West Sikkim and the early Chogyals

Sometimes a blog post leads to an immediate good. 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.

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.

  • Manifestations of the Guru Padmasambhava
    1. Nima Hoser
    2. Dorji Drolo
    3. Senge Dadok
    4. Loden Chokesh
    5. Padma Gyalpo
    6. Shakya Senge
    7. Pema Jungne
  • The first 7 Chogyals
    1. 1642 CE Phuntsog Namgyal
    2. 1670 CE Tensung Namgyal
    3. 1700 CE Chakdor Namgyal
    4. 1717 CE Gyurmed Namgyal
    5. 1733 CE Phuntsog Namgyal II
    6. 1780 CE Tenzing Namgyal
    7. 1793 CE Tshudpud Namgyal

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.

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.

As high as I’ve gone

guru3

There are few places on the planet as desolate as a high desert. When you climb high enough, there’s too little oxygen in the air for plants to survive. The straggling remnants of grass die out at a height of about 5350 meters (17600 feet) above sea level. The lack of oxygen affects people too. I was in a vehicle with eight other people, including the driver, and all chatter died down as we climbed. I could feel a little headache coming on. The landscape around me was odd: bare rock and dust.

We’d reached the high desert in a part of Sikkim which is geographically a continuation of the Tibetan plateau. This involved a climb of nearly 1400 meters (4500 feet) in about 5 hours. It’s guaranteed to give you a bad headache unless you are really well acclimatized to the height. But we had no choice. The only hotels we could find after much searching were in the Lachen, well below Gurudongmar Lake, which was our destination. We could not do a slow drive either, because high winds often start up there in the afternoon, and tourists are stopped a little below the lake.

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We reached the lake before noon: we were 5425 meters (17800 feet) above sea level. A couple of my travelling companions were fit enough to start walking around the lake. The lack of oxygen was slowing me down; I was content enough to stand in one place and look at the wind-rippled surface of the water. The northern end of the lake looked strangely bright. My oxygen starved brain lumbered into gear and eventually told me that that end of the lake was still frozen. It was the last day of April. Clouds were massing up to the north, but there were still patches of clear sky above the lake. The only colours I could see were the brown of the rocks, the white of snow and ice, and the blue of the sky.

The lake is sacred to Buddhists because it is associated with Padmasambhava, the Buddhist monk who took the religion to Tibet. There is a local legend that a part of the lake never freezes because he stopped it from freezing by putting his hands into the water. The water looked clear and beautiful. If I’d been better prepared for the height then I would have liked to walk down to the edge of the water and tried to drink some.

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We’d taken the road up from the south where the plateau sloped up very gently. This lake is within 5 kilometers of the Chinese border. When I looked west I could see the high Himalayan peaks, probably part of the Kanchenjunga range. Closer by, to the north, I seemed to see a glacier descending from a high peak (photo above). My headache was getting worse, and I was able to make simple inferences and look for landmarks only with much concentration. Eventually I stopped thinking and began clicking away with my camera. These are missing moments in my life; I have no memory of this time. I would later sort through the pictures, match them to maps and try to reconstruct what I must have seen. Very soon even taking photos was too much of an effort. I retreated to the vehicle and lay down for a nap.

guru4

Our driver was from Gangtok. He was in the car and trying to sleep. Later I found that he also had a bad headache at that height. When we drove back, a descent of about 30 meters (100 feet) was enough for my headache to recede. I could even run out of the car and take a photo of the vehicle stopped in the desolate landscape (not quite, because the road parallels a narrow stream). Everyone seemed to have a oxygen threshold. Some of us never hit it. Others recovered quite suddenly at various points as we descended.

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