Sikkim, a small state (7096 sq.km.) in India with a very small population (540,851, according to the 2001 census), is an ideal place to take refuge from the sweltering heat of North India’s summer. Whether you are travelling to Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim, from the New Jalpaiguri railway station or the Bagdogra airport, you will be moving much along the bank of the charming Teesta river that tumbles over white boulders. As you approach Gangtok the rolling mountains all around with a huge variety of landscape will begin to enthral you.
Gangtok is the cleanest city in India I’ve found so far. Plastic bags are forbidden there and you will never find any waste thrown on the streets or anywhere else. The streets and roads are very narrow and hence quite congested most of the time with vehicles, mostly cars and jeeps. Buses and other heavy vehicles are a rare sight. In fact, there are very few buses in Sikkim. You will have to depend mostly on taxis. The taxi drivers are very cordial and polite. They are quite a different breed from the extortionist taxi drivers in many other cities.
There are some very charming places to visit around Gangtok. Take a local taxi and ask for a local sightseeing trip. Sikkim Tourism lends you one such taxi for Rs 2000. Private tour operators charge various rates.
There are three Buddhist monasteries around the capital city. The Rumtek monastery is perched atop a mountain. When we (my wife and I) visited it in the morning at about ten, the monks were in prayer. The rhythmic chanting accompanied with mesmerising background music reminded me of my youth spent within the quaint but queer walls of some Catholic seminaries. The prayer hall of the Rumtek monastery was closed from all sides. There was just one door for entry and exit. The room remained in partial darkness. Yet I could see the faces of most of the monks. Some of them were too young to be shut up within those walls, I thought. A few of those young one didn’t take the meditation quite seriously, I could see; they were murmuring with each other and even giggling once in a while.
The monastery has a fairly large campus with the residential blocks of the monks. The campus looks clean and well-maintained. During our wandering on the campus we entered a small hall, which looked like a prayer hall for the inhabitants who are not monks. There were quite a few people sitting along the walls of the hall and reciting prayers with the help of a miniature prayer wheel while a huge prayer wheel stood at one end of the hall. Some of the old men and women encouraged us to go ahead and rotate the wheel. Maggie and I stood turning the gargantuan prayer wheel with the help of a steel rim, when we were exhorted by one of the old women to walk around the wheel while turning it. We obeyed her with as much devotion as we could gather.
The Lingdum monastery is situated on another hill, adjacent to the hill that houses the Rumtek counterpart. It doesn’t look very much different from the other one. There is a prayer hall, the monks’ quarters, and an elaborate and clean campus. We saw little boys here dressed as monks.
Yet another Buddhist centre, not very unlike a monastery, is Do-Drul Chorten, better known as the Stupa. It is encircled by 108 prayer wheels. This is one of the most important and biggest stupas found in Sikkim. It was built by Trulshi Rimpoche, head of the Nyingma order of Tibetan Buddhism in 1945. There is a huge hall in which hundreds of young monks were being taught by an older monk with the help of books that looked like some old manuscripts.
There’s another monastery that lies just 3 km away from Gangtok, the Enchey monastery. But we were unfortunate to reach it rather late and hence could not visit it. It is a 200-year old monastery built on the hermitage site of Lama Drupthob Karpo, renowned for his power of flying. Though we could have found time on the next morning to visit it, Maggie and I decided to leave it as Wordsworth left Yarrow unvisited: a romantic dream for the future to materialise.
More about our Sikkim travel in the next blog.
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