Wedged between Tibet, Bhutan and Nepal, almost hidden in the north-east corner of India, just above the State of West Bengal, Sikkim is not a conventional package tour destination. With no airport possible because the land is too mountainous and no railway feasible because the gradient is too steep, it's likely that Sikkim will remain that way.
Only the most determined travellers have a close encounter of the first kind with this landlocked “Lilliputian Land”. Although, its picturesque state capital of Gangtok is around 120 kilometres from the two major transport hubs of India’s north-east, Bagdogra, the nearest airport or New Jalpaiguri/Siliguri and the closest rail terminal is still a four to five hour road odyssey to Sikkim. The journey, however, is unforgettable as it makes its way through some increasingly beautiful countryside.
The ever changing panorama spans the entire scenic spectrum, from jungle filled river valleys marginally above sea level to pine forests and orchid-dotted rhododendron groves in an alpine-like setting. The rushing waters of the seldom-ever above freezing, but, raft-able waters of the Testa River accompany travellers for most of the fascinating journey.
Foreign tourists are somewhat of a novelty even in Gangtok, a quaint but bustling, ridge hugging, river fronting terraced town deep in the foothills of the Himalayas. Flitting between its ramshackle wooden houses, adorned with pagoda roofs, is a colourful microcosm of humanity. The original inhabitants of the area were the Lepcha. Their descendants still live in the more isolated valleys of northern Sikkim. Occasionally, a few locals make a pilgrimage to the markets and bazaars on the 1,520 metre high Gangtok. More commonly seen, however, are the Bhutias and Nepalese.
The former, brought Buddhism from Tibet some seven centuries ago; while, the latter, the state’s main ethnic group, arrived in the valleys some 200 years ago. The colours of the ethnic costumes are an added bonus to any exploration of the capital. Even if organised sightseeing blitzes aren’t particularly appealing, it’s still a good (and inexpensive) idea to take the guided tour of Gangtok organised by Sikkim Tourism. The main reason for this is that while there isn’t an endless array of things to see and places to go in the capital, just getting from point A to point B and on to point C is time consuming, and with scores of terraces to be navigated it’s also very tiring. Another advantage is that local guides often provide intriguing anecdotes.
After having seen the priceless paintings on silk, do be sure to visit the Cottage Industries Emporium where in its many workshop students are taught the traditional art of Thanka painting, along with weaving, wood carving and carpet making. This centre specialises in the production of carpets, shawls, blankets, carved wood tables called Choksies, plus, silver and coral ornaments. Everything made here is in traditional Sikkimese style. The best example of this typical style is clearly seen at the nearby Research Institute of Tibetology. Situated just below the institute is a well landscaped terraced garden studded with some 200 varieties of orchids. At their blooming best, from March till November, they represent only a small sample of the state’s botanic exotics. Complimenting the rare flora is a menagerie of unusual fauna.
Topping the list of rarities is the snow leopard, an almost mythical animal. The snow leopard, a fleeing recluse, has been seen in habitat ranging from 1,800 to 3,600 metres. Another uncommon animal is the Red Panda, which frequently eludes detection as it resides mostly in treetops. Living under a sky filled with 600 species of butterfly and an equal number of bird species and subspecies are muntjac, also know as barking deer or musk deer; this is a species on the endangered list, along with shaggy yaks, some of which are utilised as beasts of burden for special Sikkim ‘Yak Safaris’.
Within Sikkim’s tiny embrace are dozens of monasteries (gompas) where the rites of Buddhism are practiced and preserved. Without doubt, the most visited of these is Rumtek. Reached by bus, taxi or hire car from Gangtok it’s an enjoyable 23 kilometre excursion through tranquil, colour-splashed farmland to this architectural wonder. The first Rumtek Monastery, built in 1717, eventually crumbled to dust. The magnificent structure was built in the 1960s and still awes visitors today. This was just after the Chinese occupied Tibet and His Holiness Gyalwa Karmapa, the head of the Kagya-pa sect of Tibetan Buddhism, took refuge in Sikkim. The then ruler of the then independent country of Sikkim welcomed him, granting him a parcel of land to set up a new monastery. The incomparable Rumtek Monastery was built as an exact replica of the monastery at Chhofuk in Tibet. It’s not just the traditional architecture, the carved and painted woodwork or the stunning murals and icon treasures that attract camera-clutching visitors; it’s also the daily routine and rituals of the 1000 or so monks who live at Rumtek, the biggest and most famous of all the monasteries in Sikkim. Within its well ornamented and highly decorated interior, maroon robed monks chant ancient mantras to the monotonous drone of great drums and blaring trumpets. Silver lamps filled with butter oil flicker before paintings of grand masters. In the courtyard, young devotees recite their long-studied lessons before stern-faced teachers. Beyond it all in the shadow of Kanchenjunga prayer flags, flutter their messages of devotion to the heavens, adding even more sparkle and spectacle to this dream destination called ‘Sikkim’.
Words: Thomas E. king