By Carleton Cole
Among the most important ingredients seasoning Sikkim are the cultural traditions of neighbouring Tibet
Thick fog flies in fast from the East, dulling the rich colours of Tsuk La-Khang, the Royal Chapel. Nearby, the empty palace of a kingdom that faded into history 28 years ago disappears in the morning mist. While the former home of the last chogyal (king) of Sikkim’s fallen ethnic-Tibetan dynasty is no longer the seat of power – and strictly off limits to visitors – Tsuk La-Khang still embodies the Tibetan Buddhist spirit that permeates this Himalayan state. The two regal structures perch on the most prominent peak of the 1,700-metre high capital of Gangtok, which means “hilltop”.
In timeless Tibetan fashion, pilgrims circumnavigate clockwise around the box-shaped temple, rough hands expertly manipulating the 108 smooth beads of rosaries, symbolically overcoming the 108 worldly passions, one by one.
Beneath the temple’s double-tier golden roof, novice monks robed in crimson recite ancient Tibetan mantras, prayers for peace starkly contrasting the cries for change heard here during the “agitation” of April 1973 that forced Chogyal Palden Thondup Namgyal to ask India to reestablish order and take over administration of the then feudal state, which it annexed in 1975. The protestors were demanding democracy and more rights for the Nepalese, which became Sikkim’s majority ethnic group in the late 1800s.
With a population of only about half a million, you may run across Sikkim’s royal past in the hills of Gangtok – like a palace servant cum guesthouse owner who prepares for visitors the Sikkimese specialties he once made for the king, or a taxi driver whose uncle was once the king’s chauffeur.
At 7am the young monks briefly show their age, playfully darting out of the temple and across a field to a classroom pavilion for their Tibetan language lesson. On the walls are paintings of the Tibetan-style eight auspicious symbols of Vajrayana Buddhism that are ubiquitous throughout Sikkim.
The fog slowly lifts, revealing the Rainpul river valley and the ridge behind it. From this vista in eastern Sikkim not far from Bhutan, the small state’s western frontier with Nepal can also be seen in the white peaks of the Khangchendzonga range – the “Five Treasures of the Eternal Snows” – which includes the world’s third highest mountain.
Captivated by this alluring silhouette and Sikkim’s excellent trekking, many travellers recommend spending only one night in Gangtok before heading for the hills. Yet cultural attractions aplenty await in higher, greener areas of the capital, including Enchey Monastery, the Directorate of Sikkimese Handicrafts – where weavers create carpets on looms – and Do Drul Pagoda. Even as Gangtok modernises, old Sikkim lives on in these places embodying the culture of the Tibetan migrants known as the Bhutia, who displaced the aboriginal Lepchas to become the dominant ethnic group in the late 1600s. That was before the Nepalese, who also came to Sikkim as invaders, as well as tea plantation labourers, became what is now more than 70 per cent of the population.
But while Nepalese Hinduism is now the majority faith, it is the elegant Tibetan-Bhutia architecture of Buddhist gompa (monasteries) that claim the most prominent hilltops of villages throughout Sikkim, and give the former kingdom its classic beauty.
Besides incorporating Tibetan culture into its own, Sikkim is a unique repository of Tibetan tradition, home to the headquarters of two of the four major Tibetan Buddhist sects, and Gangtok’s Namgyal Institute of Tibetology, which houses beautiful religious paintings and statues, and one of the world’s largest Tibetan libraries.
Twenty-four kilometres southwest of Gangtok, along a shattered road that taxis have abandoned to sturdier Commander jeeps, is the Rumtek Monastery and Dharma Chakra Centre.
In Rumtek’s dark prayer hall, monks leap from foot to foot, making rhythm with small drums and bells in their hands while performing a dervish-like dance meant to lead the practitioner away from worldly attachments. Prominently positioned on a golden throne is a framed photograph of the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, current reincarnation of the third most important leader in Tibetan Buddhism after the Dalai and Panchen Lamas. The Karmapa’s residence above the temple, however, is empty, and like much of the complex is guarded by rifle-toting Indian soldiers.
