Life form in the lake along with the bog, marsh and the jungle hill that envelope it, is slowly stirring back to life. As the morning rays of the rising sun, filtering through pine and juniper jungle, touch the highest spires of coniferous hills and start dancing on the surface of this 3500 years old lake it is time to witness the beauty. At 5 am, it is the dawn of October morning at Khecheopalri Lake in West Sikkim in India. Tucked away in a corner of the mountain; hidden by the surrounding jungle and unseen from outside, this holy water body is located at an altitude of 1700 meters (5,600 feet) as a little bowl in the middle of mountain jungle. The crisp morning air has a whiff of approaching winter and though smug and comfortable in a warm jacket, I savor the morning chill brushing through my face. Walking the short distance from the Trekker’s Hut, across 100 meter long Tsozo Village market I see few doors opening and early morning smoke puffing through roof tops of few houses, perhaps brewing the morning tea for early risers. Day is just breaking and the world here is still semi dark and silent. As I cross the small clear water stream, over a culvert and continue walking along a narrow cobbled footpath that meanders into the woods I find myself entering into a different world of nature and its silence. Sound of crickets, frogs, insects and occasional chirping of birds greet me. The stone path spirals like a tunnel through juniper and pine trees across giant ferns bowing down towards the footpath as if greeting visitors to the lake. Along the slope of the path there are roughly chiseled rocks with painted prayers written in Tibetan scripts.
The tunnel opens to a clearing and the cobbled path spreads out to a wide area with rows and rows of colorful prayer flags hung like canopy between the trees. Towards the end of this canopy, some 50 meters away, I see a small log chapel like structure standing on rough stone masonry foundation covered by green tin roof with corners curved skyward in a typical oriental architectural design. Such a place is called “Cheykhim” in Tibetan/Sikkimese for a small chapel like place of worship where devotees light “Cheymi” (butter lamp) and pray. A rough conical stone masonry, chimney that looks like an incinerator stands in front of the chapel, a trail of smoke rising lazily above its conical tip. This structure is hollow inside like a chimney with an opening to place the herbs, “Sang” and incense sticks. It is called “Sangboom” and there is unique fragrance of holy essence from the burnt “sang” which, in this case, are the green leaves of pine tree and pine cones that catch fire rapidly.
As I enter the holy sanctum of “Cheykhim” the chapel, I see rows of lighted butter lamps, “Cheymi” places on a platform meant for the purpose. Opposite wall has a platform that is adorned with stone and metal statuettes of Lord Buddha, Guru Padmasambhava, Maa Tara and Lord Shiva and “Trishul” (three pronged javelin, weapon of Lord Shiva for destroying evil). Above the platform are the framed photos of “Rinpoche” (incarnate) Buddhist Lamas (monks). A young lama is lighting “Cheymi” and an elderly Hindu Priest is chanting “Mantras” in low whispers in front of Lord Shiva’s statue. It is a silent coexistence of two religions in peace and harmony.
Standing in the midst of the solitude of raw nature in complete sync with spirituality of the holy place, I am awed by the mesmerising site of the Khecheopalri Lake with its turquoise blue water. The water surface, that reflects the jungle hill like a mirror, is placid except for few ripples caused by the unseen breeze. Towards the far side, at the bottom of a thickly wooded hill, the lake is surrounded by tall grasses beyond which jungle line envelops the entire lake. Just below and towards the left of the “Cheykhim” and “Sangboom” the flat area steps down to another path that leads to the approach of the lake in the form of wooden jetty with green tin roof extending across the marsh to the edge of the water body.
