Rhododendron flowering

Red rhododendrons flowering near the Norbugang throne in Yuksom

Sikkim is the most accessible part of the belt running across the Himalayas where Rhododendrons grow. We’d seen them wilting when we visited Yumthang a few years ago in early May. Now, in early March we saw them in bloom when we visited the Norbugang throne in Yuksom. We sat on a bench in the garden near the throne and looked at the deodars festooned with prayer flags. Below them were the bushes of Rhododendrons, heavy with flowers. Some had dropped around a little building lower down. It was quiet, pleasantly cool, and serene. I composed a little piece of doggerel and recited it to The Family: “My blood is red as a rhodo, until I become as dead as a dodo”.

She said, let’s go to the Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary. I’d read about this before coming. It seems that you can reach it if you take a long walk, some say 8 Kms, from Uttarey in the north or a short walk, about 3 Kms, from Hilley in the south. barsey-map I’d hesitated to do this because we didn’t know the terrain and couldn’t predict how long it would take us to cover 16 Kms. Now we decided to travel to Hilley and take the shorter walk. It turned out that Hilley was around 80 Kms from Pelling, over roads that were not in very good shape. The drive took us 4 hours. We passed through beautiful roads, the greenery blooming red with flowers of the rhododendron. Hem Kumar told us that his friends did not believe he would see the flowers today.

My faith in Hem Kumar’s unfailing fallibility grew as we climbed, and the red flowers became rarer. The gate to the Barsey rhododendron sanctuary near Hilley villageIt was probably too early for high-altitude flowers inside the Barsey sanctuary. It turned out (map above) that Hilley was already inside the sanctuary, and the 3 Km walk was to a nearby ridge from which Kanchenjunga would be visible. The bright sunshine of the morning was hidden behind fog and clouds as we started on the path. We saw some leaf warblers and tree-pies in the dense jungle. Little streams flowed down the rocks next to the path. Primulas bloomed everywhere. Rhododendron buds were visible on every tree. They would flower in a week or two. It was a lovely walk, until it started to rain. We turned back after about twenty minutes of walking, perhaps somewhat over a kilometer.

The Family reminded me of the Rhododendron juice we drank on our previous visit to Sikkim. Hem Kumar didn’t know of it. A journalist, Sumana Roy, has a peculiar recipe for rhododendron chutney: “A handful of flowers, about five or six fresh red rhododendrons, crushed into a paste with a clove of garlic, a tomato, and its sweet-sour balance refined by the addition of pomegranate juice or molasses and mango powder, depending on individual preference.” On the other hand, there are warnings, persisting to modern times that all parts of tree are poisonous, even the honey. Perhaps these are like mushrooms, some species are poisonous and others are edible.

As we exited the gate of the sanctuary, we saw some birds foraging nearby. One fluttered from a little hut to a bush. My first impression was that we it was a coucal, but The Family realized that it was something else. We stood still, and the bird flew next to us. This was our first view of the chestnut crowned laughing thrush. My camera was packed away in my backpack. We stood still and watched. Pink rhodo and banana plants in the garden around the ruins of Rabdentse palace Eventually, The Family reached into my backpack and handed me my camera. As I sighted, the bird flew off into a dark undergrowth. We spent the next day at a lower elevation and saw many kinds of Rhododendron. The ASI has planted many varieties in the garden it maintains around the ruins of the Rabdentse palace. This photo shows something which is perhaps visible only in this part of the world: Rhododendron and bananas next to each other.

We have bracketed the flowering season of the Rhododendron: after early March and before May. We need to visit Sikkim in early April once.

West Sikkim and the early Chogyals

Screenshot from 2016-02-05 08:29:12

It is good to have a blog. After my previous post on Sikkim, two of my friends and readers, the Goddess of the East and the Goat Rider, helped out. The Goddess suggested Yuksom, starting me off on research into West Sikkim. Then it turned out that the Goat Rider has been walking in this part of the country for more than twenty years. He pointed me to many places in the locality. A look at the map showed us that the road from Bagdogra winds along the valley of the Rangeet Chu most of the way. Most of the places we plan to visit are less than or around 2000 meters in height, and forested enough that in early March we expect to see wildlife.