The headquarters for the Kargyu sect, the monastery was created in 1960s by the 16th Karmapa, who like the 14th Dalai Lama and thousands of other Tibetans, fled Tibet in 1959 after the Chinese crackdown on Tibetan culture.
The repression continued, and in 2000 the 17th Karmapa fled for India as well, though political sensitivities – including rival candidates for his title – dictate that he not yet take up residence at Rumtek. Stickers of support bearing slogans like “Karmapa to Rumtek” and “We’ve waited long enough” and images of the young man are plastered on the windows of the monks’ quarters in the temple’s cloister – as well as the windshields of many Sikkimese jeeps and Gangtok shops.
Besides providing sanctuary from external threats to Tibetan culture, Sikkim has been a haven from internal Tibetan strife. Indeed, the very concept of Sikkim was forged in 1642 when three lamas from the Nyingmapa sect, who had fled the politically ascendant Gelukpas in Tibet, consecrated the first chogyal of Sikkim at the new kingdom’s first capital of Yuksom, now a quiet farming village. Beneath towering pines, the stone throne used for the coronation still stands, the centrepiece of a historic park with weathered stone pagodas and a peaceful gompa.
Yuksom idealises the rural charms of western Sikkim, where the pace of life is set by the leisurely gait of yaks and their herders. Hiding near the ritzy Tashi Gang Hotel at the top of town is the Pemalingpa Cottage Home Stay, run by a motherly Bhutia in a striped Tibetan apron who brings guests salty butter tea in their room, which boasts views of the village and nearby cornfields. Yuksom’s friendly small-town style is shown later, when while dining on a local meal of spinach with tangy yak cheese and Tibetan dumplings in the Yak Restaurant, the owner reveals that the home stay’s owner is her sister.
An hour’s uphill walk away is Sikkim’s oldest monastery, Dubdi Gompa, established in 1701 and tended by a lone hermit monk. Along the forest path leading to the temple, prayer wheels spin in a stream running down the mountain. Leeches lie in wait on the damp ground for those who linger to enjoy the scene.
Providing more glimpses of Tibetan religious tradition, with its talkative monks and tantric deity murals, is Pemayangtse Gompa, headquarters of the Nyingmapa sect. It’s a leisurely 45-minute walk among trees from the modern resort town of Pelling.
Along the way from Pelling or Yuksom to the hilltop hamlet of Tashiding, oranges and cardamom are grown and bamboo soars on dramatically steep hillsides, while mini-waterfalls cascade right over the road.
The walk to the mountain-crowning Tashiding Gompa, the most sacred in the land, is a journey through classic Sikkim, past rolling farmland, sunlit prayer flags catching wind, and enormous sacred rock carvings of the mantra om mani padme hum in Tibetan. Hundreds more of these painted stones are found on a pathway at the temple that’s popular with pilgrims.
A monk at the temple leads the way through a garden of pagodas to a small shed, unlocking its door to reveal a sea of butter lamps and a puff of their delicate fragrance, which wafts through Tibetan temples everywhere. Behind the flames lies a painted rock carving of Tibetan Buddhism’s most revered saint, Guru Padmasambhava, who visited the site in the 700s and while here prophesied the flowering of Buddhism in the region, as well as the emergence of a local dynasty that would expand the faith.
Thirty years after the demonstrations that gave birth to modern Sikkim, this April the state established the Chogyal Palden Thondup Namgyal Memorial Park. Still unmarked on maps of Gangtok, the sanctuary of greenery, pastel rhododendrons, and a statue of the last chogyal signals a renewed respect for history and the monarchy that for 333 years epitomised Sikkimese identity.
While the dynasty that Guru Padmasambhava prophesied is no longer, the faith he propagated in Sikkim lives on.