Monday, May 31, 2010

Mountain kingdom. Sikkim.

Mt. Kanchenjunga, third tallest mountain in the world can be seen from Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim.

When I think of India, I think of a chaotic place crowded with beyond comprehension, a place filled with all sorts of exotic sights, smells and sounds. I think of heat and humidity.  It conjures up memories of spicy food - oh how I miss murg malai, masala dosa and the dal.  Hinduism reigns supreme - hundreds of different gods and goddesses that rule the daily lives of billions of people. I think of iconic landmarks like the Taj Mahal and Red Fort. 


I don't think of sparsely populated villages tucked in among serene mountains and crystal clear lakes.  I don't think of a place where Bhuddist monasteries and not Hindu temples dot the landscape. I don't think of thugpas and momos. All that would conjure up memories of Tibet....not India.

Yet, that does described Sikkim. Nestled in the foothills of the eastern Himalayas, Sikkim is India's second smallest and least populous state.  Sikkim borders Nepal in the west, Tibet to the north and the east, Bhutan in the southeast and West Bengal in the south.  Barely 100 kms from north to south and 60 kms across, Sikkim is entirely mountainous with elevations ranging from 250m in the south to the soaring heights of the majestic Kanchenjunga (8598 m), the third tallest mountain in the world.

My trip will take me to Gangtok which is the capital of Sikkim.  From the photos I see, Gangtok is not much of a scenic town - nothing quaint about concrete buildings clinging to the hillside.  It does remind me of Nepal though.  Not surprisingly, much of Sikkim's culture is influenced by Nepal.  Gangtok's population reflects that of the rest of Sikkim and is comprised primarily of Nepali, Bhutias, indigenous Lepchas and Indians. While the Lepchas were the earliest settlers, the Bhutias made their way here from neighbouring Tibet in the 14th century. The Nepalis, who now form the majority community, settled here during the 18th and 19th centuries. Thus, Tibetan Buddhism and Hinduism (practiced by the Nepalis) are the two religions that play a dominant role in the lives of these hill folk.

Rumtek Gompa
From what I've read, Gangtok is a nice place to unwind.....great scenery, good and cheap eats, very pedestrian friendly and most places, it's lights out by 9pm.

As for things to see and do, I'm thinking just walking, shopping and people watching is going to be enjoyable but Gangtok has several must-see sights.

Located right in town is the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology.  Built in 1958, Namgyal is an internationally acclaimed institute for research into Mahayana Buddhism and is a of Tibetan studies and research.  Namgyal houses a vast collection of rare Buddhist books, Tibetan, Sanskrit and Lepcha manuscripts, thangkas and over 200 Buddhist icons.  I didn't go to any museums when I was in Tibet (were there any?) so this will be a good opportunity to see some Buddhist artifacts.

Two of Sikkim's most well know monasteries are also located nearby so I think I will try to visit at least one if not both of them.





Enchey Gompa
Situated on a hilltop above Gangtok is the 200 year old Enchey Gompa (monastery) where, every year around January 'chaam' or religious masked dance is performed with great fanfare for 2 days.  An important seat of the Nyingma order, Enchey Gompa, meaning the "Solitary Temple", was originally built with the intention that no other construction would be allowed near it. Supposedly, you can catch great views of Mt. Kanchenjunga from its grounds.
Located 24km from Gangtok is Rumtek Gompa, the largest monastery in the Eastern Himalayas and  the seat-in-exile of His Holiness, the 17th Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje. The Karmapa is the supreme spiritual head of the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism.  Rumtek Gompa was built by the Gyalwa Karmapa in strict accordance with the traditional designs of the original Tsurphu Monastery in Tibet that Rumtek is a replica of.

The more I read about Sikkim, the more I realize how vast India is and how little I really know about it. It's going to be interesting to explore this part of the world!