The Oldest Monastery in Sikkim

dubdi

Hem Kumar was our driver for the day. He was very enthusiastic about taking us to see all the “points” north of Pelling. The Family found him to be a very nice person, but completely impervious to our suggestions. We would have liked him to drive to Yuksom, drop us at the bazaar, and let us go off on a walk around the town. He would not hear of it, because he wanted to show us one of Danny Denzongpa’s houses on the way to Yuksom. He took a turn off the highway and drove up a steep stony road to show us this sight. Then he said there is a small monastery nearby which we might want to see.

I was quite sure this would be the Dubdi gompa: the oldest in Sikkim. I asked him whether it was, and he said "Yes, it is not very interesting, but it is nearby". I felt a little hustled, because I had wanted to go to Pemyangtse first to arrange for this monastery to be opened. I’d read about the beautiful paintings inside, the statues of the founder, Lhatsun Namkha Jigme, and the two other monks who had together presided over the coronation of the first Chogyal, and the collection of rare books. But now Hem Kumar drove up to it, not having given us the chance to arrange the visit. We got out of his SUV to see this beautiful small structure (photo above). It did not look like it had been standing there since 1701, when it was completed.

dubdi-lintel

The door was locked. There was nobody around. The outside had little decoration, but what little there was looked beautiful. I looked above the main door, and sure enough, the lintel held a beautifully carved set of wooden guardians (photo above). A snarling tiger and a snow lion flanked the central dharmapala. This seems to be a representation of Yamantaka. These beautiful figures makes me wonder about the interior. When The Family said that we will have to come back to this place to see it properly, I was in total agreement.

dubdi-chortenWe circled the gompa in the canonical clockwise direction. The remainder of the outside was colourfully painted, but otherwise quite plain. As we came back to the front we saw on the left a small chorten standing under the shade of a tall clump of bamboo. It was a restful sight.

The day was overcast, and now it looked like it might rain at any time. We’d been looking forward to the spectacular view of mount Kabru which Yuksom is supposed to have. We asked Hem Kumar about the view, and he said that you cannot see Kabru from here. We’d read about the sight in too many places for the information to be wrong, so I began to suspect that Hem Kumar may be less well informed than he lets on. At it happened, we never managed to see Kabru from Yuksom, but the next morning we had a lovely sighting of this complex of peaks from our hotel in Pelling.

Norbugang throne and chorten

We got to Yuksom on an overcast afternoon. It is a very small town today. Most businesses cater to tourists who start treks into the Kanchendzonga nature park from here. One has to make an effort to imagine Yuksom as the capital of a new nation, when it was founded almost 400 years ago. I’ve yet to read a coherent account of the history of the Himalayan kingdoms, Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan, and their relations with the great powers in the north, Tibet and China, in the days before the British expanded across this region. So what I have to say here is pieced together from many sources.

pine-norbugang-throneThe root of the nation-state of Sikkim was the coronation, in Yuksom, of Phuntsog Namgyal as the first Chogyal in the year 1642. The prelude to this event is said to be the arrival in Norbugang in Yuksom of three great Lamas from Tibet, present-day Nepal, and present-day India. This bland description must hide a lot of history, given the wars which one reads about in the next two hundred years.

What remains of the coronation throne is a stone structure (see photo above) which stands in a serene little park. Behind the throne towers a great pine tree. This variety of pine, called Sugi in Japan, can live very long; the oldest is estimated to be several thousand years old. It is not hard to imagine that the tree behind the throne is more than 400 years old, and may have towered behind the scene of the coronation.

norbugang-tabletThe Chogyal spread Buddhism throughout Sikkim, and set up the religious-political system of governance, through monastic forts (Dzongs) which resembled the system used till recently in neighbouring Bhutan. Perhaps because of this association between temporal and religious power, the throne is treated as a religious object. There are traditional scarfs (khata) tied around the fence, butter lamps flicker under it, bowls of water are set out around it, and the area is surrounded by prayer flags. We saw several fragments of carved stone tablets propped up on the throne. Some of these just say “Om Mani Padme Hum” in the Tibetan script. One, pictured alongside, seems to be a representation of the Bhavachakra (wheel of life). There is no information on the provenance of these tablets.

norbugang-chortenIn front of the remains of the coronation throne is the Norbugang chorten. It is supposed to have been built around the time of the coronation. Most stories about it say that it holds stones and mud from all the districts of what was then the kingdom of Sikkim, signifying the unity of the new nation.

