Sikkim is a truly mystical land, a confluence of advancement and mysticism. It is India’s least populated state, hosts Kanchenjunga, the world’s third-highest peak, have borders with Tibet, Bhutan and Nepal and only open border with China (Nathula-Pass). Very little is known about its history and it was added to the Indian Republic only in 1975.
In pre-historic time it was inhabited by three tribes namely Naong, Chang and the Mon. The Lepcha tribe who entered later completely absorbed these tribes. Lepchas are believed to be the natives of the border area of Tibet and Burma. They were a very peace loving people, shy, worshipping nature and deeply religious, which can still be sensed among the present Sikkimese people.
An Indian monk Dipankar Srijana or “Atisha” visited Tibet in the 10th century. He led a missionary journey and preached celibacy & moral abstinence and opposed the tantric arts. The Gelugpa or the reformed order, originated during this period of time. The Gelugpa sect is now headed by the Dalai Lama. The unreformed or the old order was the Nyingmapa, whose source of inspiration was the great mystic yogis of that time. The Nyingmapa trace their origins to the great yogi Milarepa. They resisted the reform of the Gelugpaand and maintained their beliefs in the tantric practices. The gap between the followers of the two sects deepened. In time, the Gelugpa sect, headed by the Dalai Lama, became the prominent influence in Tibet, while the Nyingmapa sought refuge in Sikkim. In the 15th and 16th centuries Buddhism was introduced in Sikkim primarily due to this conflict among the Buddhists of Tibet.
Loaded with all these information, I was super excited to visit this mysterious land to understand more about its past and present. Moreover it was my Honeymoon trip so I wanted a least crowded destination than the popular one in North India, added with a charm of anonymity.
How to reach Sikkim
Air: Sikkim currently does not have any airports, the closest operational airport to Sikkim is Bagdogra Airport, near the town of Siliguri in West Bengal. The airport is about 124 km away from Gangtok.
Roads: NH-31 links Silliguri to Gangtok. Privately run bus, tourist taxis and jeep services are operated throughout sikkim, and also connect it to silliguri.
Rail: Sikkim lacks significant railway infrastructure. The closest railway station are Silliguri and New Jalpaiguri in West Bengal.
Staying options in Sikkim
Sikkim is gradually becoming a popular tourist destination in India. Though it is not easily accessible from all part of the country but is still preferred by the eastern states especially the people from West Bengal, who also has reputation of a frequent traveler. There are number of hotels in Sikkim, which offers quality accommodation at modest price. I stayed at hotel “White Mountain” which was at a walking distance from the famous M.G.Road of Gangtok.
My journey started from my home town Patna through Kamakhya Capital Express – 13248. It starts at 22.45 from Patna and reached New Jalpaiguri at 12.20. First time I have seen a train in which half of the compartment was 2nd AC and half was the 3rd AC, separated by a door within the same compartment. On reaching New Jalpaiguri we had an arrangement with the hotel and they send us a cab.
The journey was pleasant especially due to Teesta river which was accompanying us all along. Like mount Kanchenjunga, the rivers Teesta and Rangitt are an integral part of the consciousness of Sikkimese people. A series of dams has been proposed within the Teesta river system that aims to produce some 50,000 MW of electricity within the next 10 years. There are growing concerns that the building of these dams may lead to river induced seismic activity. It is suspected that the 2011 earthquake was result of these haphazard construction activities. I saw thick smoke coming out of the chimney of a industrial unit. Don’t know how much rules are following by these industries, wishing at the same time that in the fight of nature versus development, these pristine hills must not loose their tranquility.
On the way, we faced a long traffic jam. The 125 km road from Silliguri to Gangtok was not in a good condition and somehow not adequate to handle the pile of traffic. En-route we stopped for a lunch of Momos and Chowmin, which was widely available along with the regular rice meal which is a favorite of Bengali population. Finally we reached Gangtok around 8 in the night, took dinner, and doze-off for a promising day ahead.
Gangtok means “hill top”, located at a height of 5500 ft., it is the capital of Sikkim, which was chosen as a best region to visit in 2014, by leading travel magazine Lonely Planet. Gangtok is the center of Tibetan Buddhist culture. Tibetan Buddhism is the branch of Buddhism in Himalayan region including Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan and India. It is also practiced in Mongolia and parts of Russia and Northeast China.
The first thing that catches the attention of visitors in Gangtok is its modernity in comparison to the hill cities in North India. The transport system of city was based on private taxis which comprises small cars like Maruti Alto, Wagon R and General motors Spark etc. There are number of ‘Bars’ where women and men work equally. The no smoking restrictions are strictly applied in public places and polythene were explicitly banned.
The locals are courteous, smiling and generous in extending help to outsiders. The Nepali community as well Nepali language are well mixed in every aspect of life here. So far I have met one of the best hospitality of India. Here I realized that, besides tourist attractions, a well-behaved hospitality can actually uplift the mood and spirit of tourist to a high level.
