The ruins of Rabdentse Palace

Rabdentse palace was home to the Chogyals for about a century, from the reign of the second Chogyal to the sixth. The Archaeological Survey of India restored and now maintains the ruins. The forest around the palace is dense and full of birds, but they are hard to see in the high trees.

Fern growing near the forest path to the Rabsentse palace ruins in Sikkim

Our hotel was a couple of kilometers from the ruins of the Rabdentse Palace. I’d read that the forest around it was good for sighting birds. The Family talked to a local birding enthusiast who also recommended it. I was thinking of walking there in the afternoon and doing some late afternoon birding after seeing the ruins. When I said this to The Family, she pointed out that it had rained every afternoon till then. We decided to go there in the morning. When we left the hotel, bird activity was peaking. We saw a woodpecker as we left. But the forest around Rabdentse turned out to be dense and full of high trees without any opening. We could hear warblers everywhere around us, but the foliage was too dense to get a good view of even a single bird. The kilometer long road to the ruins jiggled through the cool forest.

Taphap Chorten is the entrance to the complex of ruins of the Rabdentse palaceThe Archaeological Survey of India restored and now maintains the ruins. There were signboards 250 meters, 100 meters, 50 meters and 20 meters from the entrance to the complex of ruins. We passed the stones which marked the throne of justice, Namphongang, and came to the Taphap chorten, which used to mark the entrance to the palace. Here the ASI has boards which explain the history and the layout of the place. The photo alongside shows the Taphap chorten from the inner side of the complex. The Namphongang cannot be seen from this point.

View of the living quarters in the ruins of Rabdentse palace in SikkimThe second Chogyal of Sikkim, Tensung Namgyal, succeeded to the throne in 1670 CE and moved his capital from Yuksom to Rabdentse. Tensung’s reign was peaceful, but immediately after this, the kingdom of Sikkim became embroiled in wars with Bhutan, Tibet and Nepal. During the reign of the fifth Chogyal, Sikkim lost much territory to Nepal and Bhutan. The sixth Chogyal, Tenzing Namgyal, came to the throne in 1780 CE. During his reign Sikkim was conquered by Nepal and Rabdentse palace was overrun. The Chogyal had to take refuge in Lhasa. His son, the seventh Chogyal, Tshudphud Namgyal, managed to recover his territory, but did not re-establish the capital in Rabdentse.

The ruins of the living quarters has tremendously thick walls (above). We wandered through several connected rooms in this block and then walked over the next block which seems to be the place where religious rites took place.Tablet with buddha relief in the Rabdentse palace ruins in SikkimOne can see some decorative patterns etched into a bit of a standing wall. This is too faint to be seen clearly. Propped against it is a stone tablet with the Buddha’s image carved into it (photo alongside). He is shown sitting in padmasana in the dhyana mudra. This is a characteristic position of the Sakyamuni. I didn’t see this representation too often in Sikkim.

Stupas at the Rabdentse palace ruins in Sikkim

The image of the ruins of the Rabdentse palace which seems to be universally recognised in Sikkim is the image of the three chortens (above). These were part of the royal temple. Our hotel had created a copy outside one of its restaurants. I was momentarily taken aback at what seemed to be a clothes line strung between them, before I realized that the white flags hanging from them were khata.

We took a little over an hour in the forest and the ruins. The place was nearly empty. One couple and a single tourist from Pune walked through while we were there. The ASI maintains a neat lawn and a small garden around the ruins, and provides a clean washroom and drinking water. We could see the Pemyangtse monastery from the palace, and decided to go there next.ce

Bagdogra to Pelling


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. Continue reading “Bagdogra to Pelling”

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
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.

Searching south Sikkim


The Family has decided that she needs a break in the lower Himalayas at the beginning of March. The first idea was Darjeeling. The name brings to mind images of mountain roads, toy trains, tea gardens, and the Himalayas. However, the current reality is crowded bazaars, traffic jams, unending construction, and lack of municipal services. After some discussion we decided to go elsewhere in that region of the hills. Our memories of watching Kanchendzongka lighting up at daybreak draw us back to this region.

Bagdogra airport is the gateway to this part of the country. Flights from Kolkata tend to arrive around 3 PM and leave around midday. Bagdogra is a small and busy airport, which means long queues at check-in or baggage drop and security. We need to arrive two hours before the flight. Put this together with the sunset time of about 5:30 PM and sunrise at around 6 AM, and you have the basic constraints. After arrival you would like to reach your destination in about 3 hours. If you want to have breakfast before starting, then your last night has to be within 3 hours of driving distance from Bagdogra.

We’ve had a return trip to north and east Sikkim on our minds, but four nights is too short for a second look. We’ve already spent many days in Lava and Rishop in northeast Bengal, so the only thing left seemed to be south and east Sikkim. We sat down to look at a map, and found Kitam Wild Life Sanctuary. This is a small sanctuary, with an area of about 6 square kms, on the Rangeet river, which forms the state border between Bengal and Sikkim. It seems to have been created in 2006. Detailed information came from a gazette notification by the Union Ministry of Environment:

… harbours a unique association of Sal (Shorea robusia) and Chir Pine (Pinus roxburghii) forests which again nestles a large number of Peafowls, the national bird. Both are dominant species in the Mixed Broad-Leaved Forests of Terminalia, Castanopsis, Engelhardtia, Betula species., Teak (Tectona grandis) is also found;

And whereas, the State’s southern boundary bordering with the West Bengal State is separated by the Great Rangeet River; And whereas, the sanctuary harbours Common Leopard (Panther pardus), Assamese macaque (Macaca assamensis), Rhesus Macaque (Macaca mulatta), Barking Deer (Muntiacus muntjac), Wild Boar (Sus scroJa), Chinese Pangolin (Manis pentadactyla), Himalayan Crestless Porcupine (Hystrix brachyura), Himalayan Palm Civet (Paguma larvata) etc. among the mammals and among the reptiles, the Indian Rock Python is common;

And whereas, avi fauna includes Indian Peafowl (Pavo cristatus), Kalij Pheasant (Lophura leucomelana) Red Jungle Fowl (Gallus gallus), Common Hill Partridge (Arborophila torqueola), Great Hill Barbet (Megalaima virens), Golden-throated Barbet(Megalaima franklinii), Himalayan Golden-backed Three-toed Woodpecker (Dinopium shorii), Indian Pied Hornbill (Anlhracoceros coromalus), and the like;

If mixed sal and pine forests and red jungle fowl are among the major reasons for notifying this area, then this is at best a minor stop. These can be seen in almost any wooded area in India. I searched for a checklist of birds and butterflies for this region, but could not find any. The forest department of Sikkim has a small bird checklist and another, less official, but longer one, but they cover all of Sikkim, and pay little attention to Kitam. Travel agents’ sites borrow from the gazette notice and each other: this is typical. An old wordpress blog talks about forests in this area being cut down and replanted. It is all very strange. Then I come across a damning review which put us off Kitam completely.

Is Pelling then the only option in southwest Sikkim? Should we also try out Varsey? Perhaps stop a night at Gorumara national park on the way back? What do you think?