Darwin’s pigeons

When Darwin sent his book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection to his publishers, they sought pre-publication advise from some trusted reviewers. One wrote back saying that the book was too long, and Darwin should be asked to cut out the uninteresting stuff about Galapagos and expand the section on the breeding of pigeons. The reviewer was one of the many pigeon fanciers of his time. Although it is not such a big sport any longer, racing pigeons still fetch millions in prize money. Pigeon races apparently count among their avid followers the Queen of England.

I’d taken the featured photo several years back in Yuksom in Sikkim. It seemed to be a colour variant of the common domestic pigeon (Columba livia domestica). Looking at the photo now, I remembered that this could well be the first species ever to be domesticated. I’d seen dovecotes in every old structure I’ve visited: from the rock caves of Cappadocia to those in ancient India. There are learned papers on the changes in the brains of domestic pigeons which allow them to home unerringly. This ability kept them in military service from the earliest recorded times to as recently as the second world war, when several million homing pigeons were used by armies (some were given medals). For a couple of tens of thousands of years humans have bred pigeons as food, as racing animals (twice as fast as thoroughbred horses), and for military communication.

It was a straightforward matter to rule out other identifications for the bird in the photo. My only confusion was whether it could be the hill pigeon (Columba rupestris). Experts pointed out that it lacks the prominent white bar on the tail which hill pigeons have. Also, those are found at altitudes of over 3 Kms above sea level, whereas this photo was taken at a height of about 2 Kms. It may not be a hill pigeon, but man’s oldest companion is nothing to sneeze at.

Odds and ends

Paging through photos I came across some odd shots which suddenly reminded me of the circumstances in which I’d taken them. The featured photo was taken in south Sikkim on a very overcast day. We’d thought of taking a walk in a rhododendron forest, but the cold drizzle put us off. Instead we walked through a small village looking for a place to have a chai. This blazing wall gave me the first photo of the day. It was a typical frame house. Mats are tacked to the frame and covered with mud. A hole cut in the mud holds a window. But the colours!

From the wonderful aesthetics of the mountains to its utter absen e in Delhi. Walking through the university, I this unlikely juxtaposition of a toilet door covering an open manhole, a bicycle on the ground chained to a post, and an office chair. The exuberant gracelessness of such sights is as much Delhi as the beautiful imperial monuments built across half a millennium.

“Out at work” is a line that popped into my head when I saw the closed doors of a trekking guide’s office. We were in Yuksom, west Sikkim. This is the start of a big array of walking trails of all levels of difficulty, and guides are in heavy demand. Clearly.

The extremely decorative facade of CST, the century and half old railway terminus in the heart of Mumbai, is reflected in the window of a taxi waiting at a red light. I was in another just behind it, when I realized that this just might be the oddest shot that I’ll ever get of that ornate building.

The Oldest Monastery in Sikkim

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.


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.


We 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.


The 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.


The 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.


In 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.

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.