The jetty has rows of prayer wheels on both the sides. I remove shoes and walk towards the other end, turning the rows of prayer wheels on my right. The belief is, when the wheels turn; prayers written on it are expressed to the cosmos and taken by the wind to Dewachen, the abode of Gods, a silent concept of prayers. At the jetty’s end I stand and look at the lake in its silent existence. The only sound is that of the nature such as the rustle of leaves, call of a bird or croaking of frogs. The lake is surrounded, firstly; by a ring of bog with tall grass and shrub over wet and marshy ground, thereafter the pine and poplar jungle takes over as the land start rising to meet the ring of hills beyond. The shape of the lake is elongated that would roughly represent the shape of a huge giant feet. Hindus believe it to be the foot print of Lord Shiva whereas Buddhists believe that the footprint is that of Goddess Tara. As I stand holding the railings of the jetty and experience the placid lake there is a faint sound of water splashing and I see a pool of catfish surfacing and moving around rapidly. I am told later by the locals that they are attracted by the vibrations of the approaching footfalls on the wooden jetty and the sound of rolling prayer wheels. I saw huge pool of these fish swimming around and literally looking up towards me.
However, as I learn later, the surfacing is also for the attractions of food thrown by few tourists to see more of these fish on the surface, an act forbidden by the law of the lake. I wish people would understand that God and nature provide food for all living beings in their natural habitat and that there is no need to disturb the harmonious balance of nature. Fish must be left to eat their own natural food that is in abundance in the lake as such throwing food into water, besides disturbing the habitat also pollute the environment. Wishing to have a feel of the holy water I slip out of a gap in the railing bars and lower myself down to the wet bog next to the jetty. My naked feet touch the wet, cold and soft marshy surface and I step on few scattered stones, barks and dry wood to reach the edge of the water. Bending down I scoop the holy water, put it on my head and drink some. The water is pleasantly warm and sweet to taste. There are rows of colorful prayer flags and “Khadas” (silk scarf for holy offering) hung across the shrubs and small trees around and a prominent iron “Trishul” with red scarves tied around it standing on the water edge.
I tie up two “Khadas” around the branch balancing myself on a small stone so as not to sink my feet into the wet marsh. Having completed the small venture I retreat my steps back to the jetty and stand there in silence savoring the lake. If there was no time bound world one could live with such a beauty forever. As the sun starts climbing up the Easter sky shortening the shadows I kneel and bow down in reverence to the lake touching the cold wet wooden planks of the jetty with my forehead. It is time to leave, albeit reluctantly, I walk back slowly while turning the prayer wheels to my right. After wearing shoes I take the stone cobbled path back and sit on the wooden bench next to Cheykhim facing the lake and savor the moment with the holy lake. In front of me, amongst the tall grassland over the bog area there are numerous small, about 6 to 8 inches diameter spider webs with dew drops hanging and dripping through its fine woven threads. The antenna like webs are mysteriously facing at an angle towards the western sky like an array of futuristic antenna discs receiving and transmitting communication with the outer space. Such a well arranged symmetrically placed tiny spider webs in the marsh could only be a well designed system of the wild, unknown to man.
Sitting by the lake I am glad to be the only human in the area and the only sound are the rustle of the jungle, croaking of frogs and crickets punctuated by occasional whistle of Myna and twitting and chirping of red tailed minla, broad billed warbler chestnut breasted partridge, hoary throated browning, yellow vented warbler, fluttering of noisy sparrows, and hammerings of “woody” the woodpecker. The jungle around is rich with bird life as this lake is also the transit camp for the Trans Himalayan migratory cranes. Amazingly, the lake surface is always clean, devoid of fallen leaves of the jungle around. It is believed that birds seem to have taken upon themselves the task of cleaning and keeping the surface of the lake clean by industriously picking up leaves fallen on the surface. It is only here that such a strange and interesting phenomenon exists that birds pick up the leaves as soon as it falls on the water surface. The locals also say that if lucky and blessed ones could sight a pair of elegant white swan swimming on the far side of the lake. As the morning advances towards day it is time to leave before the noisy tourists would start pouring in by 9 am and the silence of the lake would give way to the daily grind of human encroachment.
