land of looming mountains and
frozen lakes. Of monasteries and mysterious rituals. Of smiling people,
who are still innocent and unspoiled by the ways of modern life. Sikkim is
a tiny state, nestling in the mountain ranges of north-east of India,
under the shadow of the majestic Kanchenjunga -- the third highest peak in
The state measures just 7,300 square
kilometers -- roughly twice the size of Goa -- but, within this area,
Sikkim has tropical valleys that are a mere 300 meters above sea level and
icy peaks -- like Kanchenjunga -- that rise 8586 meters into the sky!
Sikkim derives its name from the word "sukh-im",
which in the local dialect means "happy homeland". For a long time in
history, it was an isolated, independent Buddhist kingdom under the Red
Hat or Nyingma-pa sect.
In 1975, Sikkim became the 22nd state of
India. And, it is only in recent years that this Happy Homeland has opened
up to happy holiday-makers. That too -- not fully yet. Efforts are still
on by the Sikkim Tourism Department to "market" it as a mountain
destination for tourists.
Sikkim is one of the most perfect
destinations for vacationers in search of natural beauty, rugged adventure
or spiritual tranquillity. This land of mist and mystery casts a spell on
the visitor -- as one dreamy day floats gently into the next.
In many ways, Sikkim represents India's Last
Shangri-La. One last, wonderful glimpse at a way of life in the mountains,
that once was -- and which may not remain, for long!
Welcome to Sikkim!
For first-time visitors to the mountain
kingdom, the gateway to Sikkim is its capital city, Gangtok. And that is
the first stop on my itinerary. Even as I cross over the border into the
tiny state, the difference is only too obvious. The air is not only cooler
-- but definitely crisper! And at the first outpost -- the little town of
Rangpo -- just kilometers after the border, another fact is suddenly
evident -- the place is immaculately clean!
It seems as if those few kilometers across
the border has taken me into another part of the world. The houses are in
orderly rows arranged around a wide town square. The shop fronts are tidy.
And there is not a piece of litter on the ground! The people of Sikkim
pride themselves in their orderliness! This trait is more and more
evident as I approach the capital city. Gangtok rises in tiers along the
sides of a high hillock, set between two deep valleys. Each tier of the
hill becoming narrower and narrower -- from the bazaars and vehicle stands
at the base -- to the royal palace along the thin ridge at the very top.
Under the shadow of Kanchenjunga
When I arrive at Gangtok, it is definitely
off-tourist season. Hotel managers and tour operators are eager to give me
attractive discounts. At the bus depot and tea-stalls, people are curious
and helpful. Indeed, I find that most of the public officials (at post
offices and tourist counters) are polite and respectful. Hey! I wonder,
where did they learn these enchanting manners? But first, let me get
around the city itself...
Gangtok is situated in the southeast of
Sikkim. It is the most developed city in the state -- having a large
number of hotels, restaurants, tour companies and internet cafes. So
naturally, it is the centre to which most tourists flock.
Unfortunately, because of the development of
tourist trade, the city of Gangtok is gradually developing into a concrete
sprawl. Many of the concerned citizens and politicians are only too aware
of the dangers of unchecked construction on the slopes. Unlike Darjeeling,
which is built on hard rocky mountain; Gangtok is located on a "younger
hill", which tends to sink under the weight of new buildings -- resulting
in "slip zones".
Still, Gangtok has to be grateful at least
to one ancient superstition that holds sway even today. In the old days,
tradition dictated that all houses must face north-west -- towards the
benevolent face of Kanchenjunga. As a result, even today, most of the
eastern ridges are unoccupied -- acting as "green lungs" within the city.
In the city itself, visitors will find that
there are many ways to keep themselves engaged. They can take bracing
walks from the base of the hill to the top of the ridge -- either along
the gently rising roads or by the stone stairways that pass through
beautifully laid out gardens. They can shop for curios in the colourful
bazaars at Lall Market or New Market. Or they can visit the Buddhist
monasteries and chortens (stupas) that dot the city. However, the
real Sikkim unfolds only as one travels away from the capital city.
Broadly speaking, I would divide rural
Sikkim into two zones -- the areas which most tourists find time to visit
-- and the areas which even the most adventurous tourists find difficult
Around Gangtok, there are many beautiful
spots that are now conveniently accessible to casual tourists. Though
these spots see a regular influx of visitors (especially during the summer
and the Durga Pooja seasons), they still retain their pristine beauty.
Tchango Lake is the prime attraction for the
first-time tourist to Sikkim. It is situated 34 kilometers to the
north-east of Gangtok, at a height of 3750 meters above sea level.
This oval shaped lake is considered sacred by
the local people. It remains frozen right till April -- the start of the
summer tourist season in Sikkim. And so, visitors are delighted to
encounter ice and snow on their vacation -- while the plains below are
simmering in the summer heat.
About 24 kms from Gangtok, in the opposite
direction, is the Rumtek Monastery. It is the repository of many sacred
Buddhist scriptures and treasures, making it the richest monastery in the
state. Its treasures include a magical black hat which is said to give its
wearer the power to fly (naturally, it is kept hidden from all visitors)
and the ornate, jewel-encrusted tomb of the 16th Karmapa (which is on
display to all visitors).
Slightly more adventurous tourists may
venture out to the isolated town of Pelling in West Sikkim. The highlight
of this town is a visit to the Pemayangtse (Perfect Sublime Lotus)
Monastery -- and the solitude of the surrounding mountains.
Solitude seems to be the key-word in the
far-flung regions of Sikkim. The further one travels off the beaten
tourist track -- the thicker the silence -- and the more breath-taking the
One area that is yet to open up to the
tourist trade is South Sikkim. Namchi town is the district headquarters of
this area. The ridges around the town have many easy trekking routes --
but there is a total absence of tourist infrastructure here. I manage to
trace just two worthwhile hotels and restaurants at Namchi.
But, once I establish myself there, I feel
that I should never leave. The people are as curious to see me -- a rare
tourist -- as I am to explore their district. The food is excellent and
cheap. And, I soon grow addicted to their salted tea, made thick with
Further west, the last accessible outpost of
Sikkim is the little village of Yuksom. At one time, this was the capital
of the mountain kingdom; but now it lies neglected after the rise of
Gangtok. The only reason why avid trekkers come here, is because the
village is the first base on the high-altitude Dzongri trekking path that
runs northwards towards Mount Kanchenjunga itself!
It is at isolated Yuksom, that I see some of
the most memorable sights of Sikkim. I see the stone throne on which the
first monarch of this ancient kingdom was crowned in 1642. I see thick,
verdant forests of orchids along the path to the Dubdi Monastery. (Sikkim
has more than 4,000 different species of plants -- including 30 varieties
of rhododendrons and 546 varieties of orchids!) I see the sunrise paint
the peak of Mount Kabur an incredible strawberry pink.
And -- I guess -- it is at Yuksom that I
left my heart. Because of the skeletal transport system and the road
construction work in that area, it was difficult to get there -- and even
more difficult to get back.
But, now that I am back, I often stop to
wonder -- when will I return to those beautiful mountains?