My staying arrangement was in Hotel White Mountain Gangtok, which was near to the M.G.Road, which is probably the most famous hub of shopping and recreation activities in Gangtok.
I chose prepaid taxi which charged 650 INR for a day tour of Gangtok. However the charges may vary according to the season and demand. The driver was so polite and always used to talk with lowered eyes. At one point of our journey the Wagon R, that we hired got some problem, but without giving any inconvenience to us, he took us to a view point and with the help of fellow drivers fixed his car in few minutes. I was thinking about the throat cut competition in North Indian hill stations and the unacceptable and rude behavior of tour operator and guides there.
Our journey begins with Flower Exhibition Center of Gangtok. One problem I personally deal with “Flower Exhibition Centers” and “Bird Sanctuaries” alike is, they are beautiful to watch but hard to remember. Earlier in my visit to “Bharatpur Ghana National Park” my guide was telling me all the scientific name of birds and their place of origin, which I forgot as quickly as I came out of the forest. So, my apologies for the inconvenience, that I could not recall the name of any of the flowers out there, though I thoroughly enjoyed their beauty and fragrance.
There was also a small fee of 20-25 rupees as I can recall, to visit this place. There were a large variety of flowers in which visitors were soaked in with keen interest.
After experiencing the flora of the Sikkim it was time to visit the fauna so we headed towards the Himalayan Zoological Park. The zoo was situated in forest area which provides a natural environment for its inmates.
Our next stop was Gonjang Monastery near Tashi View Point. This was established in the year 1981. The monastery follows Jangter tradition of Nyingmapa school of Tibeten Buddhism. It appeared like a hostel where monks were staying. Here the education includes comparative studies of Indian and Tibetan Buddhist philosophy based on moral values.
I feel great about the strength and commitment to these monks. They are practically living a contended life based on religion and faith. The calmness on their face are worth notable. Smiling shyly and looking amazing in their maroon colored robs they appeared to be in perfect sync with their environment.
There was a grand statue of Padmasambhava Rinpoche or the Second Buddha. Padmasambhava is believed to have transmitted Vajrayana Buddhism to Tibet, Bhutan and neighboring countries in the 8th century AD. He is better known as Guru Rinpoche. Followers of the Nyingma school regard him as the Second Buddha.
Close to Gonjang Monastery, there was a Tashi View Point, which is famous for Kanchenjunga view, Gangtok valley view and Sikkimese itemSince it was drizzling at that day so we couldn’t see anything, though I purchased a Video CD consisting a documentary about Sikkim. After that we moved towards Enchey Monastery and Namgyal Research Institute of Tibetology.
The Enchey Monastery was established in 1909. From parking there was a long and steep walk to the monastery. It was a relatively big structure. There were many monks busy in prayer or studying. It also appears to have a residential facility for monks. There was a separate room where several butter lamps were illuminated. Visitors use to offer their respect by turning prayer wheels. What I liked about this place was its serenity and prayer flags fluttering with the winds. Our next stop was “The Namgyal Institute of Tibetology”, which has one of the largest collections of Tibetan works and a museum of Tibetan iconography and religious art.
Bakthang Water Falls is situated along the 31 A National Highway and at 20 minutes drive from Gangtok. It is an idyllic picnic spot for tourists, especially for children, but not to those who want to spend some quite time.
The final itinerary of the day was Ranka Monestry. There were two things I had noticed about it in first place, first was “the sound” and another was “the silence”. The sound was due to ‘hymns’ sung with various musical instruments along with the traditional Buddhist gong. This gives this place a distinctive aura. When we reached there the sun was about to set and monks were conducting their evening prayer session. The photography was not allowed, so we just walked silently inside. After prayer some fruits and milk was given to the monks. Nobody actually moved from their place and it was looking like they were getting ready for another prayer session. Overall it was very mystique to us. A sense of urge was developing inside to know more and more about their culture, their life, what they feel and how they get motivated to lead such kind of isolated, dedicated and contended life?
The another part of this place was its silence, that steps inside and keeps with you for long. Walking these long stairs, roaming around the premise, the unique location of this place – in the midst of nature and in the lap of Himalayas, all contribute immensely to its uniqueness.
When we were there it started drizzling and a combined fragrance of mountain, forest and the flowers in the premise were occupies all our senses and we were feeling like a part of all this in those moments.
Finally it was time to bid-adieu to this place. The day was proven to be a long, somehow tiring but also rewarding in every sense. We experienced something that opens a whole new world to us. The monks, the monasteries, their faith, their calmness everything was unparalleled. We are part of same country but ocean apart in understanding each others language, rituals and the way of life. Thanks to this wonderful concept of traveling which provides the space of interaction, however small it may be but its significance is something which can’t be described in words and can be experienced only.
The next day was planned for a tour of South Sikkim which consists a “Char-Dham Yatra”, Sikkim’s only tea garden and a statue of Samdruptse.