Off to one side is a small stone with a hollow which is said to be the footprint of one of the three gurus. A family was washing this stone when we arrived. Three children were not interested. They stalked past us. The oldest child, a pre-teen girl, said “Hello” as she led her siblings away. The grandmother covered the hollow with a wooden cover. The parents called out to the children. They came back, but not very willingly. The young girl took a camera: brushed away the wooden cover and took a photo. Then she opened the gate in the fence to the throne with a clatter and went in to take a photo. The grandmother was clearly upset by this behaviour, and the family quickly left. We took photos of the footprint and replaced the cover before leaving.

The chorten and the throne stand in a little park. The place is full of pines and deodar, with prayer flags in vivid colours strung out between the trees. The park is very quiet. The air of serenity is at complete variance with the political history of Sikkim in the early days of the Chogyals.

Food in the Himalayas

newgoutamOur flight landed in Bagdogra just before noon. We collected our baggage and left immediately. Lunch was in a typical nondescript highway restaurant near the Sevoke bridge. The eatery had a large menu (photo alongside), but often in small places like this, where two cooks fill all the orders, everything could taste the same. This particular place distinguished itself with its nice crisp rotis.

The genre of food does not change as you travel up in the hills. As a result, the food you eat in the eastern Himalayas usually tastes generic, and does not leave an impression. Even when you have climbed 4 Kms above sea level, you will often be handed a very similar menu unless you constantly remember to ask about the local food. Even then you are likely to get bowls of noodle soup and plates of momo (see photo below). At lunch this was our fate too.

momos

Steamed momo is now pan-Indian in the same way as chicken lollipop, gobi Manchurian and masala dosa. Up in the mountains momo accompanied every lunch which we had. They mostly came with a bowl of extremely strong chili paste. We found this in Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Bhutan, and Sikkim; I wonder where it originated. [An article in Eurozine claims that momo comes from Mongolia: “It is possible to anecdotally define the borders of the Great Steppe’s influence by the places where people eat pierogi, a dish which comes from Central Asia.”] We found an interesting variation in a little eatery outside Ravangla where the momo was accompanied by a small bowl of hot soup. This was the first time I had this combination, and I liked it.

bhutanesemenuHalf a year ago, while travelling in Arunachal Pradesh we discovered thenthuk. This is a soup usually made with handmade broad flat wheat noodles. The soup comes with vegetables, and chicken, pork or eggs, according to your taste. We have now learnt to avoid the ubiquitous bowl of Maggi noodle soup and ask for thenthuk instead. We had this on three days: each time in a different place. In Yuksom we tasted a soup with many different vegetables and thin hand made noodles. In Sombari Bazar we had one with eggs dropped into it. In Ravangla I had a smoked chicken with wonderful broad noodles almost like sheets of Lasagna. All the menus we saw attribute thenthuk to Bhutan. In the cold climate of the Himalayas, it makes sense to have lots of soup; not only to warm, but also to hydrate.

On a cold and drizzly afternoon in Yuksom we found a wonderful warm drink called chhang goh. This seems to have methi (fenugreek seeds) and rai (mustard seeds) fried in ghee, and mixed with pulp of fruits and chhang (rice wine). The Family and I shared a tall glass of this drink and agreed that we could have more.

hotelassampas

One afternoon as we drove into a town called Sombari Bazar, we were lucky to notice a small eatery called Hotel Assampas. As we waited for our momos and thenthuk to arrive, resigned to looking at the chief minister’s face, we found a stream of housewives and schoolgirls troop in to eat momos. If this was a favourite with the locals, then we realized we had chosen well. The food was genuinely good. The counter was full of packed dry foods. Apparently they are snacks to accompany tea in the mornings. The packets were family sized, and we decided not to buy them. Now we regret it. On our next trip we will try them out.

I was prepared with a list of things to eat. Niguru with chhurpi turned out to be fiddlehead fern with local cheese; we’d eaten this earlier in Bhutan. We liked the gundruk, mustard greens with tomato and onion. I looked for sael roti but could not find it. It is probably similar to a paratha. The phagshapha is a stew of pork and radish with dried chilis thrown in as garnish. I couldn’t find it in the places we went to. Neither could I find shaphale, which is bread stuffed with chicken or pork. We had a superb spinach clear soup with eggs. Another local soup is made from nettles; but we did not find it. Maybe this is not the correct season for it. I had phing mushroom: wonderful glass noodles with mushroom. The first mouthful was very flavourful, but when the chilis hit my tongue I could not taste anything else for a while. With these few things I think we barely scratched the surface of the local cuisines: Bhutia, Lepcha and Nepali.

kindofshopWhat we drank most of the time was tea. West Sikkim grows cardamom, and this is used liberally in the masala tea. The Family loves masala tea; she loved both the cardamom flavour and the version with ginger. I prefer my tea black, and was happy that little roadside stalls served up Darjeeling. We were too tired in the evenings to go out to the Kind of Shop that the sign alongside is about. We stuck to the bar in our hotel. It served a couple of Sikkimese beers: Dansberg and Hit, both produced by Yuksom breweries. We tried the Dansberg, which turned out to be a fairly bland lager. When in Sikkim Chhang is clearly the way to Goh.

