It’s the time for orchids and rhododendrons to splash this ‘Blessed State’ with a riot of colours.
Nestled in the pristine embrace of the Himalayas, Sikkim is landlocked by snow-capped mountains with high passes such as Nathula and Jelepla. The most revered among the mountains is Khangchendzonga, whose five peaks tower over the State like a hand raised in blessing. Therefore, Sikkim is also known as the ‘Blessed State’. The tiny mountain-State unfolds like an amphitheatre at elevations of 253 metres to 8,595 metres above sea level, giving it an interesting mix of climate zones ranging from tropical in the lower reaches to alpine in the mountainous regions.
The Chola and Singalila ranges flank the State on its east and west respectively, and many snow-fed rivers slice through it. The rivers Lachung Chu, Lachen, Zemu, Tholung, Rongli and Rongpo descend into the mighty Teesta, which flows all the way into the plains of West Bengal before joining the Brahmaputra in Bangladesh.
Quiet, sacred and disciplined
As you enter Sikkim’s capital, Gangtok, what strikes you immediately is the quiet discipline. Uphill and downhill traffic maintain their lanes. It is a polybag–free State, with fines for littering at a high Rs 5,000. Gangtok has a car-free downtown area, making it a pleasure to stroll through.
Buddhism is a way of life here. I spent an entire day at the famed Rumtek Monastery, the seat of the Kagyu lineage, which traces its origins to the Tibetan yogis Marpa and Milarepa. Monasteries in Sikkim are a storehouse of sacred texts, valuable thangka paintings, and costumes and masks for ritual dances known as the Chaam. Even remote mountain villages such as Lachen and Lachung in North Sikkim have monasteries with such treasures.
Another day-trip was reserved for Nathula, at 14,150 ft, where the Indian army zealously guards our border with China. Part of the historic Silk Route, it once linked the Roman empire in the West with the imperial court of China in the East. Following the Sino-Indian war in 1962, trading was halted for years until it was resumed on July 6, 2006. Today at Nathula, a tourist can pick up charming souvenirs such as brocade purses and masks. En route to Nathula, we stopped at the magnificent Tsomgo Lake, which remains frozen for the better part of the year.
Rhododendron for company
Our final destination was Gurudongmar, Sikkim’s most sacred lake, at 17,000 ft close to the Tibetan Plateau. Padmasambhava, revered in Sikkim as Guru Rimpoche, is believed to have passed this way as he journeyed to take Buddhism to Tibet. In this rarefied atmosphere, prayer flags flutter in the wind, seemingly animated by the prayers of the devout. Little pyramids of stone are left as a mark of devotion. We carried prayer flags too, but the weather gods didn’t favour us and we had to stop 35 km short of Thangu, the last settlement before Gurudongmar.
The base for travel to Gurudongmar is Lachen, a tiny village that is surrounded by rugged mountains and open scrubland of wildflowers. Our next stop was Lachung, an overnight halt before venturing into Yumthang Valley. Located above 12,000 ft, the valley is famous for hot springs, while the road leading to it runs through the Singba Rhododendron Reserve, which is expectedly a photographer’s delight. We could see buds, ready to bloom, as the last of the snow weighed down the branches. From April, the valley is a riot of colour as red and pink rhododendrons bloom in full glory, and blue and mauve primulas carpet the mountain slopes. We were even treated to the sight of an avalanche, with the snow roaring down the mountain.
Sikkim’s real wealth is its rich variety of flora. Of the 5,000 known species of orchids in the world, 600 can be found in the lower reaches of Sikkim, as also 300 species of rhododendrons. Tea also grows in the lower ridges. Temi is a tea garden in the South district which produces top-quality tea.
After a week’s stay in Sikkim, we followed the Teesta on its way back to the plains, carrying with us wonderful memories, serenity and, most of all, the feeling that we had glimpsed a stairway to heaven.
Getting there: The closest airport is Bagdogra, from where cabs travel to Gangtok.
Accommodation: Gangtok has many hotels to suit various budgets.
Sightseeing: Sikkim is divided into four districts — East, West, North and South. Each district has its headquarters, monasteries and trekking routes. It is not possible to cover all the districts on a single trip.
Food: Momos and thukpa are the staples; other traditional Sikkimese fare include Chu Maaku — a cheese and butter dish, buckwheat rolls called khudre and a mountain fern delicacy known as ningro.
Shopping: Traditional wood carvings, thangka paintings, and the Tashi-Tyagi, the eight good luck signs of Vajrayana Buddhism carved on wood.