Spread over an area around 9/10 acres the lake is fed by 2 perennial and 5 seasonal monsoon streams and has only one outlet. It is about 20 to 30 feet in depth and home to multitude of fish such as carp & Garra etc. Since fishing is not permitted the numbers of fish are increasing at a steady speed.
It was mid October in West Sikkim with winter just around the corner. Compared to the heat and dust of Siliguri, It was refreshingly cold and I felt a pleasant sense of warmth in my cotton cargo pant, dawn jacket and woolen skull cap to top. Sitting on the bench next to the chapel, I gaze at the lake and soak into the pleasant experience with the raw nature, listening to tweeting and chirping of birds, croaking of frogs, humming of bees and sounds of insects. This is a wish fulfilling lake and I wish and pray for peace and good health of all sentient beings and, selfishly, for the success of my writings and continuance of travelling, trekking and golfing for all times to come, amen.
As the sun rays start dancing over the lake surface and human habitation little far away stirs to the morning life, it is time to leave before the peace and tranquility of the lake is disturbed by the noisy tourists.
Before leaving I pay homage to the deities of the lake by burning incense sticks in the Sangboom and watch its smoke drift slowly upward from the chimney opening and dissipate away in the wilderness of the pine jungle. I walk back slowly along the cobbled path still unable to take my eyes off the emerald lake. I reach the small bridge across a clear water stream outlet of the lake and cross it to reach a small courtyard of a mini village boutique that sells Buddhist artifacts by a young Japanese lady married to a local Lepcha boy Nima. I had befriended the couple during the spring of 2011 when I had stayed in their home stay on top of the hill overlooking the lake. Nima told me candidly about their love life that blossomed into nuptial. He was a guide taking tourists to the high Himalayas and it was during one of such treks she was a tourist, they met, fell in love and made history in this small Western Sikkim Village. After spending few years in Japan they are back home; he continues as a tourist guide and she runs this humble boutique living happily ever after. God bless them. As I chat with her Nima comes along with a plate of yellow fried rice and steaming mug of tea for his little Japanese wife. We shook hands and he rushes out to fetch me a hot mug of tea that I welcomed and enjoyed with a big thank you, “Thusi Che”.
Back to the Trekker’s Hut, a sumptuous breakfast of millet bread and cottage cheese curry with generous amount of fresh green chilly was waiting for me. I savored the food and washed it down with another hot mug of salty Sikkimese tea. After breakfast I walked around the small village bazaar that is dotted with tea shops, lodges and general stores that sell ration provisions, Buddhist artifacts, chips and aerated drinks. At the end of the bazaar just before the path leading to the lake is a sign board that describes the legendary history of the lake, courtesy Government of Sikkim.
Siliguri, the Base to the Hills: Travelers to Darjeeling, Sikkim and Bhutan reach Siliguri from all over the world, by air from Delhi, Kolkata and Guwahati and by train from the same major destinations. People from Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh reach by road. Siliguri, an old and ever expanding city, is a major business and communication centre of North Bengal and acts as gateway to the hills of Sikkim & Darjeeling and the Kingdom of Bhutan. This city is expanding on all fronts towards its final destination of being the metro of the East next only to Kolkata. There is no major industry but it is major a trading centre and a communication hub towards the Hills of Darjeeling, Sikkim, North East, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh. There are already two major Malls, Cosmos and City Centre and more are mushrooming. With major multispecialty hospitals the city is also the Medical centre for the people of the hills that still lack major health care institutions.