Bagdogra to Pelling

sevoke

We landed in Bagdogra, collected our baggage and started off on our road journey to Pelling at noon. The first half an hour was spent negotiating traffic through the town of Siliguri. Then we crossed the tiny stream that the Mahananda has become today. After a short drive through a forest, we had our first view of the Teesta at Sevoke. A wide bridge spans the bed of what was once the wide river of songs (see above). A shallow stream flows through a narrow channel in this bed. There cannot be any fish left in the muddy water of this stream.

A bird sanctuary near Kolkata

ckbs-gateKolkata is full of little gems which visitors don’t quite know about. My friend, the Sun King, has always been a very good photographer, and has recently turned to bird watching. He invited me to visit the Chintamani Kar Bird Sanctuary early in the morning day before yesterday. It is named after the noted sculptor who led a movement to turn an old abandoned orchard into a protected area. This sanctuary dates from 1982.

Bird sounds

crow

Kolkata is green. I was surrounded by trees. You could hear the sun rise through bird calls. As in all Indian cities, the most numerous were the crows. But the greenery just outside the window meant that you could not miss their activity. In this season it was nesting. It seemed that every crow was in search of long thin twigs with which they build their untidy nests. Crows don’t seem to have a sense of which twig they need, and often try to pull fairly thick twigs out of trees.

An image of Kolkata

kolkata-bike

I’m briefly in Kolkata on work. It is always interesting to be in this city. There is an initial shock when you come on to the city’s narrow roads: SUVs share the road with rickshaws, bicycles and forty-year old yellow cabs.

But when you think about it, there’s nothing particularly different about this city. The traffic is certainly no worse than in Bangalore, perhaps even slightly better. There is less aggression on the road than in Delhi. Urban decay is no worse than in most parts of Mumbai. There are malls and coffee shops all over town. But there are parts of Kolkata which look the same as they did 30 years back: narrow roads, lines of shops in single story structures. The shops open late, because shop keepers are of the opinion that having a good life is more important than getting richer.

The combination of the bicycle and the locked door of a shop is quintessentially Kolkata.

Sounds of cities

Walking in the parks of Delhi felt different from Mumbai. I mentally dialled up the temperature to sweltering Mumbai. I let my mind subtract out the people who seemed to just hang around and soak up the sun. I subtracted the smell of smoke and added in the smell of drying fish. It still felt different.

The answer did not come to me in a brilliant flash. I worried at it until I realized that it was something about bird calls. Delhi and Mumbai both have their share of bird pests: crows, kites, parakeets and pigeons. The ones in Mumbai are Blue Rock Pigeons, roughly like in the photo here. They make cooing sounds when they land next to their mate, but are otherwise quite silent. Even when two of them are scrapping, you only hear the frantic flapping of their wings.

Delhi’s pigeons seem to have escaped from breeders more recently. They are often black and white, sometimes more black, at other times more white. But they call while flying. That’s the harmony of the city which I was not able to put a finger on until I started explaining this to The Family.

Brushing up on Dzongkha

A week from now I’ll be in West Sikkim. Time to brush up on my Dzongkha. All I remember from my trips to Bhutan are three phrases: kuzu zangpo for welcome, kadrin chhe for thank you, and tashi delek for good luck. Tibetan also has the phrase tashi delek with more or less the same meaning. Fortunately, the omniscient Google pointed me to a Dzongkha phrasebook.

Sheesh Gumbad

sheeshgumbad-arch

This arch is a wonderful example of medieval Indian architecture. It is a true arch, with a cleanly shaped keystone. The true arch paired with the stylized lotus symbol is an example of Indo-Islamic architecture. I liked the slight disarray in this example. The stones are slightly mismatched, and the curtain above the arch is somewhat haphazard. It does not have the overwhelming grandeur of Mughal architecture. You can almost see the hands of the workers. This is the south-facing central arch beneath the dome of Sheesh Gumbad.