The first 7 Chogyals
1642 CE Phuntsog Namgyal
1670 CE Tensung Namgyal
1700 CE Chakdor Namgyal
1717 CE Gyurmed Namgyal
1733 CE Phuntsog Namgyal II
1780 CE Tenzing Namgyal
1793 CE Tshudpud Namgyal

West Sikkim was the land where the Kingdom of Sikkim started. In 1642 three monks got together in a place which was afterwards called Yuksom and installed Phuntsog Namgyal as the king (Chogyal) of Sikkim. The town of Yuksom (alt. 1780 m) became the first capital of Sikkim. Today it is used by tourists as the starting point for treks into the Khangchendzonga National Park. Unfortunately, the routes will not be open at the time we get there. Yuksom does not have a view of Khangchendzonga, but apparently has a wonderful view of Ka bru, the complex of peaks including 7412 m high Kabru North peak which is the southernmost peak higher than 7 Kms. The coronation throne, called Norbugang, is one of the major sights in this town. The Norbugang chorten is one of the founding symbols of old Sikkim, and is said to contain soil from all parts of the original kingdom. The nearby Dubdi Gompa is supposed to be one of the oldest monasteries in Sikkim. The nearby small lake called Khecheopalri is sacred, and is said to be worth a visit. 19 kilometers to the southwest is the storied monastery Dhakkar Tashiding. We will miss the Bhumchu Festival in this monastery by a couple of weeks.

Pelling (alt. 2150 m), 135 Kms and 6 hours from Bagdogra airport, is now the biggest tourist spot in West Sikkim, due to the wonderful views it is supposed to have of the Khangchendzonga. The Goat Rider told me that the town is now more than a little over-developed, but the surrounding areas remain charming. Judging by the number of hotels which one can find here, I would anticipate that it has indeed been over-developed. We hope to visit the ruins of the Rabdentse Palace, just outside Pelling, the seat of the Chogyals from the time that Tensung Namgyal moved here to when Tshudpud Namgyal moved the capital away. The Pemyangtse Gompa, known for its paintings and other art work, is also nearby. We will miss the temple festival here, which would have finished around mid-February.

The Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary (alt. 2200 to 4100 m) is easiest to reach from the village of Hilley. Rhododendrons bloom in March and April. In most years we would probably be too early for the bloom. This year has been much warmer than normal, so we hope that the 4 Kms walk from the Hilley entrance will give us a good view of the flowers. The Family thinks we could easily spend a day here. I’m tempted by a mention of a trek from Varsey to Sandak Phu. Maybe I will mention this to the Goat Rider and Doe Eye.

Manifestations of the Guru
Padmasambhava
Nima Hoser
Dorji Drolo
Senge Dadok
Loden Chokesh
Padma Gyalpo
Shakya Senge
Pema Jungne

On one of the four days we have to spare, we could visit Rinchenpong, and walk around this and Kaluk village. On the way up or down to the plains, we could stop near the Reshi hot spring to visit the Lho Khando Sangphu (sometimes also written as Khandro Sangphu or Khado Sangphu). This cave is believed to contain the remains of a demoness killed by the Guru, and the water is supposed to give longevity.

Having heard such stories about the Guru Padmasambhava in many places in Sikkim, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh, I tried to look for material on the person and his deeds. A volume on Tibetology dealt specifically with beliefs concerning Sikkim. The historical Padmasambhava probably brought Buddhism to the Himalayas. The Mahayana and Vajrayana beliefs then associate him with taming malevolent forces which resisted such an "awakening". Thangka paintings and Lama dances show the Guru in his different manifestations: one needs to know the iconography in order to interpret paintings one sees in monasteries. Many holy sites are associated with the Guru: monasteries such as Tashiding, four caves, the southern one being Lho Khando Sangphu, and many lakes, including Gurudongmar and the mountain Khangchendzonga.

Four days are not enough to explore this region. The Family and I think of our upcoming trip as the first of several.