappoint the mountain lovers and tourists who cherish pristine beauty.
Adventure sports lovers can have their fill with hang-gliding, hiking, river rafting, yak riding, et al.
Indeed, this land, the
second smallest state in India, can never disappoint the wayfarer.