On the flip side, in spite of visible efforts by the city municipality, Siliguri is also the city of open drains, poor garbage disposal system, unauthorized shanties and horrible traffic that is at the mercy of 8 seater noisy and very reckless diesel driven auto rickshaws and multitudes of cycle rickshaws. As per Siliguri Wikipedia, the city has 16,000 cycle rickshaws licensed by the municipal corporation and an additional 55,000 illegal ones that ply on its already congested roads making it a driver’s nightmare. Roads have been broadened only to make way for parking for more vehicles. The only river Mahanadi that flows through the city, instead of being an oasis of peace and serenity, is squalor of filth that people living in the vicinity use its shore as open latrine and garbage dump. Unimaginable now but during the 50s my brother and I used to swim in this river that had clean water rumbling down from the hills. Sadly now the river is dry during winter and monsoon comes mercifully to wash away the filth only to deposit more dirt and silt on its banks. Notwithstanding the filth and congestion, the city boasts of sleek residential areas such as North City, Uttarayon and Barsana (outside the city) and many high end complexes in Punjabi Para, Parnami Mandir and ESCON Mandir roads and more are mushrooming. There are reasonable hotels and restaurants and three multiplexes to boot. With political disturbance in the hills during the last decade, many public schools are making forays into Siliguri and doing good business.
Siliguri has very nice eating places and my favorites are “Punjabi Kadai and “Sartaj” for sumptuous Indian bill of fare and “Sagar” for vegetarian and south Indian dishes. My favorites are mutton keema and tandoori laccha parathas in Punjabi Kadai and tandoori roti and chicken curry and malai kofta in Sartaj. Even Bidhan market houses age old Bengali culture based small eating places such as Kalpana Pice Hotel, Kalpatru Pice Hotel that serve very tasty and authentic Bengali rice and fish curry called “Chital Peti” the taste as well as the price are awesome. There is a very famous and authentic Bengali Dhaba named “Bedween”, located just behind the Auto Rickshaw stand that serves good mughlai dishes such as Biryani, Kebabs, Roomali roti, parathas, rolls etc. There are dozens of wayside “Momo” shops but unfortunately there is no worthwhile Chinese restaurant. The only one called “Taiwah” does provide sort of Chinese food but the service, system and the attitude is an apology. Outside the city there are authentic Tibetan and Nepali restaurant serving good Tibetan and Nepali dishes in Salugura, Salbari and Sukna.
For impulse shoping of all types of Chinese goods there are Honkong Market in Bidhan market area and Golden Plaza along Burdwan Road (opposite Howrah Petrol Pump). For varieties of apparel and linen items at wholesale and reasonable rates Seth Srilal and Bidhan Market are best. When one is around these areas it is worthwhile to step in to Kolkata Sweets near Vegetable Market for best Bengali sweets with special reference to “Rasmalai”. Places worth visiting which are ISKON Temple, Buddhist Monastery in Salugura, Savin Kingdom for children, Madhuban Park in Military Cantonment in Sukna, Surya Sen Park and Mahanada Wild Life Sanctuary in Sukna
Drive to Khecheopalri
Siliguri to Pelling in West Sikkim is 131 kms and takes approximately 3 hours for straight drive. Needless to mention that the drive is subjected to imponderables like traffic snarl, road repairs and broadening work, tea and meal breaks. As such it is safe to plan approx 4 hours for the drive. Pelling to Khecheopalri is 32 kms and takes about an hour‘s drive along a graveled road. As usual the condition of road from Siliguri to the lake can best be described as “the good, the bad and the ugly”. Last year at a chance meeting a MLA from Jorthang told me that this West Sikkim road is being turned into a four lane highway, insallah.
Road from Siliguri to Sevoke is a smooth broad 2 lane highway (NH 31) that knifes through the neat sevoke Military Cantonment and Sevoke Forest. From Sevoke Bazaar to Coronation Bridge (3 kms) is another smooth, well carpeted road snaking along he mountain curves runing almost parallel to Teesta River. This road is adorned with good highway signs; however, unfortunately this stretch is marred by delays due to railway gate blockage and heavy traffic from/to North East, Dooars, Sikkim and Kalimpong. From Coronation Bridge to Teesta Bridge near Teesta bazar (37km) NH 31is forever in the making and subject to traffic jams & delays caused by repairs and expansion; as such, it can be dusty and slushy depending on the season. There are good stretches passing through refreshingly green forest areas and the meandering Teesta River keeping company all along. There is definitely a strong case for a major flyover across the sevoke railyay crossing. The entire stretch of this road is dotted with small bazaars where one can stop by for tasty Nepali ethnic meals or masala tea in Bihari tea stalls. One can even buy home grown mushrooms packed in plastic bags in Rambi Bazaar. This road meanders along the hill almost in tandem with Teesta River and at places the precarious road sides drop dangerously to the fast flowing river. I wish the highway authorities would see some sense in building proper side barriers to stop unfortunate vehicles from falling off as that has been the case many a times with loss of precious lives. For the drivers there is need for cautious driving, not to speed and dead slow in curves. The good part is the view of the river all along the drive is fantastic. From Teesta Bridge to Chitrey is 2 kms from where road to Kalimpong branches off to the right and we continue along NH 31 for another 3 kms to Melli Bridge. From Melli the road to West Sikkim branch off as we cross another bridge over Teesta where as NH 31 continues towards Gangtok. From Melli bridge to Jorthang in West Sikkim (68 kms) the state highway is narrower but good. One can halt at Jorthang for lunch in Nepali, Bhutia or Marwari/Bihari restaurants or tea or snacks in one of the fast food joints. Jorthang to Pelling (49 Kms) the state highway contnues along the river as also starts climbing up towards Geyzing, the Dist Hq of West Sikkim. After Geyzing we cross the famous Pemayangtse monastry located opposite Mt Pendim Hotel of Sikkim State Tourism and then drive down hill for another 3 kms to Pelling, the ever expanding tourist destination hub of West Sikkim with hotels and restaurants mushrooming and multiplying. As I see Pelling is another concrete jungle in making. Having started from Siliguri leisurely (a mistake) at 10 am, by the time we reached Pelling it was 6 pm and dark. However, with the aim of visiting the lake early morning in its natural glory and beauty, we pushed the Bolero across another 26 kms of graveled road with scanty habitation and reached the lake side Trekker’s Lodge at 8 pm. Had it not been for the delays due to traffic jams and road blocks we would have taken about 7-8 hours and reached by 5-6 pm as against our delayed drive of 10 hours. Next time I shall definitely start at at least 6 am and reach Kheolpalri between 3-4 pm to celebrate the holy lake in peace both during sun set and sun rise. “Early bird catches the worm” but then “Early worm is eaten by the bird”
Bird Life in the Lake-for the sake of bird lovers:
During my earlier visits during 80s and 90s the lake area was enriched by varities of birdlife. Those days, sometimes during early morning sneak view, I have been able to identify some beautiful water birds in the lake area such as large cormorant, little cormorant, common teal, tufted duck and have also observed with great pleasure dash of the White-breasted water hen and moorhen dashing across the footpath into the marsh bushes. The lake also used to be a resting-place for Trans-Himalayan migratory birds such as bar headed goose and cranes. Sometimes during earlier winter visits I have been fortunate to hear forests resound to full-throated bird-song of variety and rich¬ness. I am delighted by the sight of drongo, nick named “Kotwal” (police) by the famous ornithologist, Salim Ali, based on its characteristics of chasing away crows from the nests of other birds as it tries to steal their eggs and chicks. It is, however, the whistling tune of the Himalayan Whistling Thrush which is pleasantly familiar sound in this area as also along the rivers and streams in this part of the world. Himalayan forests are the home of some of the most color¬ful birds such as pheasants, the cock Monal that even rivals the peacock in colorful splendor. This time, sadly, I did not see many of these exotic birds sighted during earlier visits but I hope and pray that some of them are still around in spite of invasion by the human kind in terms of encroachment, tree felling, over grazing, fire wood collection and above all, material and noise pollution by environment unfriendly tourism. This is one reason I drive straight to the lake area even if it is late night, stay in a modest room in the Trekker’s hut and visit the lake early morning so as to be with the holy lake in its natural environment of birds and bees.